Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
An extraordinary collection—hawk-eyed and understanding—from the Man Booker Prize–winning, best-selling author of The Sense of an Ending and Levels of Life.
As Julian Barnes notes: “Flaubert believed that it was impossible to explain one art form in terms of another, and that great paintings required no words of explanation. Braque thought the ideal state would be reached when we said nothing at all in front of a painting . . . But it is a rare picture that stuns, or argues, us into silence. 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.”
This is the exact dynamic that informs his new book. In his 1989 novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Barnes had a chapter on Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, and since then he has written about many great masters of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, including Delacroix, Manet, Fantin-Latour, Cézanne, Degas, Redon, Bonnard, Vuillard, Vallotton, Braque, Magritte, Oldenburg, Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin. The seventeen essays gathered here help trace the arc from Romanticism to Realism and into Modernism; they are adroit, insightful and, above all, a true pleasure to read.
Pierre Bonnard by Vuillard Nor does ‘being Bonnard’ imply some cud-chewing repetitiousness. There is, as Larkin pointed out, a totemic emphasis nowadays on what is called an artist’s ‘development’; whereas an artist’s true development may be less a discussable succession of styles than a determined readdressing of visual truth, a fretting at the way in which beauty emerges from form, or form develops out of beauty. When Bonnard, towards the end of his life, told a group of visitors to Le Cannet,
shifting light and the gilt of, say, Degas or Sickert’s theatre-work; rich yet spare in tone, it is a fine study of the propinquitous isolation of modern city life. But on the opposite wall of the corridor is a nude of such turn-your-back dreadfulness that had you seen it first, you might have noted the artist’s name in order to ensure that in future you avoided his work at all costs. A Swiss friend of mine once asked me ruefully, ‘But have you ever seen a good nude by Vallotton?’ The first time
hillock and dale, and who therefore decides to apply maximum order: nothing but gravel, box hedges and geraniums on an entirely horizontal surface under artifical lighting. Magritte’s art is one of control and exclusion: he uses a blandly frontal viewpoint; symmetricality and parallel receding planes; a deliberately reduced set of image-objects, either ordinary in themselves (curtains, birds, fire) or worked up into ordinariness by repetition (the bilboquet, the jingle bells); flatness of paint;
also tells the two worst stories about him. In the first, he and Freud – who is already drunk – went for dinner at the River Café. In front of them as they arrived were two north-London Jewish couples. ‘Lucian could be very anti-Semitic,’ Chandler recalled, ‘which in itself was strange.’ He took exception to the women’s scent and shouted at them, ‘I hate perfume. Women should smell of one thing: cunt. In fact, they should invent a perfume called cunt.’ On another occasion, Freud and Chandler
this crap, save your visual energy for the two or three half-decent pictures in fifteen rooms further on. He herds us towards quality. Delhi, February 1992, the opening of H.H.’s mural on the facade of the British Council building. An officer of the Council, embarrassingly searching for the right words, eventually gestures to the local workmen who are finishing the job and asks diplomatically, ‘I hope they’re doing what you want?’ Later, at the launch party, an Indian woman says to H.H., ‘I have