Julian Barnes Essays On Artwork

Poetry and painting used to be called “the sister arts”, though that cosy phrase ignores the sibling rivalry between them. The verbal and the visual operate in different dimensions: language unfurls in time, but painted imagery is static and occupies space, which is why Cézanne indignantly asked a sitter who wasn’t content to be a still life: “Does an apple move?”

Flaubert thought that painting should strike the viewer dumb, since it requires no prattling exegesis. Julian Barnes, defying the embargo in these collected essays, looks at his chosen artists with the eye of a novelist – chastened because paint can “render emotional states and complexities normally conveyed at novel length by means of colour, tone, density, focus, framing, swirl, intensity, rapture”, yet also keen to justify his own art by discovering a quirky literary character behind the faces painted by Manet and Bonnard or by teasing stories out of the moments frozen by Courbet and Degas.

Writers, Barnes admits, “envy other forms”. Painting “combines the means of expression and the expression itself”, music has an ecstatic eloquence, and neither needs “the trudging intervention of words”. But envy is a healthy and, indeed, compulsory vice for an artist, and in any case Barnes’s own words never plod. Or if they do, that’s because they tether us to reality: hence his contempt for the “clotted twaddle” of the “cubist prose” in which Gertrude Stein tries to explicate Picasso.

Julian Barnes: ‘Art doesn’t just capture the thrill of life ... sometimes it is that thrill’

Despite his remark about the bluntness of language, Barnes’s essays abound in verbal images that are pictorially vivid. The flex of an antique phone in a painting by Vuillard, for instance, “romps exotically across the carpet like some Amazonian snake”. Barnes’s scrutiny of the feet of the firing squad in Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian suggests that he could expand this single, fatal instant into a voluminous historical novel. Noticing the “splay-footed comfortableness” of the soldiers, he surmises that an NCO has just told them to relax their posture, as if they were hunting game, not killing an emperor.

When he looks at Manet’s portrait of Zola, Barnes basks in the sharp patch of white that blazes from the page of a book the novelist is reading. Here, he suggests, is a moment of “reverse envy”, when a painter pays homage to the illuminating clarity of words. And what painter – who can only expect a minute or so of our attention as we shuffle through a gallery – would not be jealous of the hours, days and even weeks we devote to reading novels? That commitment made the mystical painter Odilon Redon declare that literature was after all “the greatest art”. Braque, says Barnes, “painted space”, not the objects it circumstantially contained; but writers enjoy the ampler, more continuous freedom of time, and Barnes bestows this novelistic duration on Vuillard, whose paintings “both offer (and withhold) a narrative”, as if the figures in them had “a life beyond the paint that depicts them”.

In a brilliant essay on Lucian Freud, Barnes gives this literary temporality a moral force. Freud famously took his time over his portraits, wearing his sitters down by wearing them out: he expected Hockney to sit still for a hundred hours spread over four months, then in return gave his colleague two afternoons for a reciprocal session. As Barnes sees it, Freud lived from moment to moment, never recognising that as we advance from past to future we incur responsibilities and develop connections with other people. He got through multiple mistresses, left behind a litter of illegitimate children, and abruptly cancelled ancient friendships, casually assuming that “one thing happens, and then another thing”: experience was a series of episodes, not a narrative. Novelists are timekeepers and recording angels who hold us to account, and Barnes’s judgment of Freud, so “imperious in his perversity”, is grim.

Barnes concedes that “artists are what they are, what they can and must be”. But acceptance does not mean approval, and in these essays there’s a recurrent collision between two opposed types of artistic character. Ingres and Delacroix almost come to blows, respectively upholding the primacy of line – which to Ingres meant honour and honesty – and of unabashed sensual colour. Then Cézanne, with his “deeply private” emotional life, is set against “camera-loving and concupiscent” Picasso; later, the contrast is between “rural, domestic and uxorious” Braque and Picasso, who is now called “cosmopolitan, voracious and Dionysiac”. The same typology, intriguingly, fits Barnes and his erstwhile best buddy, Martin Amis.

This competition between tortoises and hares hints at an aesthetic theory. Barnes discredits art’s presumption to create the world anew, as in Courbet’s self-deifying panorama of his studio, and I suspect that he might now disavow his claim, made about Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa in his novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, that art’s purpose is to dramatise catastrophe. Nor should art indulge in tawdry self-exposure: Barnes sniffs at Tracey Emin’s messy bed. Instead, he modestly expects art to be “fun”, as it was for the pranksters of the Bauhaus and Magritte with his “jokes and wheezes”.

Picasso had fits of machismo, “throwing sand in nature’s face” and tormenting or crucifying drab reality. Wisely and quietly, Barnes points out that “all artists’ universes depend… on the primary one we inhabit” – the world whose contents are catalogued by prose – and he embraces art in both “its major and subsidiary forms, from painting to fiction to landscape gardening to cookery”. Barnes is fascinated by the fixtures and fittings in Vuillard’s bourgeois interiors: the pot of sharpened pencils on the desk of Mme Lanvin the couturier, her neat account books and the metallic drawers that are her coffers. Furniture is art too, art that we sit or lie on to take our ease, and Bonnard pays his tenderest compliment to his wife, Marthe – who is jumbled up with the kitchen crockery and bathroom mats in their flat – when he makes her “in the nicest, most vibrant way, part of the furniture”.

