Those who have read the stories of Julian Barnes will know how often he builds them around real figures in the arts: THE LEMON TABLE contains stories about Turgenev and Sibelius; Sarah Bernhart and the photographer Nadar play major roles in LEVELS OF LIFE; Flaubert gets a whole novel to himself (almost) in FLAUBERT'S PARROT; and a meticulous analysis of Géricault's painting "The Raft of the Medusa" forms the centerpiece of his HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 10½ CHAPTERS. That essay is reprinted here, slightly expanded. It forms the beginning of a sequence of pieces on French-speaking artists of the 19th and 20th centuries -- Géricault, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Fantin-Latour, Cézanne, Degas, Redon, Bonnard, Vuillard, Valloton, Braque, and Magritte -- followed by a few moderns: Claes Oldenburg, Lucian Freud, and Howard Hodgkin. I am finding it utterly addictive.
As a novelist, Barnes has an eye for the telling personal detail: Delacroix in a daze walking home to a house he had moved out of two years earlier; Courbet drinking himself into obesity and death; Cézanne losing his temper with a fidgety sitter. He compares Courbet to Fantin-Latour in terms of their portrayals of the community of artists, and Degas to Bonnard in terms of their attitudes to women; his entry into the proto-Surrealist work of Redon is the question of whether it matters if an artist is married. Littérateur that he is, Barnes also has an ear for what other writers have said about these artists: Maxime Du Camp describing Delacroix sorting skeins of wool; Baudelaire telling Manet "you are only the first in the degeneration of your art"; Huysmans' brilliant description of a Cézanne still life as "skewed fruit in besotted pottery."
But Barnes' approach is by no means entirely biographical. The Géricault essay, for instance, begins with a detailed description of the wreck of the Medusa and the ordeal of the survivors on the raft. He makes excellent points by considering all the episodes in the story that Géricault did NOT paint. But it is when he considers what he DID paint, that extraordinary group of half-naked figures reaching towards the distant ship, that his writing really takes off. He does something similar again in his second essay on Manet, considering the artist's three versions of "The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian" and its role as a political statement, but nonetheless tying it down to precise analysis of details such as the firing squad's hands and feet: "They are feet settling 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 the hips, pretending you're just out for a day's partridge or woodcock...".
"Fully illustrated in colour throughout" says the jacket flap. This is not true. The color illustrations (two or three per essay) are indeed of excellent quality and printed on thick creamy paper.* But they tend to be details rather than the full picture, and often of works peripheral to the artist's more famous oeuvre. I understand the logic of that: Barnes gives you the things that are hard to find, knowing that you can turn to the internet for the rest. I found myself reading with iPad by my side, not only reminding myself of the masterpieces, but also seeking out things that I had never even heard of until Barnes mentioned them. For example Akseli Gallen-Kallela's "Symposium" (1894), "a Munchishly hallucinatory group portrait set at the Kämp Hotel in Helsinki after much drink has been taken." Interesting in that one of stupefied figures is the composer Jean Sibelius, but also because one side of the picture is taken up by "a pair of deep-red raptor's wings. The Mystery of Art has just called in on them, but is now flying away." Barnes' art criticism, like his stories, is full of unexpected trouvailles like that. But the heart of all his essays is his invocation of masterpiece after masterpiece, in words so full of visual detail that you almost do not need the physical reproductions. Almost, but not quite: for only when you look at the pictures do you realize just how right Barnes is, time after time.
I originally wrote the above review (and awarded the five-star rating) when I was halfway through, after the essay on Bonnard. I was not surprised by its quality; Barnes is deeply immersed in the French nineteenth century. Reading on, though, I have to admit that my interest dropped off. Although still full of good observations, the later essays did not always achieve that miraculous balance between art, personality, and history. The essay on Vuillard seemed to miss the man; the one on Vallotton failed to convince about the genius; the piece on Oldenburg gave no good reason why it had been written at all; and the article on Lucian Freud succeeded only in conveying the impression of a very unpleasant individual. But even at the end, there were joys. His piece entitled "So does it become Art?" is Barnes at his best, taking an out-of-the-way subject -- plaster casts of dead bodies in 19th-century France and in our own time -- and deriving some very pertinent questions about the nature of art. And in the last essay of all, "Words for H.H.", Barnes does more for his old friend Howard Hodgkin than for any other artist in the book, by admitting to the limitations of words, and sketching a dance of friendship instead -- and by linking him to his great love of over a century before, the novelist Gustave Flaubert. So to the last line in the book: "So that's enough words." No more are needed.
*My comments on the paper, printing, and quality of the reproductions apply to the British edition. I cannot speak to the American one, which appears to be in a rather different format.
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: JONATHAN CAPE & BH - TRADE; 1 edition (1 May 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 022410201X
- ISBN-13: 978-0224102018
- Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 2.7 x 22.3 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 240 g
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