Keeping an Eye Open – Julian Barnes

[As ever, I planned to write this journal in sections, and so far I’ve written about the Introduction and the first four chapters. I’ve read the rest of the book, but this remains a work in progress!]

17 April 2016
Introduction and Chapters 1-4
I should get my prejudices out of the way first, then maybe I’ll enjoy it more. Ok.

The subtitle is Essays on Art, but that isn’t what these are, really. Barnes loves art, is famously Francophile, and he loves combining these in his writings. After an introduction in which he describes how this all came about almost accidentally, there’s a reprint of the only essay I’ve read before. It’s a long meditation on why Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa is what it is, and it’s far and away the best so far – because it comes closest to being an essay about art. But even here it’s appropriate that there is no reproduction of the whole painting. (I wonder if this is for copyright reasons? It doesn’t matter.) There are details that illustrate his explanations of why certain elements of the picture work as they do, and he does occasionally describe the effect of the whole thing on the astonished viewer. But he is at least as interested in Gericault the celebrity artist, the political and other contexts of the subject he chose to paint, its reception when first shown (and so on, and on) as he is about why it succeeds as a work of art when we see it now.

In the other three essays I’ve read so far, there is no focus on a single work. The main topics are the celebrity, the historical context, the art world of the 19th Century…. The reader learns things, and some of these things are to do with why a particular work remains remarkable in the 21st Century. But… but what? Over maybe ten or a dozen pages, Barnes cherry-picks interesting stuff about Delacroix, Courbet, Manet…. He might mischievously hold up for examination a famous anecdote, play around with ideas about why it might have been told in this way or that – in other words, the focus is on his first love, writing, not art at all. Which is fine. Any one of these three essays would make an engaging half-hour piece on Radio 4, and I would seek them out if I knew they were being broadcast. But this is (deliberately) faint praise. Barnes isn’t an artist and, for me, it shows. He is knowing and gossipy, satirical about the rivalries, jealousies and, especially in the case of Courbet, the shameless self-promotion. It isn’t quite enough for me.

In the Introduction he tells us that it wasn’t until 1964 – he was eighteen by then – that ‘I started looking at pictures of my own volition.’ This a key admission for me. By that age I had been haunting galleries (and any bookshop with a good stock of art books) for years, and it comes as no surprise that the artist Barnes went for in Paris was Moreau, the flashy self-promoter. From there he moved on to the ‘cubes, slicings [and] visceral whirls’ of some types of Modernism. He is satirical about this now, calling it ‘romantic’ to have rejected en bloc any kind of realism as the easy ‘default setting’ that good artists and writers strive to move away from. But there’s a more telling admission further on. ‘We remain incorrigibly verbal creatures who love to explain things, to form opinions, to argue. Put us in front of a picture and we chatter…’ and, typically, Barnes cites Proust as particularly guilty of this. But that catch-all first-person plural is a smokescreen. Replace ‘we’ with ‘I’ and you’ve got an explanation for what this book is all about. He loves to chat. And, having just written that, I now realise that what I need to do is relax, and imagine I’m in a gallery with Julian Barnes, looking at this stuff. I might be able to show him things, or I might not…. But I know the conversation would be non-stop, very entertaining – and I’d learn a lot.

What to say about Chapters 1-4? The first, concerning The Raft of the Medusa, establishes Barnes’s approach. We get the scandal of the mistakes that led to the wreck in the first place, contemporary reactions to it – and therefore the context for Gericault’s painting and the way it would be received. Barnes, far more painstakingly in this chapter than any other, enumerates the issues that would face any artist tackling this subject (1-8, then an 8a). He tells us about Gericault shaving his own head as a kind of statement of intent: he wouldn’t be doing anything as frivolous as going out and socialising for a while. He’s satirical about whether he might have re-shorn himself from time to time. If not, what on earth did he look like after eight months of not-quite purdah? But the best parts for me are when Barnes looks in detail at the picture. A rejected sketch, in which cannibalism is the main theme, is discussed in order to clarify the very subtle allusion to it in the final version (the old man staring out at the viewer, the only one to do so). The positioning of the raft in relation to the horizon, the choice of which moment to show, compositional choices about how the sighting of a passing ship should be portrayed, the healthy muscularity of survivors who would really have been starved almost to death…. By the end, we recognise how composed, how wrought this picture is. And here’s an ambiguous statement: ‘Catastrophe has become art: that is, after all, what it is for.’