In his pop manifesto, Claes Oldenburg, the sculptor of soft monuments and floppy toys, demanded “an art which is put on and taken off like pants” or “eaten, like a piece of cake”. Barnes extends that cheery, demotic creed by calling for “an art that gooses you, that gives you a visual gargle”. I’m not sure what a visual gargle would look or sound like, and I’ve never knowingly been goosed, but this, phrased more comically, is what old-fashioned humanists meant when they said that art should be “life-enhancing”, and it’s hard to disagree.

“So that’s enough words,” says Barnes, self-dismissively, at the end of a humorous, deferential attempt to describe Howard Hodgkin’s paintings, which often have literary titles but are always bafflingly non-representational. Enough words? Not if they’re Barnes’s.

Keeping an Eye Open by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). To order a copy for £13.59, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

Julian Barnes says that, while he “has taught himself a fair amount about painting over fifty years,” he “only really has one shot in his locker about each painter.” He told me this on a recent afternoon, at his home in London. We were talking about his new book, “Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art,” a selection of articles that previously appeared in a variety of publications over the last few decades. “When I get asked to, say, review a biography of Braque or go and see a show of Manet, I think, I’ve only got one go at this, because I don’t have more than that amount of thoughts about the person,” he said.

Barnes did not study art in school. He leaves his perch near the Hampstead Heath and visits the Courtauld Institute, in central London, from time to time. He also goes to museums when he travels for readings. The pieces in the book are “intended to address the reader who enjoys art in the same way that I do, and isn’t a professional and isn’t an academic and doesn’t have a theory to promote,” he said. “So, in a way—in that way—they relate to my fiction, which I also think of as being companionable and untheoretical.”

The first piece in the new book can also be found, in fact, among his fiction: “Géricault: Catastrophe into Art” is part of “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters,” Barnes’s 1989 book, typically classified as a novel. (There, the piece is titled “Shipwreck.” It also ran as a story in this magazine.) The essay concerns Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-1819), which depicts the 1816 wreck of a French naval frigate. Géricault does not show the final scene of rescue, but rather a previous almost-rescue, and he shows the men on the boat as strong and energetic, rather than as the tired, defeated, starving men they surely were. According to Barnes, Géricault’s painting has misinformed our understanding of the event ever since. “It is because the figures are sturdy enough to transmit such power that the canvas unlooses in us deeper, submarinous emotions,” Barnes writes. “The painting has slipped history’s anchor.”

What is most striking about the essay is Barnes’s detailed accounting of Géricault’s many artistic choices: he considers what Géricault could have chosen to paint, what each choice would have implied, and why, finally, Géricault painted what he did. The whole thing is shot through with the obvious admiration of one artist for the craftsmanship of another. The actual Medusa was famously visited by a white butterfly, which Géricault did not include in the painting; had he included it, Barnes writes, “it wouldn’t look like a true event, even though it was; what is true is not necessarily convincing.” Later in the essay, he adds: “Truth to life, at the start to be sure; yet once the progress gets under way, truth to art is the greater allegiance.”

Reading Barnes’s critiques one after another, it is tempting to see in them the preferences that shape his own work. Barnes takes issue, for instance, with painters whom he finds flashy and “noisy.” He prefers Braque to Picasso. (“Braque knew that he couldn’t do everything, and didn’t want to be everything,” Barnes writes in an essay first published in the London Review of Books. “He painted. That was what he did.”) In conversation, he cited “that killing remark that Braque made: ‘Picasso used to be a great painter. Now he is merely a genius.’ Oh! I think it’s kind of right.” He continued, “I think Picasso’s great period was the Cubist period, which was when he was working with Braque, and, I think, he—Braque—painted paintings; Picasso painted Picassos.”

Still, Picasso, Barnes said, “looks like the most incredibly high-minded, shy, reclusive, uninterested [artist] compared to some around now. In America and around the rest of the world, there are people that think Jeff Koons is a great artist, for example. I think there are fewer people now than five or ten years ago who think that Damien Hirst is a great artist. On the other hand, you know, he’s a brilliant marketer, as is Koons. They could teach Picasso a thing or two. On the other hand, Picasso could teach both of them almost everything.”

A majority of the book’s pieces are about French painters whose careers began in the late nineteenth century or afterward. In putting it together, Barnes writes in the introduction, he found that the collection retraced the story of “how art (mainly French art) made its way from Romanticism to Realism and into Modernism.” He levels a number of verdicts along the way: he finds Manet’s work uneven; Degas is not the misogynist he’s made out to be; and the work of the sole American artist Barnes considers at length, the Swedish-born Claes Oldenburg, is lacking in substance, “a visual gargle.”

As I got up to leave Barnes’s house, late in the afternoon, I noticed a sleek, framed painting, above a stack of books. Barnes lit up when I asked him about it. It is a large watercolor called “Hastings Pub,” which portrays the inside of the Cambridge Arms public house, and its crowd, a group of brightly dressed revelers, seem to be dancing or, at least, gyrating. The Englishman Edward Burra painted it in 1971, Barnes informed me.

“Burra was an odd cove who would just suddenly go missing for weeks and you never asked him where he was going or what he was doing, and then he’d reappear,” Barnes said. Then, taking a sharp breath and cracking a smile, he added, “He didn’t think anyone should talk about art, you should just do it—and then you should look at it.”

Flaubert expressed a similar opinion, Barnes notes in the introduction to “Keeping an Eye Open.” “Flaubert believed that it was impossible to explain one art form in terms of another, and that great paintings required no words of explanation,” he writes. But Barnes, of course, disagrees. “It is a rare picture which stuns, or argues, us into silence,” he writes. “And if one does, it is only a short time before we want to explain and understand the very silence into which we have been plunged.”

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