Keeping an Eye Open – Book Review
“How far does an artist’s individuality develop as a result of pursuing and refining the strengths of his or her talent, and how much from avoiding the weaknesses?”
Julian Barnes has written many articles about artists he admires or from whom he has received deep visual experiences. In this volume these previously published essays are brought together in historical sequence running from Théodore Géricault to Lucien Freud, with a last chapter on Hodgkins which is more like a series of diary notes because, as he says, being friends with ‘HH’ makes an objective analysis of his work impossible. the change of pace is welcome though out of place.
He has spent years just looking at artists’ works, reading about the artists he admires, analysing their experiences, judging the conclusions of their biographers. He is the rarest of critics sharing insights rather than opinions. He describes the ’emotion become intellect’ which is the sphere upon which artists live, and to which viewers aspire. He is also unafraid to share his feelings, a courage all too lacking in today’s writers.
He takes his subject’s work and with clarity gives universal pointers that can be tools to examine many other works. Colours hold a painting together, large scale works often require more precision than smaller works to be effective, marriage may or may not hinder an artist, the first to see the painting may well have had a better evaluation of what it means being closer to the times and the subject, most art is not very good but it is still art, and so forth …
He has a refreshing way of writing with little mention of the shorthand used by many other critics who mention movements such as, Romanticism or Realism in passing because the encapsulate a huge array of ideas and expressions the writer doesn’t want to engage in. Julian Barnes gives a passing mention to the well known arguments between Courbet and Ingres over colour and line, a nod towards the term Nabi while writing about Bonnard, Vuillard and Vollotton.
He wants to share his own thoughts more than those of other art historians. And like John Berger he is worth reading for his perception and his thoughts on the ‘possible’. He transcends the obvious in Fantin-Latour and Redon, argues against received opinion on Degas and women, and has read every word of Delacroix’s journals. A Francophile he describes how the innovative Courbet was made into tradition by Manet in the next generation and how radical Manet was dovetailed into tradition in his turn by Cezanne and asks, how then do we, as the inheritors of this tradition, now see Cezanne. As we look back in our turn, is he now the father of Modern Art?
His answer has all the intellectual rigour of his family – I was taught Philosophical Logic by his brother Jonathan at university. The eye is only the start of the journey into a painting, to progress one needs to read, ask questions and search for the answers that arise, and reflect.
Though Julian Barnes is not frightened to share his feelings for a painting or an artist apart from his friend Hodgkins, it is his willingness to reflect and build upon his instincts, that makes this volume so worth reading. Even the most learned will gain something from these essay and every writer of art criticism pointers on what makes for interesting writing for art readers.
It is this fearlessness mixed with clarity that we ask of our writers at the New Art Examiner. To share one’s feelings for the visual experience.
Julian Barnes will write more articles – I hope he does – I will certainly read his next collection and wish he wrote for us.
Keeping an Eye Open
Volume 32 no. 1 September/October 2017 p 36