Book Review: Keeping An Eye Open by Julian Barnes

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Julian Barnes is more than a Booker Prize-winning novelist (for The Sense of an Ending, 2011); he is a writer adept at non-fiction as well. Indeed, Keeping An Eye Open begins with a long essay on Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819), which is drawn from, with alterations, from Barnes’ 1989 novel, A History Of The World In 10 1/2 Chapters, but you wouldn’t know it. Barnes’ careful research makes his discussion of the terrible ordeal of the Medusa’s survivors, and Gericault’s painting of the scene, worthy of inclusion in an exhibition catalog. None of the other essays are as comprehensive, but they don’t need to be.

But Barnes has freedom denied to art historians; he can step sideways into his own history, and his opinions on others who have written about art. Indeed, he begins his final chapter, on the British painter Howard Hodgkin (p. 260), by challenging the whole idea of writing about art. He uses these quotes:

“Painters have a great distrust of those who write about art.” Henry James
“Explaining one artistic form by means of another is a monstrosity. You won’t find a single good painting in all the museums of the world which needs a commentary. The more text there is in the gallery guide, the worse the picture.” Gustave Flaubert
“…words are not necessary: you say humph, he, ha, and everything has been said.” Edgar Degas
“Artists should have their tongues cut out.” Henri Matisse

How diplomatic to quote two writers and two artists, even when all four are wrong. Writing about art adds a layer, that can be absorbed or dismissed, but which only supplements the wealth of ideas around the art. Barnes is quite interested in written opinions about art, which runs as a current throughout the book. The essay on Edgar Degas is closely connected to diverging opinions on Degas, especially his depictions of women. Was Degas misogynist, or did he revere women? So many have lined up on one side or another.

Barnes is no hagiographer. It would be difficult to make someone as ornery as Lucian Freud likable. The crotchets and quirks of artists personalities are prime fodder for a novelist, but Barnes keeps his distance and makes the art his focus. His examination of Edouard Manet’s three versions of The Execution of Maximilian (1867-69) studies the variations in each version, down to the footwear of the firing squad. His essays on Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard are somewhat thin, but worth reading.

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Barnes also gives one of my new favorite quotes, on the statement “That’s not art” that you hear from time to time:

Art isn’t, and can’t be, a temple from which the incompetent, the charlatan, the chancer and the publicity-chaser should be excluded; art is more like a refugee camp where most are queuing for water with a plastic jerry-can in their hand. (p. 236)

The book is handsomely put together, though I prefer the cover to the British edition, which shows a detail from one of Howard Hodgkin’s paintings (shown above), to the American, which shows Degas’ palette (shown at top). Considering the content of the book, the Degas is more appropriate – only a few contemporary artists are included, most are from the 19th and early 20th Centuries, but the Hodgkin is a more striking image. Alas, there is no index, a frustrating omission in any book of essays, and especially for me in books on art. If The Complete Peanuts can have an index, why not this?

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