Musée du Louvre, Paris

Théodore Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–1819

I enjoyed an essay about Lucian Freud that Julian Barnes published in 2013—a piece brought together with sixteen others on art and artists in his collection Keeping an Eye Open. I confess that one reason I kept muttering “Well judged!” as I read it was that its comments about Freud’s work as a painter corresponded pleasingly to those in an essay on the artist that I myself contributed to these pages back in 2008. Remarking on Freud’s midcareer lurch toward the influence of Francis Bacon, or on the way that the tortuous stylisms of Freud’s later portraiture are thrown into relief by other people’s photographs of the sitters, or on his greater empathy with still life subjects, Julian the celebrated British novelist seemed, whether by coincidence or design, to walk step by step with Julian the British part-time art writer.

Barnes, however, had unlike me “met Freud a few times” before the artist’s death in 2011, and these memories sharpen his account, lending it the edge that fills a room when two nervy males enter it and circle it for advantage. Barnes was “struck by the fact that [Freud] never smiled, neither on meeting, nor at any point in the conversation when any other, ‘normal’ person might smile: it was classic controller’s behavior, designed to unsettle.” Barnes’s bid to posthumously outflank the painter leans on Breakfast with Lucian, an indiscreet memoir by the journalist Geordie Greig. Not only will Greig’s gossip “do Freud’s personal reputation harm,” Barnes declares, it will “harm the way we look at some of his paintings, and perhaps harm the paintings themselves.” He transcribes two tales of Freud’s misogyny too demeaning to bear further repetition and submits that

once we know these two stories, we can’t unknow them, and they seem to change—or, for some, confirm—the way the female nudes are to be read…. It is hard not to ask oneself: Is this the face and body of a woman who has first been buggered into submission and then painted into submission?

“Can’t unknow”: what more could art writing aspire to than to make such an indelible dent on “the paintings themselves”? The butchering of Freud is all the more stylish for the sagacious shrug with which Barnes’s closing paragraph extracts the blade: “Perhaps, in time, all this will cease to matter. Art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography.” Until that day, however, Barnes’s censorious vocal performance, his scolding more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, will linger resoundingly in his readers’ ears. Now in two senses, it has to be said, this Freud essay is uncharacteristic of Barnes’s collection: it is not his habit to disparage the painters on whom he focuses, and the only other Londoner he writes about here is the late Howard Hodgkin, a friend he saluted in 2003 with an affectionately circumspect catalog foreword.

And yet that flash of the blade brought into focus what I felt as I read the rest of Keeping an Eye Open, which—after a piece about Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa taken from Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989)—consists of magazine articles written across a span of twenty-three years, nearly all on well-known French painters working in Géricault’s wake. Essay-writing about art, I was reminded, is above all a performance of positioning. It is polite culture’s equivalent to a human pyramid. Nervously, teeteringly, and maybe with hands thrown out for outside support, our personal impressions struggle to erect themselves into an argument. The construction is gratuitous and evanescent, and the basis on which it stands, the art itself, remains in truth unaffected by the effort. The most the writer can really ask for is that the upward scramble might amuse.

The texts that hold up this sobering mirror to their reviewer are powerfully conversational. Barnes is an engager, a buttonholer. His voice, whether as a storyteller fond of essayistic reflection or as an essay-writer fascinated by his subjects’ life stories, always seems to reach probingly for listeners, whoever they may be. And if these in turn call him “readable,” that may be because he has internalized this uncertainty about their identity. A characteristic play-off has operated ever since Metroland (1980), Barnes’s first novel, which presented two pretentious schoolboys trying out attitudes borrowed from Baudelaire on suburban London. One ear has stayed alert to the savants—to Barnes’s seniors in artistic wisdom, a resource above all to be sought in nineteenth-century Paris. The other ear can’t but register the flattening skepticism of the contemporary British street.

The mature sophistication of France’s old high culture has been kept alive nearer to home by figures such as Hodgkin or another friend that Barnes likes to cite in these essays, Anita Brookner—who, before her midlife turn to novel-writing, was one of Britain’s most commanding writers on French art. At the same time, that rich Continental tradition attracts the attention of Anglophone poseurs and quick-explainers, whose pat judgments Barnes needs to parry. He equally needs to take issue with the unimpressible, know-nothing British philistine who would fend off everything that comes from across the Channel, while nonetheless respecting what that voice can draw on, a grounding in unglamorous commonsense experience.


At one moment, then, Barnes hobnobs with the connoisseur: when he archly shakes his head at a Salon associate who placed Delacroix “between Tiepolo and Jouvenet,” he must know he is shooting over the heads of nine tenths of his readership with his unexplained reference to the latter, a dreary classicist from the reign of Louis XIV. Conversely, Barnes can act the mutterer in the back row, sharing an aside with the average Joe. He writes that when he overheard a gallery lecturer assuring his audience that “Mantegna’s aim here wasn’t realism,” he longed to butt in with “Talked to him lately, have you, mate?”

