Each day I post a new MCAT CARS Passage. This is for anyone who wants to practice for the CARS Section.
Every article is selected to meet the AAMC MCAT criteria for CARS.
Subscribe by email to receive a new practice passage each morning.
April 26, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
Poetry and painting used to be called “the sister arts”, though that cosy phrase ignores the sibling rivalry between them. The verbal and the visual operate in different dimensions: language unfurls in time, but painted imagery is static and occupies space, which is why Cézanne indignantly asked a sitter who wasn’t content to be a still life: “Does an apple move?”
Flaubert thought that painting should strike the viewer dumb, since it requires no prattling exegesis. Julian Barnes, defying the embargo in these collected essays, looks at his chosen artists with the eye of a novelist – chastened because paint can “render emotional states and complexities normally conveyed at novel length by means of colour, tone, density, focus, framing, swirl, intensity, rapture”, yet also keen to justify his own art by discovering a quirky literary character behind the faces painted by Manet and Bonnard or by teasing stories out of the moments frozen by Courbet and Degas.
Writers, Barnes admits, “envy other forms”. Painting “combines the means of expression and the expression itself”, music has an ecstatic eloquence, and neither needs “the trudging intervention of words”. But envy is a healthy and, indeed, compulsory vice for an artist, and in any case Barnes’s own words never plod. Or if they do, that’s because they tether us to reality: hence his contempt for the “clotted twaddle” of the “cubist prose” in which Gertrude Stein tries to explicate Picasso.
Despite his remark about the bluntness of language, Barnes’s essays abound in verbal images that are pictorially vivid. The flex of an antique phone in a painting by Vuillard, for instance, “romps exotically across the carpet like some Amazonian snake”. Barnes’s scrutiny of the feet of the firing squad in Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian suggests that he could expand this single, fatal instant into a voluminous historical novel. Noticing the “splay-footed comfortableness” of the soldiers, he surmises that an NCO has just told them to relax their posture, as if they were hunting game, not killing an emperor.
When he looks at Manet’s portrait of Zola, Barnes basks in the sharp patch of white that blazes from the page of a book the novelist is reading. Here, he suggests, is a moment of “reverse envy”, when a painter pays homage to the illuminating clarity of words. And what painter – who can only expect a minute or so of our attention as we shuffle through a gallery – would not be jealous of the hours, days and even weeks we devote to reading novels? That commitment made the mystical painter Odilon Redon declare that literature was after all “the greatest art”. Braque, says Barnes, “painted space”, not the objects it circumstantially contained; but writers enjoy the ampler, more continuous freedom of time, and Barnes bestows this novelistic duration on Vuillard, whose paintings “both offer (and withhold) a narrative”, as if the figures in them had “a life beyond the paint that depicts them”.
In a brilliant essay on Lucian Freud, Barnes gives this literary temporality a moral force. Freud famously took his time over his portraits, wearing his sitters down by wearing them out: he expected Hockney to sit still for a hundred hours spread over four months, then in return gave his colleague two afternoons for a reciprocal session. As Barnes sees it, Freud lived from moment to moment, never recognising that as we advance from past to future we incur responsibilities and develop connections with other people. He got through multiple mistresses, left behind a litter of illegitimate children, and abruptly cancelled ancient friendships, casually assuming that “one thing happens, and then another thing”: experience was a series of episodes, not a narrative. Novelists are timekeepers and recording angels who hold us to account, and Barnes’s judgment of Freud, so “imperious in his perversity”, is grim.
Barnes concedes that “artists are what they are, what they can and must be”. But acceptance does not mean approval, and in these essays there’s a recurrent collision between two opposed types of artistic character. Ingres and Delacroix almost come to blows, respectively upholding the primacy of line – which to Ingres meant honour and honesty – and of unabashed sensual colour. Then Cézanne, with his “deeply private” emotional life, is set against “camera-loving and concupiscent” Picasso; later, the contrast is between “rural, domestic and uxorious” Braque and Picasso, who is now called “cosmopolitan, voracious and Dionysiac”. The same typology, intriguingly, fits Barnes and his erstwhile best buddy, Martin Amis.
This competition between tortoises and hares hints at an aesthetic theory. Barnes discredits art’s presumption to create the world anew, as in Courbet’s self-deifying panorama of his studio, and I suspect that he might now disavow his claim, made about Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa in his novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, that art’s purpose is to dramatise catastrophe. Nor should art indulge in tawdry self-exposure: Barnes sniffs at Tracey Emin’s messy bed. Instead, he modestly expects art to be “fun”, as it was for the pranksters of the Bauhaus and Magritte with his “jokes and wheezes”.
Picasso had fits of machismo, “throwing sand in nature’s face” and tormenting or crucifying drab reality. Wisely and quietly, Barnes points out that “all artists’ universes depend… on the primary one we inhabit” – the world whose contents are catalogued by prose – and he embraces art in both “its major and subsidiary forms, from painting to fiction to landscape gardening to cookery”. Barnes is fascinated by the fixtures and fittings in Vuillard’s bourgeois interiors: the pot of sharpened pencils on the desk of Mme Lanvin the couturier, her neat account books and the metallic drawers that are her coffers. Furniture is art too, art that we sit or lie on to take our ease, and Bonnard pays his tenderest compliment to his wife, Marthe – who is jumbled up with the kitchen crockery and bathroom mats in their flat – when he makes her “in the nicest, most vibrant way, part of the furniture”.
In his pop manifesto, Claes Oldenburg, the sculptor of soft monuments and floppy toys, demanded “an art which is put on and taken off like pants” or “eaten, like a piece of cake”. Barnes extends that cheery, demotic creed by calling for “an art that gooses you, that gives you a visual gargle”. I’m not sure what a visual gargle would look or sound like, and I’ve never knowingly been goosed, but this, phrased more comically, is what old-fashioned humanists meant when they said that art should be “life-enhancing”, and it’s hard to disagree.
“So that’s enough words,” says Barnes, self-dismissively, at the end of a humorous, deferential attempt to describe Howard Hodgkin’s paintings, which often have literary titles but are always bafflingly non-representational. Enough words? Not if they’re Barnes’s.
Adapted from theguardian.
Leave a comment below with what you understood to be the author’s main ideas. Ask about this daily passage in office hours/workshops for help.
Subscribe to my Daily CARS mailing list by entering your email.
The full list of daily articles is available here.
This was an article on Art.
Have a great day.
MCAT CARS Instructor.