A novelist’s eye for the story of a painting
Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art By Julian Barnes Jonathan Cape, 288pp, $45 I once had an artist friend who, when visiting a gallery, refused ever to read the title of a painting or the blurb that accompanied its display. The words got in the way of her encounter with the art, she said: they shaped her interpretation. History, biography, motivation — all this noise muddied the transmission of feeling.
Julian Barnes likes his words too much to resist them completely. Nevertheless, he seeks something similar, the “rare picture that stuns, or argues us into silence”. The best painting forces a momentary verbal reprieve, although the lull never lasts long: “It is only a short time,” Barnes writes, “before we want to explain and understand the very silence into which we have been plunged.”
Keeping an Eye Open, a collection of the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist’s essays on paintings, documents the aftermath of such direct encounters. Language floods back in, assessing style, querying biography, ruminating on an artist’s aims and ambitions.
The book brings together pieces previously published elsewhere, starting with a chapter on Gericault, lifted from Barnes’s 1986 novel A His-
May 30-31, 2015 tory of the World in 10½ Chapters, then progressing towards the contemporary via a series of artists including Delacroix, Cezanne and Bonnard.
It is not a collection that pursues a particular question. Unlike the art criticism of fellow novelist John Berger, which hunts out the philosophical vision of an artist, or the more experimental writings of art historian TJ Clark, Barnes’s art essays are a porous exchange between the salon gossip and a learned tour guide. Reading these pieces, one has the sense of chatting with Barnes in front of a canvas. We move swiftly from one painting to another, making rough progress from romanticism through to modernism, the tour culminating with contemporary paintings clearly indebted to modernist experiment.
As we progress, similar preoccupations arise. Each essay develops two paths of thought. There is, in the first instance, an immediate response to the artwork, with Barnes addressing aesthetic questions to do with style, subject and composition. Then there is an odd twist, as the essays introduce biographical knowledge and milk it for gossipy detail. “Can we deduce … a painter’s … marital state from their work? Was Cezanne a disapproving prude? Does Degas’s purchase of condoms dispute his apparent ‘lack of amorous means’? Did you know that Bonnard married Marthe after Renee shot herself in a hotel room?”
Such digressions reveal a novelist’s interest in messy human relations, in questions of motivation and subplot. Barnes is curious about the story a painting tells and the secrets it hides. But biographical curiosity plays an awkward role: it is a vice Barnes can’t quite resist. Biographical knowledge changes how we think about an artist’s work, a risk Barnes is aware of: biography “infects”, he writes, biography “stains”. Once we know about Marthe and Renee, can we continue to look upon a Bonnard interior as a scene of languorous domestic bliss?
The intrusion of biography and the speculation it encourages means that the painters Barnes discusses come to resemble characters in a fiction. Their secrets are unveiled, any odd behaviours noted, evidence of desire is raked over. As a result, the texture of these essays is thrillingly uneven. Barnes moves easily across many works, plunging in at points of greatest change within an artist’s oeuvre. Biography surprises, but alongside this is a lucid and moving discussion of each painter’s development.
Among the highlights is a chapter on Bonnard and his glorious breakout into “bright hotness”, his palette newly defined by yellow, orange and green, pink and purple. Barnes recounts that as Bonnard’s colours grew, his focus narrowed, the subject matter restricted to the brightly lit interior and Marthe, Marthe, Marthe — painted, Barnes calculates, 385 times. In so doing, Bonnard became an artist of the “Great Indoors”, a painter of “domestic epiphanies”, one for whom even landscape is “viewed from the safety of the house” — “charged and static like an interior” with never a sign of wind.
Then there is the standout chapter on Lucian Freud and the development of his “second style”. It is a style defined by the loosening of brushwork, by an eye attuned to representations of mortality and dominated by Freud’s desire to intensify nature until the picture has “such force” that the painting overwhelms the real with which it began.
Barnes’s finale is an extraordinary piece on Howard Hodgkins. As if in response to Hodgkins’s abstract canvases, the essay form itself breaks apart. Rather than narrating an artist’s story and the story of their work, the piece reads as a series of observations, thoughts and anec-