Book Review: Keeping an Eye Open, Julian Barnes

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-9), oil on canvas, 491 x 716 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. WikiArt.

“Keeping an Eye Open. Essays on Art”
Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape, 7 May 2015 (UK)
Paperback, 15.3 x 23 cm (6 x 9.1 in), 276 pp., £16.99, US$30.00 (hardback edition due 6 October)
ISBN 978 0 224 10201 8
Available for Kindle (£9.49 or $14.85), and in the iTunes Store (£9.99).

You will remember Julian Barnes from his 1989 novel, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, and his 2011 Man Booker prizewinner, The Sense of an Ending.

As an intensely literary person, Barnes reveals a little of his path to art in his absorbing biographic introduction, which is an excellent tempter for anyone still dubious as to whether to buy this book or not.

The rest of the book consists of 17 essays, all published in the period 1989 to 2013, spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Géricault to Howard Hodgkin. Although they vary in quality and length, they are all well worth reading, and some are exceptional.

The first, on Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, provides a good start by virtue of its unconventional approach; Barnes enumerates what he did not paint, and the effects that he was not trying to create, thereby arriving at his conclusions as to the inner painting, or its “secret”.

Although commendable, there are some oddities buried within it, most particularly his claim that the “heavy, fast-drying oils he used meant that each section, once begun, had to be completed that day”. A similar account is given in Wikipedia and many online sites which often quote Wikipedia’s words verbatim, but none provides any source for this information.

Whilst not impossible, perhaps by using resin additives, oil paints which dry overnight (alkyds) did not arrive for over a century after this painting was completed.

One possible explanation is Géricault’s extensive use of asphalt/bitumen, which solidifies but does not actually dry at lower temperatures. Barnes appears surprised at the use and effect of asphalt/bitumen in this painting, but its use was extensive even much later in the nineteenth century, and its adverse effects are widespread across the works of many artists of the day.

One curious omission from this account is the enormous size of this painting: it is around 5 by 7 metres, which even by Louvre standards is a very large canvas. Each time that I have seen it, I am consistently stopped in my tracks by its size.

More serious, though, is the omission of any reproduction of the complete painting, despite the publisher’s promise that this book is “fully illustrated in colour throughout”. This chapter provides us with a small image of one of the many studies made by Géricault, and two of details of the finished painting.

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-9), oil on canvas, 491 x 716 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. WikiArt.
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-9), oil on canvas, 491 x 716 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. WikiArt.

This is a problem common to the whole book, in that Barnes frequently rattles through a clutch of paintings, none of which is to be found.

To follow this and subsequent essays properly, you will therefore need to be sat at your computer and be surrounded by books (to cover those artists whose work is still in copyright). And as is too typical of print media, no links are provided to guide you to good images of the many missing works. I found this intensely frustrating, as Barnes refers to intimate details without giving us the aid of pen portraits, making good illustrations essential.

One final issue which this essay raises but does not, to me, properly resolve is the glaring contradiction between the muscular physique of the figures shown on the raft, and the reality of what Géricault was intending to depict, which remains its greatest enigma.

The second essay, on Delacroix, reveals the book’s only real limitation (apart from the shortage of pictures), that it is a literary work which often concentrates on the literary periphery of the works of art which it covers.

This essay, for instance, focuses more on Delacroix’s diary – an important and excellent subject – than on his works. If you were hoping for an analysis of The Death of Sardanapalus, for example, then you must look elsewhere. However Barnes does draw a vivid contrast between the extravagance and passion of Delacroix’s paintings and his calm, tranquil life, touching too on the continuing conflict between colour and line.

Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), oil on canvas, 392 x 496 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. WikiArt.
Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), oil on canvas, 392 x 496 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. WikiArt.

Courbet is the apposite and opposite subject of the third essay. I was here surprised by Barnes’ love for Courbet’s cum-shot porn, notably the vastly over-rated The Origin of the World, whose murky history (which I think gives deeper insight into the human condition) he does not explore. Neither does he delve into Courbet’s motivation for his stream of erotic works.

Barnes does detail Courbet’s egomania and obsessive self-promotion, but stops short of looking properly at his more worthy paintings.

The fourth essay on Manet is one of the best here, if rooted squarely in the literary again. He aptly summarises Manet’s works as being “restless and uneven”. However some of his most interesting evidence comes from comparison of the three surviving versions of The Execution of Maximilian, none of which is shown in its entirety, making the discussion impossible to follow without external aid. Barnes left me still pondering why this work was censored, though.

I found the fifth essay, about four (originally five) group portraits by Fantin-Latour, rather heavier going. This appears to be based on a 2012 book by Bridget Alsdorf, and perhaps if it had aroused more interest in me I would be chasing off to buy a copy. However if you are interested in such group portraits and are familiar with these works, I am sure that you would find it worthwhile.

