Rebecca's Reviews > Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art

Keeping an Eye Open by Julian Barnes
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really liked it
bookshelves: art-books, essays, newbury-library

I worked out that this is my eighteenth Barnes book. I’ve always found his nonfiction in particular to be truly eye-opening, as this title suggests: whatever his topic – whether it’s something that usually interests me or not – he exemplifies a careful way of seeing that picks up on things that most would miss. He eschews the obvious and goes to the heart of the thing.

These pieces range in date from 1989 to 2013 and were all previously published elsewhere. Seven essays were for Modern Painters, while others were for the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement. Often they coincide with a new exhibition of a painter’s work. His chosen subjects are European painters, usually French, who are somewhere on the continuum between Realism and Modernism. Some were familiar to me (Courbet, Manet, Cézanne, Degas) while others were completely new, and welcome, discoveries (Vuillard and Vallotton). A couple were just names for which I had no real associations, like Magritte and Lucian Freud. Each article is illustrated with two or more color reproductions.

Barnes is alive to the contrasts and contradictions involved in all art, but particularly Modernism:
“French art in the nineteenth century was, in broadest terms, a struggle between colour and line.”

“It is a strangeness of Fantin’s considerable talent that his human portraits have the eerie, funereal look of still-lives; while his still-lives, the flower paintings by which he made his money (and also his name in this country), display all the vigour and life and colour of which he was inherently aware.”

“You don’t paint souls, you paint bodies, and the soul shines through.”

“Flaubert advised artists to be regular and ordinary in their lives, so that they might be violent and original in their work.”

“He [Redon] is also unusual in that he had his dark period first rather than last: he escaped the shadows, rather than feeling them close in with the years.”

“How far does an artist’s individuality develop as the result of pursuing and refining the strengths of his or her talent, and how much from avoiding the weaknesses?”

“A great painting compels the spectator into verbal response, despite our awareness that any such articulations will be mere echoes of what others have already put more cogently and more knowledgeably.”

One of my favorite essays was on death masks and body casts, a nineteenth-century sensation, and how the technique has cropped back up in recent art. I also enjoyed the peeks into Barnes’s own life: while teaching for a semester at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the mid-1990s, he was once invited to dinner at John Waters’s house; he was a personal friend of Howard Hodgkin (a zoomed-in portion of whose Alpine Snow is this book’s cover image).

It took me a long time to read this: only ever one essay, or part of one, at a time, often with many days in between. But in the end I found it very much worthwhile. It’s given me a better vocabulary for thinking about art.

More great lines:
“It doesn’t really matter whether an artist has a dull or an interesting life, except for promotional purposes.”

“Most Pop Art is art in a loose, trivial or jesting way. It is about hanging around art, trying on its clothes, telling us not to be overimpressed by it.”

“Art changes over time; what is art changes too. Objects intended for devotional, ritualistic or recreational use are recategorised by latecomers from another civilisation who no longer respond to these original purposes.”

“Most art is, of course, bad art; a large percentage of art nowadays is personal; and bad personal art is the worst of all.”
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Reading Progress

January 7, 2015 – Shelved
January 7, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
October 3, 2016 – Started Reading
October 3, 2016 – Shelved as: art-books
October 3, 2016 – Shelved as: essays
October 3, 2016 – Shelved as: newbury-library
November 17, 2016 – Finished Reading

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