In his essay on Edouard Vuillard–one of 17 painters treated in Keeping an Eye Open, his elegant new collection of writing on art–Julian Barnes emphasizes that much depends on how a painting is titled. Two of Vuillard’s “best-known works,” Barnes writes, were originally titled Interior with Worktable and Interior with Red Bed when they were displayed in the 1890s–neutral, descriptive titles, which instruct the viewer to focus on composition and subject matter. But many years later, an art historian observed that these canvases were painted just at the time that Vuillard’s sister Marie was getting married; and so, on the assumption that the female figures in the paintings were Marie, they were rechristened The Suitor and The Bridal Chamber. These titles pointedly shift the emphasis from composition to narrative, encouraging the viewer to imagine, or invent, a whole emotional backstory for Vuillard’s images. Barnes regrets the change: “It is a small but significant betrayal of the artist.” Art, he implies, is about seeing, not telling; about deferring to the artist’s vision, rather than inserting ourselves into that vision.
This moment stands out in Keeping an Eye Open because, ironically, Barnes himself is strongly drawn to exactly the kind of narrative approach that he deplores here. Barnes is, of course, one of his generation’s most acclaimed English novelists, the Booker Prize-winning author of hybrid historical fictions like Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. And why read a novelist on art–as opposed to an art historian or professional critic–if not to see a storytelling imagination at work? Indeed, the very form of these essays–which were mostly written as reviews of books or exhibitions, for publications like Modern Painters and the TLS–leads Barnes into telling stories. For as much as his acute and revealing observations are meant to instruct the reader’s eye, what Barnes is really doing here is teaching us how to think about an artist, which means, how to turn his life and work into a coherent narrative.
The Vuillard essay itself shows how perilous, and how inevitable, this process is. Barnes writes that when he first saw Vuillard’s Woman Sweeping–a small canvas that shows “a plump woman in a stripey day-dress sweeping a room”–he immediately saw it as “a deeply wise painting: the work of an artist in full maturity, or more likely old age, which expressed his deep knowledge of life.” In other words, Barnes was creating a story, a myth, around the picture, one which referred from the image itself back to the man who made it: the picture becomes valuable as an expression of Vuillard’s character, his hard-won wisdom about the beauty of the ordinary. In fact, however, Woman Sweeping was painted when Vuillard was only 23 years old–not a wise old man but an ambitious, headstrong youth. The story Barnes told himself about the painting was false; and yet, he insists, “each time I see that painting again, I am convinced that I am right and chronology is wrong.” Fiction, Barnes mischievously suggests, is superior to truth: the stories we tell about paintings matter more than the facts of the paintings themselves.
This tendency to mythologize, to turn an artist’s life and work into a hybrid narrative that exemplifies certain moral values, is everywhere in Keeping an Eye Open, and it is what makes the book so readable. Writing about visual art is, in the strict sense, almost impossible: an image is always vastly richer than any words that can be used about it, so that reading even the best essay about a painting is a poor substitute for seeing it. (Here literary criticism has an advantage over art criticism, in that it uses the same medium as its subject, making quotation possible.) Knowing this, Barnes is sparing with the kind of prose-poetic rhapsody that turns the writer into a (losing) rival of the artist. When he does describe, he is intensely practical, simply teaching us how to look: writing about Manet’s Execution of Maximllian, he draws our attention to the position of a soldier’s foot, showing how the casual, uneven stance of the executioner turns a firing squad from a solemn event into “useful work, like when a golfer shuffles for balance in a bunker.” Likewise, he notes the way Manet deliberately gave one soldier an exaggeratedly large hand, “a small and unnecessary coarsening” that shouts at the viewer to pay attention to the deed that hand is about to do.
Clearly, Barnes knows how to see a painting, and going through a museum with him as a guide would be an education. But the function of his essays is not to teach us how to look at a picture; it is to teach us how to think about an artist. This would hardly be possible without knowing a good deal about the artist’s life and times, and so Barnes has chosen to write mostly about French painters of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Gericault and Delacroix down to Bonnard and Vuillard. These artists are products of a glamorous and extensively documented milieu; in writing about them, Barnes can make use of the testimony of writers like Baudelaire and the Goncourt Brothers, as well as their own notebooks and letters.
This rich context sometimes predominates over the actual pictures, as in Barnes’s essay on Delacroix, which is much more concerned with how we should think about Delacroix than how we should look at him. Though he is considered an arch-Romantic, a proponent of hot color over cool line, Barnes emphasizes that Delacroix was personally “a self-defended man who feared passion and valued above all tranquillity.” There is a moral dimension to this judgment: the painter, Barnes writes, was a “practitioner of honor and honesty,” with the singlemindedness of the true artist. Likewise, writing about Braque, Barnes moves from history to something like hagiography: “what struck many people who met Braque was the completeness, the integration of his personality, and the further integration of that personality with his art.”
This is brought out particularly by contrast with Picasso, about whom Braque famously remarked that he had started out as a great painter and become merely a genius–that is, as Barnes glosses it, “the public’s idea of a genius…whose private life is also a publicized circus.” In general, Barnes dislikes artists who turn themselves into celebrities by behaving badly–Picasso, Courbet, Lucian Freud–and prefers the rather aloof dedication of a Braque or a Delacroix. This preference helps to mark Barnes, for all his love of French art, as a very English kind of critic.
Adapted from http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/keeping-an-eye-open?st=AFF&SID=BNB_DRS_Evergreen_20150928&2sid=Skimlinks_7313086_NA&sourceId=AFFSkimlinksM000006