Negotiating between interlocutors, Barnes is ever the shrewd diplomat, steering the dialogue toward a plausible and better-informed outcome. An account of a 1992 exhibition devoted to Manet’s three versions of The Execution of Maximilian is exemplary. Barnes makes his entry with an arresting all-purpose conundrum: “How long do we spend with a good painting? Ten seconds, thirty? Two whole minutes?” Then, applying the question to blockbusters, he switches from schoolmaster to talk-show host: “Hands up those who spent ten hours at the Matisse, the Magritte, the Degas? I know I didn’t. Of course we pick-’n’-mix….” All this is meant to set out by contrast the virtues of the kind of small close-focus show he is describing. After further jaunty tour-guide preamble, comparing the hapless Maximilian’s short reign in Mexico to an IMF intervention in a contemporary debtor nation, Barnes turns his eyes to focus on Manet’s first version of the subject, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Raising the tone he proposes that here, Manet has depicted

a tight swirling encounter, something vicious and shameful, in which one group of unidentifiable people wrests life from another, and where the oceanic colours run through executioners, victims and the backing countryside alike.

In the versions at London and Mannheim, however, the executioners are far more closely defined:

Their feet are turned out at an angle of 120 degrees or so; one soldier keeps his heels together, other have their feet apart…. They are feet sinking themselves in for useful work, like when a golfer shuffles for balance in a bunker. You can almost imagine the NCO’s pre-execution pep-talk about the importance of getting comfortable, relaxing the feet, then the knees and hips, pretending you’re just out for a day’s partridge or woodcock…

Among that broad crowd invited in by Barnes’s overtures, a few painters might be skulking, wondering what business a novelist has to speak about their craft. The last-quoted sentence supplies a fine answer. The one art brought into contact with the other sparks an unexpected, tragicomic flare, shining back on the stuff of human experience. Barnes can also address painters with a well-attuned eye for the specifics of their medium: he delivers an attentive survey of Manet’s range of whites. Equally he can be sensitive at tracking the emotional dynamics of a canvas, evoking for instance the way that “the seemingly languid atmosphere” of Courbet’s Demoiselles des bords de la Seine “is denied by the bright, almost gaudy coloration” and the “intrusively close” gaze with which the demoiselles—a pair of tarts drowsing by the riverside—are viewed.

Close reading, however, is merely one weapon, occasionally reached for, in Barnes’s authorial armory. The story-chaser in him has the upper hand. That passage ends with Barnes wondering what happened to the boatman who rowed the girls downriver, and is itself a brief pictorial stop in a rollicking, scandalized account of how in his career, Courbet acted out “the persona of the boisterous, belligerent, subversive, shit-kicking provincial.” Starting with a nod to the vagina that Courbet immortalized as The Origin of the World, the essay ends with an anecdote about gallons of water being tapped from the dropsical painter’s anus: a bizarre sandwiching. Along the way, tackling Courbet the self-proclaimed advocate of “Realism,” Barnes insists that “we should always trust (and judge) the painting rather than the trumpeted manifesto”; and yet the gargantuan shadow cast by the painter himself upstages both.

Similar assurances appear in a piece on a very different personality. “There is never a danger that Braque’s life might overshadow his work,” Barnes writes, there being no doubt that the “authority, finally, comes from the paintings themselves.” Barnes is certainly pithy in his analysis of the oeuvre: Braque “did not paint objects, he painted space and then furnished it.” Yet thereafter, his essay settles, for want of biographical drama, into hagiographic rhapsody. Every angle he can obtain on the laconic Norman elicits sighs of adoration—Braque’s long and faithful marriage, his modesty, “his silence,” his “unswervingness” during the German Occupation, “the completeness, the integration of his personality,” the calm with which he met his death. Every detail, moreover, shows up his onetime artistic colleague as a loudmouth of inferior mettle. “Though Picasso might seem the more powerful, and was certainly the more famous, it is he who comes across as the supplicant, the more needy, in their dealings.”


For if Barnes the close reader of paintings makes way for Barnes the inquisitive storyteller, the latter in turn defers to Barnes the moralist. Just as he “can’t unknow” the artist’s life, he can’t help couching it in plaudits, exonerations, and sideswipes. He rounds for instance on the revisionists who have tagged another necessary counterweight to Picasso—the seemingly impeccably bourgeois, emphatically uxorious Bonnard—with allegations about an ill-fated midlife love affair: “Isn’t there something slightly disappointing about our need to equip all artists with a certificate of darkness?” Other such slanderers—in this case, a critic freewheeling on TV—deserve nothing better than a punch below the belt: “If you look at, say, Degas’s La Fête de la patronne [one of his brothel images] and see only abhorrence of female sexuality, then I suspect you are in deep critical—and maybe also personal—trouble.”

