When a novelist illuminates art
Novelists and painters are often fellow travelers and best buddies. Charles Dickens was friends with Daniel Maclise and W.P. Frith, who painted iconic portraits of the author and several of his characters. In London Oscar Wilde was a frequent guest at the famous breakfasts hosted by James McNeill Whistler. In Aix-en-Provence Zola and Cezanne were inseparable highschool pals. In Paris Zola along with Baudelaire and Mallarme championed Manet. It’s perhaps not surprising then that writers have often been among the most sympathetic and certainly the liveliest critics of painting. John Updike is a distinguished American example; in England, Anthony Powell and Anita Brookner — an art historian as well as a novelist — have written beautifully about painting. Now they are joined by Julian Barnes, whose “Keeping An Eye Open” is smart, lively, sympathetic, knowledgeable, entertaining and illuminating all at once.
The earliest of the 17 essays in this volume is “Gericault: Catastrophe into Art,” first published in 1989; the most recent is “Freud: The Episodicist,” published in 2013. Like these, all the essays focus on one painter. They are arranged chronologically by the date of the painters’ careers, so they form a narrative of painting from 1819, the date when Gericault finished “The Raft of the Medusa,” to the present represented by Howard Hodgkin. Art movements came and usually went during this time, and the chronological arrangement shows -isms morphing into something new: Impressionism into post-Impressionism, and so on. In short, these essays explore Modernism and its built-in obsolescences. Most particularly, as Mr. Barnes writes, they pinpoint “two things going on at the same time: the desire to make it new, and a continuing conversation with the past. All the great innovators look to previous innovators, to the ones who gave them permission to go and do otherwise.”
Since the essays were written over a long span of years, they vary in tone and strategy. The essay on Gericault is methodical: a careful historical account of the shipwreck of the frigate Medusa in 1816 and the raft the seamen made to escape. The few survivors suffered greatly, and their tale of course made it to the French press. Gericault decided to paint a picture of the event. But which part? What aspect? Here Mr. Barnes lists both the stages of the painting, which was a year in the making, and the choices of topic that Gericault rejected. This exercise reveals that “the painting has slipped history’s anchor.” It is not the literal truth. Its raised figures waving a huge flag at the tiny ship on the horizon are an image of hope surging from despair, telling us that “We are all lost at sea . . . hailing something that may never come to our rescue.”
This essay is a model of lively and persuasive expository prose. “Manet: In Black and White” includes a similar analysis of the painter’s “Execution of Maximilian.” Other essays range from a defense of Degas against the charge that he “render[ed] ignoble the secret forms of women,” to a discussion of the obsessiveness and surprising artistic restlessness of Odilon Redon. “FantinLatour: Men In a Line” considers the little-known large joint portraits of dark-clothed unsmiling men painted by an artist best known for small and pretty flower pictures, and finally, Mr. Barnes gives us an affectionate memoir of his friend, the contemporary English painter Howard Hodgkin.
Equally affectionate and enormously respectful is the essay “Braque: The Heart of Painting.” Moving back and forth between Braque’s life — he was a hero of both the first and second World Wars — Mr. Barnes concludes, “There was something about Braque’s calmness, his silence, his artistic commitment which unwittingly showed up lesser men and women. This authority finally comes from the paintings themselves — the sense of forms, of harmony of colour-balance — the seriousness of truth to nature and truth to art — has a moral underpinning.” This affirmation of the relationship between the life lived and the paintings painted is crucial in several of these essays. Mr. Barnes’ interest in his subjects’ lives is inquisitive — and illuminating. He describes Braque as “the moral equivalent of magnetic north,” while his contemporary and rival Picasso, undoubtedly great, is almost a flibbertigibbet, and not always benign. Similarly, Lucian Freud is another less than benign painter, and the essay “Freud: The Episodicist” concludes that his art — fine though much of it is — is the worse for that.
Clearly, then, though precise and knowledgeable, these essays are personal views — and all the better for it. Like Updike’s essays on art, they show their author’s appetite and mind enjoying themselves. In contrast to formal art history, which “tends to overlook . . . the shiftingness, the hypotheticals that never occurred,” they prompt the reader to get up and find more of the artists’ pictures, ideally in a museum, failing that, on the Internet or in a book. No higher encomium can be given.
Anyone who has read the essays in those expensively produced exhibition catalogues will know that the art historians can be trusted to describe the technical details of paintings, and to manhandle them into an historical perspective, but they rarely display the lively questioning or inspired (sometimes quixotic) analyses and preferences delivered by novelists writing about paintings. Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.