When a nov­el­ist il­lu­mi­nates art

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Claire Ho­p­ley

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.

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