Ju­lian Barnes’s beau­ti­fully framed art es­says

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY BECCA ROTHFELD Becca Rothfeld book­world@wash­post.com is a con­tribut­ing editor at the art mag­a­zine Mo­mus.

“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.

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