The sixth essay on Cézanne also seems written around a book, this time Alex Danchev’s excellent if confusingly non-linear biography (2012). Literary references here extend to John Updike and Virginia Woolf. He again leaves the final and perhaps most important question unanswered, whether our daily vision has become truly Cézannified.

Barnes moves on to consider Degas in the seventh essay, which is for me another high point in this book. He writes forcefully about the peremptory and prejudiced dismissal of Degas’ work by critics, and the deception of single-artist exhibitions. He concludes that “Degas plainly loved women”, and was neither a misogynist nor voyeur, but engaged in “portraiture of the body as form”: I agree completely, and hope that you will find his case well put. He praises most perceptively The Millinery Shop (1879-84), but neither that nor the key Woman at her Bath (1893-8) is shown.

The theme of the eighth essay, on Odilon Redon, is whether we can deduce the marital status of an artist from their work. Although I feel that he perhaps unfairly limits himself to Redon’s later work, he establishes the incongruity between Redon’s art and life. Again this would have been greatly aided by images of sufficient examples of his work.

The ninth essay, on Bonnard, tackles the question “what’s he doing, shut up with this woman, painting her 385 times?” In his lucid explanation of the answer, he throws us the superb line: “Picasso is the bouncer at the door of Modernism.”

Although it starts with a couple of pages about Piero della Francesca, the tenth essay is actually about Vuillard. Centred on his biography, which seems very empty, I am not familiar with the paintings discussed and found this more frustrating. I was also left with the mystery of his preference for distemper paints, and the persistent feeling that the Nabis were nothing more than a minor passing phase between Impressionism and the twentieth century.

The eleventh essay is about another painter who I am not very familiar with, Vallotton. Barnes’ literary orientation becomes stronger again here, with tales from a writing class, and a painting entitled The Lie.

Barnes is in the ascendant again in the twelfth essay, on Braque, even though there is no picture showing his Fauvist work, and he writes surprisingly little about Braque’s paintings.

I relish another of his apposite statements for discussion, that “brushstrokes may slip representationalism, but words do so at their peril.” (p 201.) I would love to read Barnes’s justification for the first part of that statement, and hope that one day he will rise to that challenge.

When so many other collections start running out of steam, this just gets better and better. The thirteenth essay, on Magritte, is written around Sylvester’s monograph of 1992, and covers some fascinating ground. There is an exemplary paragraph criticising the assertions so often made by critics, and praising the value of “perhapsiness”, which should (perhaps) appear as a frontispiece in every book which tries to interpret what an artist was about.

Another finely-written passage which bears pondering is: “There is no point […] in wanting artists to be different from the selves that they have spent a long time finding.” (p 210.) Although this essay is better illustrated than most, the few works shown are but a small fraction of those discussed.

The fourteenth essay, on Oldenburg, seemed a slight lull in Barnes’ development, but furnished two further quotations for the collection. “In truth, Oldenburg’s work is about as political as a hot dog, and as mystical as a Hoover.” “Most Pop Art is art in a loose, trivial or jesting way.” (p 224.)

The fifteenth is a slight departure again, in considering the question “what is art?” Although a severely hackneyed topic (“that old, tediously repeated question” as he puts it), Barnes approaches this through a carefully researched and written essay on body casts. The outcome may not be particularly revelatory, and he only hints at aesthetics, but it makes for another worthwhile read.

For me, the sixteenth essay is the most brilliant in the book, exploring Lucian Freud‘s episodicism versus narrativism, and is probably the most insightful examination of portraiture that I have read.

It does though contain a rare editorial error, in that the title given on page 237 of the text is The Painter in His Studio (c 1629), but that of the caption to the image of Rembrandt’s painting is Artist in his Studio (p 238). There is also an inaccuracy in Barnes’ otherwise faultless description of light giving the edge of the canvas “a glittering vertical line” where that edge is not even near-vertical.

The essays conclude with the seventeenth, on Howard Hodgkin, a close friend and travelling companion of Barnes. This is richly literary, appropriately as Barnes sees Hodgkin as “a writer’s painter”. There is extensive use of Flaubert, and colour in words, but he avoids getting to grips with any of Hodgkin’s paintings.

Instead he seems to deliberately shoot himself in the foot with an opening series of quotations which state how words should not be used to explain art. Thus Barnes leaves us with the greatest enigma in all these carefully crafted essays, which is perhaps (sic) emphasised by the stinginess of the volume’s illustrations.

There is one remaining slight disappointment, in the list of illustrations at the back, which lacks traditional details such as media and size.


I hope that I have got the message across that this is an important collection of essays which are extremely well written, and well worth reading, and reading again. It may lack the art historian’s profuse footnotes (in doing so rendering it eminently readable), and its emphasis is generally on the literary, but everyone interested in art should keep a copy to hand. Particularly when they need a fresh and apposite quotation.

All I wish for now is that the publisher will offer us a more sumptuously illustrated edition, which the text so badly needs, and that Julian Barnes continues to write essays on art. I eagerly look forward to both.