‘Keeping an Eye Open,’ by Julian Barnes

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“The Anabaptists: Pierre Bonnard” (1930-34), by Édouard Vuillard. Credit Roger-Viollet/Bridgeman Images

What is the point of reading biographies of artists? Critics have frequently come down hard on them. They contend that the details of a life are helpless to explain the majesty of art. What matters are not the despairing childhoods and difficult relationships, the question of whether a particular artist was altruistic or plainly cruel — but the object that emerged in the end, an object unburdened by life, succeeding or failing on the basis of its appeal to the eye.

Yet biographies of artists offer us a chance to view a life from all sides, to be moved not only by triumphant masterworks but by the stirring efforts underlying even the supposed duds. Julian Barnes, the accomplished British novelist and literary journalist, might agree. He has just published his first collection of art criticism, “Keeping an Eye Open,” an engaging and empathetic volume that lavishes attention on issues that more doctrinaire critics would be likely to shortchange. He is touchingly alert to varieties of unhappiness, especially of the marital sort, and capable of musing on the private lives of artists without sounding like Dr. Phil.

Most of the artists he considers are acknowledged masters of European painting, unfashionably dead, male and white. The essays, with a few exceptions, were initially published as exhibition reviews in The London Review of Books, Modern Painters magazine and elsewhere. Barnes’s tone as a critic can be droll or learned or both. “If you are famous for not getting any paint on your clothes, perhaps the midlife temptation for looser splosh seems headily powerful,” he notes in a passage defending René Magritte’s unpopular late paintings, in which the artist regressed from Surrealism to fuzzy, Renoir-like Impressionism. “More broadly, don’t painters, like other artists, often come to resent what it is they do best?”

Even his parenthetical asides are memorable. In analyzing the artist Paul Cézanne’s rift with the novelist Émile Zola, Barnes notes: “It’s generally true that success, however defined, drives artistic friends apart more than failure does.”

The comment can put you in mind of Barnes’s own complicated friendships. He had a famous falling-out with the novelist Martin Amis in the mid-’90s, after Amis dropped his longtime agent, who happened to be Barnes’s wife. She died of a brain tumor in 2008, and the terse dedication in Barnes’s new collection (“To Pat”) presumably refers to her. As a literary persona, Barnes can seem like a cautious elder beside Amis’s raucous bad boy, and even when he is writing art criticism, Barnes adopts the tone of an old-­fashioned moralist.

Tellingly, in his new volume, he reserves his highest praise for Georges Braque, who invented Cubism with Picasso and proved that geniuses can have stable marriages. Unlike Picasso, a world-class adulterer, Braque stayed married to his wife, Marcelle, for 50-odd years and reportedly never strayed. Although Barnes is aware of Braque’s artistic shortcomings (“his larger paintings tend to dilution rather than monumentality”), he prefers to dwell on his moral goodness. “And Braque became, over the years, a living reproof to vanity, pomposity, charlatanry,” Barnes notes, in an essay that reads less like an astute analysis of Braque’s work than a letter recommending him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

For all his great affection for the canonical masters of modernism, Barnes’s sympathy shrivels in the presence of more recent figures. Granted, he is fond of Lucian Freud, who stands at the apex of British figurative painting, and Howard Hodgkin, possibly the only artist in London to get a pass in the realm of abstract painting. But, in general, Barnes hews to a culturally conservative position that leads him to deem the art of the past infinitely more noble than that of the present.

Neighing against Andy Warhol, he can sound reflexively antimodernist. The soup cans and soda bottles, the hot-pink portraits of Marilyn Monroe — Barnes declines to look. Warhol, he contends, “is an artist rather as Fergie is a royal.” It is a very strange conclusion, positing a faith in the purity of the monarchy and a fear that the respective bloodlines of England and art history could be tainted by the ascent of commoners such as Sarah Ferguson and Andrew Warhola.

“Most Pop Art is art in a loose, trivial or jesting way,” Barnes pronounces, in an essay devoted to the American sculptor Claes Oldenburg. This is a startlingly facile statement. Pop Art operates on many levels, reviving the old tradition of still-life painting while offering a riposte to the pretensions and visual froth of the past. One is sorry that Barnes has declined to give the 86-year-old Oldenburg — and American art generally — the benefit of his normally searching gaze. Instead of “Keeping an Eye Open,” to cite his sly title, he might try keeping both eyes open.

by Deborah Solomon

Source: The New York Times

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