The writer’s new book of criticism is for the reader who “isn’t a professional and isn’t an academic and doesn’t have a theory to promote.”
Julian Barnes says that, while he “has taught himself a fair amount about painting over fifty years,” he “only really has one shot in his locker about each painter.” He told me this on a recent afternoon, at his home in London. We were talking about his new book, “Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art,” a selection of articles that previously appeared in a variety of publications over the last few decades. “When I get asked to, say, review a biography of Braque or go and see a show of Manet, I think, I’ve only got one go at this, because I don’t have more than that amount of thoughts about the person,” he said.
Barnes did not study art in school. He leaves his perch near the Hampstead Heath and visits the Courtauld Institute, in central London, from time to time. He also goes to museums when he travels for readings. The pieces in the book are “intended to address the reader who enjoys art in the same way that I do, and isn’t a professional and isn’t an academic and doesn’t have a theory to promote,” he said. “So, in a way—in that way—they relate to my fiction, which I also think of as being companionable and untheoretical.”
The first piece in the new book can also be found, in fact, among his fiction: “Géricault: Catastrophe into Art” is part of “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters,” Barnes’s 1989 book, typically classified as a novel. (There, the piece is titled “Shipwreck.” It also ran as a story in this magazine.) The essay concerns Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-1819), which depicts the 1816 wreck of a French naval frigate. Géricault does not show the final scene of rescue, but rather a previous almost-rescue, and he shows the men on the boat as strong and energetic, rather than as the tired, defeated, starving men they surely were. According to Barnes, Géricault’s painting has misinformed our understanding of the event ever since. “It is because the figures are sturdy enough to transmit such power that the canvas unlooses in us deeper, submarinous emotions,” Barnes writes. “The painting has slipped history’s anchor.”
Géricault’s painting has misinformed our understanding of the event ever since.
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