Friday 18 August 2017

Book review: Keeping an Eye Open, Julian Barnes

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe
Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe
Julian Barnes cover

Niall McMonagle

In what Virginia Woolf calls "the silent kingdom of paint" words still matter. When it comes to painting, Julian Barnes quotes Flaubert: "Explaining one artistic form by means of another is a monstrosity" and yet there is nothing monstrous about the articulately engaged, insightful and informed Julian Barnes. The reader is in wonderful, companionable company. An art work invites the eye to look. How head, heart and imagination respond is explored and captured here with apparent ease and great skill.

Barnes grew up "a healthy little philistine" but a few weeks in Paris between school and university was a turning point: he found himself "consciously looking at pictures, rather than being passively and obediently in their presence". And he has been looking ever since.

Keeping an Eye Open contains seventeen essays on art ranging from Géricault to Howard Hodgkin. Written over two decades they become a seamless, interlinked commentary on the story of art "from Romanticism to Realism and into Modernism". His chosen artists have "the desire to make it new" and they also create "a continuing conversation with the past".

Chapter One, reprinted from Barnes's 1989 novel A History of the World in 10ƒ Chapters, brilliantly combining powerful dramatic narrative with historical fact, traces how Géricault, in his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa, turned catastrophe into art. Never solemn or po-faced, Barnes the novelist means that stories are brilliantly told.

Artists featured here [men only] have clay feet, huge egos, can be happily married, jealous, nasty, misogynistic, vindictive and obsessive. Courbet "a pioneer in self-marketing", "created or adapted to his use, the persona of the boisterous, belligerent, subversive, shit-kicking provincial"; a Fantin-Latour work is "rather tight-arsed"; he asks of Claus Oldenburg's Pop Art "Are we, in any way, moved? Well, we are moved to smile, to chuckle, to puzzle, to smile again - and that's not shameful." Barnes recalls an unsmiling Lucian Freud. Manet told his models "Talk, laugh, move"; Freud was a punishing, ruthless task-master. With Howard Hodgkin, we are on the inside track. Barnes tells of how Hodgkins's eye for a black towel in an old-fashioned haberdashery in Italy taught him how to look, how to see.

It's a readable, riveting, informed work with sharp, marvellous anecdotes and observations: Napoleon III pronounced Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe "an offence against decency"; Warhol "is an artist rather as Fergie is a Royal".

He wonders about "'successful' artists of the twenty-first century, flogging their endless versions of the same idea to know-nothing billionaires" and brings his reader back to such wonderful paintings by Manet, Cézanne and Félix Vallotton.

In this beautifully illustrated book you're in great company. Barnes is a sane and steady guide. He knows "top-tennery and biography" distract; he warns that "the bigger the show, the bigger the crowds needed to support it". It's what he calls the "elephantiasis of exhibitions" and the event becomes "not just aesthetic but socio-aspirational". He also knows that "the art itself goes on regardless, above our heads, massive and uncaring"

Keeping an Eye Open

Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, €26.85

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