Keeping an Eye Open

By Julian Barnes

Reading Julian Barnes on any subject is a joy, but his essays about art are a special treat. Not a professional art critic or painter himself, he nevertheless brings an erudite amateur eye to these examinations of seventeen artists, most of them French painters from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Two themes dominate. The first is the importance of placing an individual work of art in context, which usually means an inspection of the artist’s life. Barnes is a great reader and brings much of the biography and autobiography he’s read as background to bear in his analysis of the story behind the paintings on the wall.

But at the same time he recognizes and draws attention to the limits of such an approach, the way “art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography.” As he puts it:

What counts is the surviving object and our living response to it. The tests are simple: does it interest the eye, excite the brain, spur the mind to reflection and move the heart; further, is an apparent level of skill involved? Much currently fashionable art bothers only the eye and briefly the brain, but it fails to engage the mind and the heart. It may, to use the old dichotomy, be beautiful, but it is rarely true to any significant depth.

The second theme he addresses is the difficulty of translating painting into words. He likes to quote Flaubert, who said “Explaining one artistic form by means of another is a monstrosity. . . . The more text there is in the gallery guide, the worse the picture.”

Nevertheless, the way an artist’s work is shaped (or misshaped, or stained) by the events of their life is an essential line of interpretation, and while no work of art can be entirely paraphrased in words, criticism may enrich our experience of art, and in any event constitutes a creative exercise of the imagination worth attending to. The critic is no mere parasite.

For Barnes, the paintings he discusses tease him out of thought, exciting the brain and spurring the mind to reflection. They are insistent in drawing our attention and making points that are more like aphorisms than tidy conclusions. In every patch of colour or movement of visual rhythm we feel the tension between general rules and their particular illustration.

The same can be said for Barnes’s own reflections. You nod your head at his observation that time and absence transform the proportions of even the paintings that you think you know well: “you tend to remember the small ones as bigger than they are and the big ones as smaller.” Or, with regard to Magritte, “the trouble with being an ‘ideas’ painter . . . is that any less-than-brilliant idea on canvas looks more exposed than does a less-than-brilliant ‘aesthetic’ sketch.” Concept artists beware.

Best of all, however, are the times when his words seem to open a painting up like a window to some new emotional landscape. The straining survivors on Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, for example, who make us feel “how rarely our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve.” Salvation is always just over the horizon.

Moments like these, rendered in the mellow, accessible, gently personal style of Barnes’s prose are hard to resist. As a guide through this gallery of modern masters he makes even familiar works seem, if not bigger, at least deeper than we remember.

Review first published October 11, 2015.

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