October 27, 2015

Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art - Julian Barnes

Random House Canada, Oct. 6, 2015.


Four Stars


Julian Barnes begins this book of essays with an introduction, in which he tells us that he grew up thinking all art must be serious, that it “took the excitement out of life.” (p. 4) Upon receiving this book, I was worried that it might do the same thing – another solemn collection of art essays that take our initial enjoyment of an artwork and crush it with dry and unnecessarily academic language. So I was happily surprised to find these essays fun and conversational, encouraging the reader to see old works of art in new ways.


In this book, Barnes focuses approximately on the period between 1850 and 1920, in which the art movement (specifically in France) travelled from Romanticism to Realism and then to Modernism. Barnes had written quite a few of these essays on commission for previous publications, with no set plan to gather them together – however, when he looked at the work as a whole, he could see the story of how art had changed in this era. Not only does Barnes discuss art with the reader as though we are old friends talking over a cup of coffee, his essays communicate with each other as well. There is a dialogue from Gericault’s iconic Raft of the Medusa that leads us to the Impressionism of Manet, Cezanne and Degas, and finally to modern artists such as Lucien Freud.


Several times, through the use of artists’ quotes, Barnes makes the point that the best way to enjoy art would be to view it without words – words such as Barnes is writing in his critical essays.  In the beginning, he quotes Braque, who said that “the ideal state would be reached when we said nothing at all in front of a painting.” (p. 10) Later in the book, Freud makes a similar point: “Any words that might come out of his mouth concerning art, he remarked, would be as relevant to that art as the noise a tennis player produces when playing a shot.” (p. 239) I found it interesting that while Barnes is critiquing the artists, he also focuses on their critique of his work – writing essays about art.


The concerns about art criticism come up many more times in the book. In the essay “Manet: In Black and White,” Barnes considers the idea that only powerful art is worth attacking – we are shocked by what is new, and try to preserve the old styles, but regardless, the new art is quickly assimilated and commodified. (p. 73) In “Vuillard: You Can Call Him Edouard,” we are told about the dangers of “top-tennery and biography” (p. 156) – it is futile to look for the “best” in art because it is so subjective. Finally, and most interesting to me, was the idea of “perhapsiness” in art criticism, the idea of leaving our interpretation open-ended, because we ultimately do not know exactly what the artist intended. (“Magritte: Bird into Egg, p. 210) While I strive to make my own literary criticism more decisive, I think a little perhapsiness is important, too.


Barnes writes in his introduction that he felt there were two things happening in great works of art: “the desire to make it new, and a continuing conversation with the past.” (p. 9) I feel that the author has succeeded in doing both of these things in his book of art essays, which were surprisingly fun and eye-opening.


I received this novel from Goodreads First Reads and Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

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