cover image Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art

Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art

Julian Barnes. Knopf, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-1-101-87478-3

In these sharply observed essays, English novelist Barnes (Sense of an Ending), levels his fine critical eye at the visual arts, principally focusing on French painting and the transition from romanticism to modernism. The Booker Prize–winning novelist first wrote about art for his novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), which contains a study of Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa; that study is this collection’s stirring opener. French art remains Barnes’s forte, and the book includes pieces on Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet, Odilon Redon, and Georges Braque. He submits thoughts on these and other artists with sentences that coolly snap and continually delight. In his wonderful study of Edgar Degas’s portrayals of women, Barnes knocks down the charge of misogyny and shows an argumentative spirit that is somewhat wanting in other places. “Do you constantly and obsessively fret at the representation of something you dislike or despise?” he provocatively asks. Barnes also revisits Édouard Vuillard’s late paintings and Henri Fantin-Latour’s star-studded group portraits; vividly brings out the crude bravado of Gustave Courbet, “a great painter, but also a serious publicity act”; and questions some of the more astronomical praise of Paul Cézanne. He is equally deft on non-French artists, too. Pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s work is “about as political as a hot dog,” and Lucian Freud’s pictures are exclusively about the “here and now.” 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. Illus. (Oct.)