Julian Barnes’s beautifully framed art essays
“Anyone setting out to practise any of the arts in the second half of the twentieth century had to take on Modernism,” he writes in his introduction. Accordingly, “Keeping an Eye Open” is devoted primarily to pioneering French modernists, such as Paul Cézanne and Odilon Redon. ( Toward the end of the book, Barnes forays somewhat clumsily into the territory of postmodern and contemporary art.)
Originally published in the London Review of Books, the TLS, Modern Painters and elsewhere, Barnes’s reflections aren’t criticism proper so much as critical biography, wedding historical chronicle with impressive feats of looking: Gustave Courbet paints with a “lush delicacy”; Henri Fantin-Latour’s group portraits smack of “dense and deadening domestic enclosure”; Redon’s disturbing noirs “hover, haunt and linger like mutant products of the world’s shared private imagination.”
This is a novelist’s criticism, full of motion and drama. Barnes places static images within narrative contexts that enliven and animate them. For instance, he begins his essay on Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” ( 1818-1819), a forceful depiction of shipwrecked sailors, with a vivid account of the event that inspired the painting: a two-week ordeal requiring survivors on a raft to subsist on their own urine and the flesh of their fallen or mutinous compatriots. This chapter, “Géricault: Catastrophe Into Art,” is excerpted from his 1989 novel “A History of the World in 101/ Chapters,” but all of these
2 essays share this novelistic tone and are rich with anecdotes.
Barnes’s belletristic approach is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of this collection. His writing is arresting, but his thought is marked by methodological inconsistencies. He can seem intellectually opportunistic, prone to adopting and then dropping conflicting sets of critical commitments from essay to essay. “It doesn’t really matter whether an artist has a dull or an interesting life, except for promotional purposes,” he insists in his essay on Pierre Bonnard, yet he is driven to biographical speculation throughout the book. He repeatedly urges us to consider painted products as contingencies, fragile conclusions that could easily have turned out differently, but in his essay on René Magritte, he claims that “there is no point in wishing it otherwise, in wanting artists to be different from the selves that they have spent a long time finding.”
Barnes doesn’t do much to develop these strikingly eloquent lines, but he delivers them with so much aplomb that they hit with the force of a kick. He deals not in argument but in persuasion. What counts for him, by his own admission, is “our living response,” the degree of our engagement. Could prose so seductively lovely be wrong? But then again, rightness and wrongness aren’t the point: The point is sheer enchantment.