Friday 15 December 2017

Looking beyond the distasteful elements of an artist's life

Art: Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, pbk, 288 pages, £16.99

'Healthy little philistine': Author Julian Barnes
'Healthy little philistine': Author Julian Barnes

John Boland

A true work of art should exist independent of the artist who created it. That's the view of Man Booker winner Julian Barnes, who exhorts us in this absorbing collection of essays to "trust the art, not the artist". But he encounters a problem when he gets round to considering Lucian Freud, who's widely regarded as the finest portrait painter of our age.

His case for the prosecution rests on two remarks that Freud made to bookie friend Victor Chandler. "I hate perfume", Freud told Chandler, adding that "women should smell of one thing: c**t. In fact, they should invent a perfume called c**t". Chandler also felt that Freud needed to dominate women, evidenced by his insistence that "unless you've had anal sex with a girl she hasn't really submitted to you".

This, Barnes concedes, might just be "tittle-tattle... leaked to damage the reputation of a great artist", but he argues that "however leery we might be of biography affecting our interpretation of pictures, once we know these two stories we can't unknow them" and that they've changed the way in which he now looks at a Freud female nude.

"Is this," he asks us to wonder as we contemplate yet another naked female figure that's been "splayed for inspection" and "leads with her pudenda", the face and body of a woman "who has first been buggered into submission and then painted into submission?" And though he's aware that eventually art tends to "float free of biography", nonetheless his distaste for this dominant aspect of Freud's art is very clear.

Barnes, who's sometimes faulted for being too genteel and understated (too "English", I suppose), is very good when he's in such provocative mode - a fine earlier essay, which was splendidly titled 'George Orwell and the Fucking Elephant', asked us to consider whether that writer's playing around with the facts of his life as a colonial official in Burma should make us reassess the reputation he acquired for honest truth-telling.

And in this new book, which is beautifully designed and contains more than 50 colour reproductions, he tilts at some other reputations. Andy Warhol, he drolly observes, "is an artist rather as Fergie is a royal" and "only a snobbish churl, or a taxpayer, would object; while only a reader of Hello! would take their claims too seriously".

And after quoting a televised attack by Irish poet Tom Paulin on the supposed misogyny of Edgar Degas (he doesn't mention Paulin's similar onslaught on Philip Larkin), Barnes asks "Where to begin?" and then goes on to note the "fizzing puritanism" and the "biographical fallacy" behind the attack.

But he's equally persuasive at praise, which is much harder to do well than blame, and one of the book's pleasures is the way he encourages the reader to have another look at such artists as Delacroix, Courbet, Cézanne, Bonnard and Magritte, while also making a convincing case for such painters as Fantin-Latour, Redon, Vuillard and Vallotton, about whom I'd known little or nothing.

And there's a lovely introductory essay in which Barnes recalls his "healthy little philistine" upbringing in the London suburbs and how he came to discover that the best art doesn't just convey the thrill of life but "is that thrill".

And at the book's end he pays tribute to his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died of a brain tumour in 2008 and who "saw most of these pictures with me, and is at my side in the text."

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