Julian Barnes Essays

The subjects here are chosen somewhat arbitrarily, the result, mostly, of journalistic assignments. But taken together, they tell the story of how artists (mainly, French) moved from Romanticism to Realism to Modernism. He traces the shifting values we place on the sort of transformations — subtle, grand, surreal, satirical — these painters worked on reality, while examining the mysterious dynamic between individual artists’ gifts and an emerging cultural zeitgeist.

Mr. Barnes succinctly evokes the contradictions embodied by Delacroix: a member of that generation of French Romantics who were inspired by Shakespeare and Byron, but who also esteemed Voltaire and Mozart — a “self-defended man who feared passion and valued above all tranquillity,” but whose art spoke of “extravagance, passion, violence, excess.”

He describes the self-promoting Courbet — “a great painter, but also a serious publicity act” — as “an in-your-face Realist,” whose family motto might well have been “Shout loud and walk straight.” And he asserts that much as Manet made Courbet seem part of the tradition, so would Cézanne make Manet feel like a part of the fast receding past.

The speed with which these changes occurred is breathtaking in retrospect: how quickly the Cubists and many who followed “took over, absorbed and cannibalized Cézanne.” “He is where modern art — even Modern Art — begins,” Mr. Barnes writes. Yet today, on the walls of the great museums, he fits smoothly into what has become part of the historical continuum.

These may not exactly be new or revelatory insights, but one appeal of “Keeping an Eye Open” is that Mr. Barnes does not write as a scholar, but as an avid and thoughtful amateur — adept at conveying a tactile sense of a painting and its emotional penumbra, and its philosophical subtext, too. Of Courbet’s “L’Atelier,” Mr. Barnes notes that its depiction of the painter working on a landscape (in a studio, not en plein-air) implies that Courbet is “doing more than merely reproducing the known, established world — he is creating it anew himself.”

In another chapter, he wryly observes that portraits created by Cézanne, who once exhorted a model to be still “like an apple,” were really still lifes, “governed by color and harmony,” not depictions of “human beings who do normal human things like talk, laugh and move.” As for Magritte, Mr. Barnes points out that he tweaked the Surrealist method of opposing completely unrelated objects by juxtaposing (or substituting) related ones (like an egg for a bird).

Mr. Barnes can be blunt, even snarky in articulating his tastes in art; he writes that Warhol “is an artist rather as Fergie is a Royal.” But, at heart, his essays are animated by his keen, appraising eye, and a wellspring of common sense. He dismisses critics who have discerned a misogyny in Degas’s work — based, it seems, on rumors of his own absent love life — when, as Mr. Barnes points out, his radiant studies of dancers and bathers make it clear that he “plainly loved women” in his art. He also turns out to be shrewd in reminding us how Picasso — whose life seemed vulgar and egotistic in comparison to, say, Cézanne’s — now appears high-minded in contrast to “the most ‘successful’ artists of the 21st century, flogging their endless versions of the same idea to know-nothing billionaires.”

Though this volume contains lots of illustrations, one wishes there were even more of the paintings Mr. Barnes discusses. He writes about them so vividly, comments so astutely on small details of light and space and color, that we find ourselves reading the book with an iPad or laptop on hand, Googling images of the works he has so eloquently and ardently described.

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“Eloquent. . . . This is a novelist’s criticism, full of motion and drama.” —The Washington Post

“An engaging and empathetic volume.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Perceptive. . . . Generous and discerning.” —The Boston Globe
“Fascinating and brilliant. . . . This magnificent survey draws its strength from its intensely personal focus, each piece reverberating off the others.” —The Financial Times  

“Illuminating. . . . Avid and thoughtful. . . . [Barnes] chatters like the gifted novelist he is, using his eye for the telling detail, his narrative intuition and his understanding of the creative process to help us see familiar artists like Degas, Braque and Magritte afresh, and to appreciate the work of lesser-known masters as well.” —The New York Times

“[A] superb collection. . . . Barnes’s observations and expression prov[e] equally adept and satisfying.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“This is art writing of the first order. . . . Page after page, essay after essay, Barnes pulls off the sort of acrobatically erudite performance that ultimately draws as much admiration for him as for the art he describes.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch 

“Powerful accounts of interconnections between art and artist. . . . Sharply observed and richly illuminating. . . . Barnes has a wonderful eye for what makes a great picture, and a command of language that again and again allows readers to share what he sees.” —Times Literary Supplement

“A readable, riveting, informed work with sharp, marvellous anecdotes and observations. . . . In this beautifully illustrated book you’re in great company.” —The Irish Independent

“Extremely rewarding, informative, attentive, thoughtful, entertaining.” —The Evening Standard

“Barnes weaves biography, history, philosophy in this fascinating, richly illuminating and beautifully written book.” —Art Quarterly

“It’s both a pleasure and an education to look over Barnes’s shoulder as he interrogates, wonders at, and relishes works of art. He’s a critic who prioritizes the objects themselves, and his work is always satisfying.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Scholarly and astute yet accessible and exciting. . . . Barnes focuses his analytical prowess on significant artists and their oeuvres, opening fresh vistas to readers—and viewers.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Handsomely illustrated, superbly written, felicitously thought-provoking. . . . Barnes is a consummate stylist, not only because of his artistic command of language but also by virtue of his searching intelligence, incisive candor, rogue wit, and righteous fairness.” —Booklist
“[Barnes] digs into fascinating details of isometric proportions. . . . Highly recommended to all art readers.” —Library Journal

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