Keeping an Eye Open by Julian Barnes

By Sheila Singhal on June 30, 2016

Photo: Random House Canada

At first it may seem like an odd pairing: one of the world’s best-known literary novelists discussing art and artists. Why should we care what a novelist thinks about art? Who does he think he is?

Turns out that Barnes — the British author of such renowned works as Flaubert’s Parrot and the Booker-Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending — has a finely tuned artistic sensibility, an encyclopedic knowledge of the artists who take his fancy, and some very pithy things to say.

Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art is a collection of previously published essays, several of which originally appeared in Modern Painters. This would explain the rather eccentric selection of artists and/or works of art, which range from Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa to Delacroix, Bonnard and Oldenburg.

Far from being a stuffy and precious I-will-tell-you-how-it-is description of various works, Barnes approaches his subject matter with almost boyish enthusiasm. This is a writer who not only loves art and the pecadilloes of artists, but who also clearly enjoys digging into the corners of whatever has drawn his interest — whether the lives of forgotten up-and-comers depicted in works by Fantin-Latour, or the general unpleasantness of Lucian Freud (the man, not the art, most of which Barnes appears to like).

The book opens with a description of what sounds like one of the most dismal art museums in Paris. Barnes, however, revels in its awfulness, which makes him a very agreeable companion right off the bat. The fact that he approaches bad displays of good art, and good displays of bad art, with equal interest makes him all the more compelling when he expresses an opinion.  

And what opinions these are. For example, at the Royal Academy, Barnes comes across a group of students being guided by a junior lecturer who says — too decisively, in Barnes’ opinion — “Of course, Mantegna’s aim here wasn’t realism.” Barnes’ response, which can almost be heard as a within-earshot mutter: “Talked to him lately, have you mate?”

Nor does Barnes suffer art-world hype gladly. He is particularly scathing about Young British Artists in passages such as: “Dead Dad [by Ron Mueck] had the silence and strength of a work of art that keeps its secrets; the more so when surrounded by the usual cabal of shouty, upfront, show-us-the-money Young British Artists.” He is similarly sarcastic about later Pop Art, writing: “[B]oth Oldenburg and Warhol are made to look tough and confrontational when set beside the machine-tooled whimsicalities of their immediate descendant Jeff Koons. In a recent interview, Koons announced that ‘Art shouldn’t demand anything of anybody.’ Job done!” 

One of the most fascinating, and perhaps even endearing things about the book, however, is its choice of subjects. Although he includes a few household names — Manet (but not Monet), Degas, Delacroix, Oldenburg — Barnes also makes a point of celebrating oddities such as the nearly forgotten Félix Vallotton, and his friend, painter Howard Hodgkin (“a writer’s painter” according to Barnes). 

To each of these artists, whether well known or not, Barnes brings the same keen interest. He is never dismissive of the artists he’s chosen, although he does choose favourites from among their works. He is also tolerant of their eccentricities, while calling a spade a spade when the artist’s behaviour is less than gentlemanly. Freud comes in for particular disapprobation, as does Courbet. 

Although a collection of essays by a literary lion, the volume is as nicely designed as any art book. There is considerable white space around both text and illustrations, and each illustration is given its own page. If there is any quibble to make about the book from a design point of view, it is the lack of illustrations for some of the works Barnes describes in depth. It breaks the literary spell if you frequently have to run to the computer to remind yourself — or even inform yourself — what a work looks like.

Barnes is not particularly interested in discussing brushstrokes and technique, although he does have some excellent insights regarding colour and iconography. What intrigues Barnes most are the stories behind the works. In addition to considering the artist’s life and character, Barnes also extrapolates what he sees, expanding into ruminations about the artist’s influence on others, the sadly forgotten reputations of the people portrayed, and sometimes an intriguing fixation on a detail in the work that you might never notice on your own.

Barnes clearly loves art, and has a great affection for artists and their foibles. Spend a few hours with this book, and you’ll not only come away entertained and enlightened, but will feel as though you’ve just enjoyed a witty, and even touching tour of a slightly peculiar museum, with the world’s most interesting docent.

Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art by Julian Barnes is available from the National Gallery of Canada Boutique.

By Sheila Singhal| June 30, 2016
Categories:  Recommendations

About the Author

Sheila Singhal

Sheila Singhal

Sheila Singhal is a writer, editor and blogger living in Ottawa, Canada.

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