Can we separate the art from the artist? This is the question Julian Barnes returns to again and again in his perceptive new collection, “Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art.”
Great art stands on its own to provoke, stun, and intoxicate viewers who may know little of its maker. Yet the more we learn about a Degas or a Courbet, the more we see in his work. Yet — again! — how much of that is insinuation? Indeed, what of our own generational and societal trappings are we projecting onto art made more than a century ago?
Such quicksand is the very stuff of art criticism, and Barnes, a novelist and winner of the Man Booker Prize, delights in sinking into the conundrums. In these reviews — some of exhibitions, some of books about art, some wider ruminations about specific artists — he puzzles over the intimate lives of artists and casts a generous and discerning eye over the small, painterly decisions that imbue a canvas with force.
The writer examines painters, mostly French, of the 19th and 20th centuries. A stray essay tut-tutting pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg feels out of place. Barnes dismisses pop art as merely playful, mistaking its shininess for fluff and neglecting its weighty conceptual impact on art of the last 50 years.
But he relishes painting. The first essay, about Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” brims with pulse-quickening detail and shrewd analysis. It first appeared in Barnes’s 1989 pastiche of a book, “A History of the World in 10½ Chapters,” and tells the unsavory story of an 1816 shipwreck. Two survivors published an account of the horrors that followed, including mutiny and cannibalism. The public was scandalized.
Barnes examines what Géricault chose not to paint — the wreck, the cannibalism, the rescue. He eschewed the high-pitched drama. Yet the painting is fraught with drama: Well-muscled men rise, almost in a pyramid formation, to flag down a boat on the distant horizon.
It cannot be accurate: The survivors would have been starved wraiths at this point in the narrative; the painting depicts 20 on the raft, not the reported 15 survivors. Formal imperatives, the emotional claustrophobia of the space, a Pieta-motif that would resonate — these drove the painter. “Truth to life, at the start, to be sure,” Barnes writes. “[Y]et once the progress gets under way, truth to art is the greater allegiance.”
What we know of artists’ lives can be so seductive. Bonnard painted his wife, Marthe, hundreds of times. These were not portraits; sometimes only a fraction of the woman appears at the edge of a frame. Bonnard painted dense domestic interiors, all skewed space and steamy tones, and Marthe was part and parcel with his domestic life.
Three decades into his relationship with Marthe, Bonnard fell madly for another woman, proposed to her, and then revoked his proposal. The woman shot herself in a Paris hotel, where he discovered her body. Only then did he marry Marthe. So are his pictures warmly intimate, or chokingly close?
Barnes raises this question not to make assertions about Bonnard’s relationship with Marthe, but to show us how a little information taints our vision of his art like dye in water. “Isn’t there something slightly disappointing about our need to equip all artists with a certificate of darkness?” he asks.
Yes, but it’s all part of the mix, as Barnes freely acknowledges. Indeed, sometimes the art itself prompts the personal questions. Did Degas hate women? Some think his coolly clinical nudes suggest he did. Barnes argues no, but more importantly, he asks us to reflect on Degas in his time, and us in ours. The ways artists look at women, and the ways Western society sees women, have changed since Degas died nearly a century ago.
Great art can take all we’ve got to throw at it, and as time passes, whatever we throw turns to dust and the art remains. Barnes knows this. Indeed, he revels in it. Great art, to him, is an interrogator and a liberator. The more we look, the more our presumptions shatter.
KEEPING AN EYE OPEN:
Essays on Art
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 288 pp., $30