Next is Delacroix, and it’s mainly about other artists’ attempts to recreate him as a Romantic hero. His strong-minded self-isolation is presented in one of those anecdotes I mentioned and Barnes, more the textual detective now, looks for evidence either to corroborate it or not. In the end, not. He singles out Baudelaire as the one most guilty, telling the great man off for his conventionality and acceptance of unimportant government honours. Delacroix quietly reminds him that state recognition means that he will always be able to find work if times are hard. Do I believe Barnes’s presentation of him? Does it matter? I’ve just seen a National Gallery exhibition focusing on his place in later developments in art, which I intend to go to again before it finishes. For me, it’s much more interesting than speculations about his attitude to recognition by the establishment. Before the end of the chapter, Barnes does finally get on to Delacroix’s reputation as the great innovator when it came to colour, and there are anecdotes to support this. But even this is presented in the context of artistic rivalries, with Ingres refusing to be in the same room as one for whom drawing, he said, meant nothing.

Chapter 3, on Courbet, is about the man far more than the art. The art is there, notably his most famous (or infamous) works. Having lovingly described its frank portrayal of female nakedness in The Origin of the World – the chapter title is ‘It’s not like that, it’s like this’ – Barnes is right about how, alone of all the works he’s discussed so far, it still has an unsettling power. (In the next chapter he contrasts the way that Manet’s Olympia, deemed unsuitable for exhibition in the 1860s, was fully accepted long before the end of the century.) But almost all this chapter is to do with the absurdities stemming from Courbet’s career as a self-promoter. Two of the best stories are to do with his constant angling for a medal, specifically in order to gain kudos by rejecting it… and his miscalculation over the 1870 uprising. Having spoken far too soon and too publicly about the end of the old regime, his miscalculation came back to bite him after the uprising was quashed. He was fined so punitively for his part in the demolition of a monument he had to spend the rest of his life in exile in Switzerland. How we laughed.

Chapter 4, about Manet, is in two parts. The first is mainly a long moan about modern fashions in the curating of exhibitions. They are too big, or set up a counter-intuitive narrative that Barnes regards as a kind of showing off. He uses a recent Manet exhibition in Paris as a starting-point for all this, describing how the curators, in desiring to show Manet from the very beginning of his career, showed far more second-and third-rate early works – before he became the ‘Manet we know’ as Barnes puts it – than the great late pieves. He lists six of what he considers the artist’s masterpieces that were not shown in an exhibition of 300 works. Who wouldn’t agree?

The second part is about the three versions of The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, and it’s good on the colour, the context, the compositional choices…. It’s genuinely interesting to feel that we’re in a position to be able to judge for ourselves whether, as Manet later alleged when pushed, it is first and foremost ‘un oeuvre absolument artistique.’ Along the way, Barnes praises a recent, very small exhibition – again at the National Gallery – in which the whole focus was on the creation of these works. Got that? Focus on the work. Julian, are you listening?

22 April
Chapters 5-17 – to the end
No, he isn’t. Julian. Listening. The rest of the book is like Chapters 2-4, with occasional insights into the work of these artists thinly sprinkled amongst the gossip and generalisations. It’s feature writing of the most obvious sort, in which the writer’s personal view is the main interest. You might stumble on something genuinely thought-provoking, but it’s very hit-and-miss. In fact, most of these essays did begin life as features and, like those imaginary radio versions I mentioned, they’d be agreeable enough in that context. In a book, they don’t really work. And most of the pictures he refers to aren’t illustrated in it, so there needs to be a big notice, early on: Warning: as you read this, you need to have an open device set to Google Images.

Now, either I’m going to stop there… or I’m going to salvage what I can. I’d love an editor to pare down these chapters to maybe 50 pages focusing on the art works. But that isn’t going to happen, so I’m thinking of skimming through it again and finding the interesting bits.

[If there’s nothing written below, I must have abandoned the idea.]