The vehemence of that dig seems itself a little unhinged: but then Barnes—and it is part of his appeal—likes to act the combative centrist, fighting in defense of unfashionable normality. “Flaubert advised artists to be regular and ordinary in their lives, so that they might be violent and original in their work. Marriage is one way of being regular and ordinary.”

The work, then, has its own integrity, while the life has a contrasting integrity, and Barnes as critic must find a defensible midpoint from which to review both. He must sternly discriminate: “Most art is, of course, bad art.” Indeed, even very good artists may so lapse: an 1864 Dead Christ with Angels, with its “Shock of the Bad,” reminds us that “Manet was not always ‘Manet.’” As to why that inconsistency occurred, Barnes is incurious. When he judges that art is good, however, this may be because it transfigures truths familiar from ordinary life. “All that straining—to what end?” asks Barnes, contemplating the trapped figures in Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa:

There is no formal response to the painting’s main surge, just as there is no response to most human feelings. Not merely hope, but any burdensome yearning: ambition, hatred, love (especially love)—how rarely do our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve? How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea…

That parenthesis is subversive. Can the grande machine really be read as “She won’t look my way” spelled large? A clever rhetorician’s conceit: weirdly reductive, however.

Barnes seldom turns from judge to theorist. He sees his favorite era—”approximately 1850 to 1920”—as “a time of great truth-speaking combined with a fundamental re-examination of the forms of art,” but is more attentive to its individuals than its isms. It is only when he has to consider the impact of Picasso in subsequent decades that he devotes a paragraph to rebutting the “macho aesthetics” of “throwing sand in Nature’s face.” Faced with more recent developments such as Pop Art or documentarist video, Barnes reverts self-consciously to his fallback position—as he mentions in an introduction, both his parents were schoolteachers—that of the stuffy but forbearing examiner, admonishing juveniles as he flicks through their daubs:

“Yes, of course it’s art, of course you’re an artist, and your intentions are serious, I’m sure. It’s just that this is very low-level stuff: try giving it more thought, originality, craft, imagination—interest, in a word.”

As it happens, this reviewer, a part-time British art school tutor, has found himself voicing similar sentiments many times. But to express pleasure when a collection of essays parallels one’s own opinions is to say nothing about its qualities as writing. My own ad hoc approach to that question is to imagine two directions that prose might incline toward. It might cleave contemplatively to a certain it, to a certain object of description. Or it might turn to face you, the reader, dialogically. Any competent art writing evidently negotiates between the two modes of attention, but there is nonetheless a spectrum of bias.

If the prose of John Updike, say—another novelist who moonlighted as an art essayist—feels object-suffused, like some soft laden sack, that of Barnes comes across by comparison as pert, angular, and rather anesthetic. Provocatively gawky, it brandishes “-nesses” by the dozen: not only “unswervingness” but “shiftingness,” “dancingness.” “perhapsiness,” and (on a single page) “fleetingness,” “pawlessness,” and “one-offness.” It approaches the human body bit by bit, mostly by extremities. One thing wrong with Freud’s nudes, says Barnes, is that the “differences between people’s genitalia”—unlike the differences between their heads—“are not expressive; they lead nowhere.” I’m not sure that that rings true, but I’m sure that this writing gives me little feel for the flesh in between.

In this, it seems oddly tangential to the tradition on which it concentrates, that of French oil painting in all its comfortable sensuality. Three of the essays stand out however, by considering artists who themselves stood at comparable junctures. One is a sympathetic study of Félix Vallotton, a Swiss devotee of Hans Holbein sardonically observing Belle Epoque Paris and, for Barnes, “an awkward independent who fits uneasily into any wider narrative of painting.” Another piece—on Odilon Redon, an artist equally ill at ease with the French figural mainstream—arrives as a surprisingly poetic response to “an art of aspiration and transubstantiation”: one seems to glimpse the would-be aesthete who first ventured to Paris, before he had to report back to “regular and ordinary” suburban Britain.

This enthusiasm for Symbolism surprises because some of Barnes’s most distinctive pages consider how Édouard Vuillard, as he grew older, moved away from Mallarmé’s precept that artists should “paint not the thing itself, but the effect which it produces.” In his sixties Vuillard painted a portrait of the milliner-turned-fashion-magnate Jeanne Lanvin sitting at her work desk. As Barnes settles down to describing it, the portrait becomes a model—in pictorial form—of plain but purposeful prose, a prose at once “full of the things themselves” and full of moral meaning. To Mme Lanvin’s left are her “sharpened pencils standing in a pot and a laid-down pair of spectacles”; to her right a “plaster bust of [her] daughter Marguerite, now aristocratic by marriage.” Before the “relaxed yet authoritative” sitter—this epitome of “work, skill, dedication, money, success and class”—there lies “the disorder of creation—samples, fabrics, loose papers”; while at her back, “the neat account books, the safe-like metallic drawers” proclaim “the absolute orderliness of money.”