PPoetry and painting were once called “the brother arts”, although this comfortable phrase ignores the sibling rivalry between them. The verbal and the visual operate in different dimensions: the language unfolds in time, but the painted imagery is static and occupies space, which is why Cézanne indignantly asks a model who is not content to be a still life: “Does an apple move?
Flaubert thought that painting should strike the spectator dumb, because it does not require any verbose exegesis. Julian Barnes, defying the embargo in these collected essays, views his chosen artists with the eye of a novelist – chastised because paint can “return emotional states and complexities normally conveyed at length in novels by means of color , tone, density, focus, framing, whirlwind, intensity, delight”, but also concerned with justifying his own art by discovering an offbeat literary character behind the faces painted by Manet and Bonnard or by teasing stories about moments frozen by Courbet and Degas.
Writers, admits Barnes, “envy other forms.” Painting “combines the means of expression and expression itself”, music has an ecstatic eloquence, and none needs “the painful intervention of words”. But envy is a healthy and, indeed, obligatory vice for an artist, and in any case Barnes’ own words never work. Or if they do, it’s because they link us to reality: hence his contempt for the “coagulated chatter” of the “cubist prose” in which Gertrude Stein tries to explain Picasso.
Despite his remark on the brutality of language, Barnes’s essays abound with vivid pictorial verbal imagery. The flex of an antique telephone in a painting by Vuillard, for example, “frolics exotically across the carpet like an Amazonian snake.” Barnes’ scrutiny of the feet of the firing squad in Manet The execution of Maximilian suggests that he could expand this single, fatal moment into a voluminous historical novel. Noticing the “splay-footed comfort” of the soldiers, he assumes that a non-commissioned officer has just told them to relax their posture, as if they were hunting game and not killing an emperor.
When he looks The portrait of Zola by Manet, Barnes basks in the sharp white spot blazing on the page of a book the novelist is reading. Here, he suggests, is a moment of “reverse envy,” when a painter pays homage to the illuminating clarity of words. And what painter – who can only wait a minute or two for our attention as we wander through a gallery – wouldn’t be jealous of the hours, days and even weeks we devote to reading novels? This commitment prompted the mystical painter Odilon Redon to declare that literature was after all “the greatest art”. Braque, says Barnes, “painted space”, not the objects it contained circumstantially; but writers enjoy a greater and more continuous freedom of time, and Barnes grants this romantic duration to Vuillard, whose paintings “both offer (and retain) a narrative”, as if the characters in them had “a life beyond the painting that depicts them”.
In a brilliant essay on Lucian Freud, Barnes gives this literary temporality a moral force. Freud took his time on his portraits, wearing down his sitters by wearing them down: he expected Hockney to sit for a hundred hours spread over four months, then in return gave his colleague two afternoons for a reciprocal sitting. According to Barnes, Freud lived from moment to moment, never recognizing that as we move from the past into the future, we take on responsibilities and develop connections with other people. He went through several mistresses, left behind a litter of illegitimate children, and abruptly called off old friendships, casually assuming “one thing happens, then another thing”: the experiment was a series of episodes, not a story. Novelists are timekeepers and recording angels who call us to account, and Barnes’ judgment of Freud, so “imperious in its perversity,” is grim.
Barnes concedes that “artists are what they are, what they can and should be”. But acceptance does not mean approval, and in these essays there is a recurring collision between two opposing types of artistic persona. Ingres and Delacroix almost come to blows, respectively defending the primacy of the line – which for Ingres meant honor and honesty – and shamelessly sensual color. Then Cézanne, with his “deeply private” affective life, is opposed to Picasso, “a camera lover and concupiscent”; later, the contrast is between Braque “rural, domestic and uxorious” and Picasso, who is now called “cosmopolitan, voracious and Dionysiac”. The same typology, oddly enough, fits Barnes and his former best friend, Martin Amis.
This competition between tortoises and hares refers to an aesthetic theory. Barnes discredits the presumption of art to recreate the world, as in Courbet’s self-deifying panorama of his studio, and I suspect he might now disavow his claim, made about Géricault The Raft of the Medusa in his novel A history of the world in 10½ chapters, that the purpose of art is to dramatize the catastrophe. Nor should art indulge in sordid self-exhibition: Barnes sniffs Tracey Emin’s messy bed. Instead, he modestly expects art to be “fun,” as it was for the Bauhaus pranksters and Magritte with his “jokes and whistles.”
Picasso had bouts of machismo, “throwing sand in the face of nature” and tormenting or crucifying dull reality. Wisely and quietly, Barnes points out that “all artists’ worlds depend…on the first we inhabit” – the world whose content is cataloged by prose – and he embraces art both in “its major forms and subsidiary, from painting to fiction via landscaped garden to kitchen”. Barnes is fascinated by the fittings of the bourgeois interiors of Vuillard: the pot of sharpened pencils on the desk of Madame Lanvin the seamstress, her neat account books and the metal drawers that are his chests. Furniture is also art, art on which you sit or lie down to get comfortable, and Bonnard sends his most tender compliment to his wife , Marthe – who tangles with the kitchenware and bath mats in their apartment – when he makes her “in the most pleasant and vibrant way, part of the furniture”.
In his pop manifesto, Claes Oldenburg, the sculptor of soft monuments and plushes, claimed “an art that is put on and taken off like pants” or “is eaten, like a piece of cake”. Barnes extends this joyful, demotic credo by calling for “art that cradles you, that gives you a visual gargle.” I’m not sure what a visual gargle would look or sound like, and I’ve never been consciously goose, but this, expressed more comically, is what the old-fashioned humanists meant when they said that art should “enhance life”. , and it’s hard to disagree.
“Enough words,” Barnes says, dismissively, at the end of a humorous and deferential attempt to describe Howard Hodgkin’s paintings, which often have literary titles but are always bafflingly unrepresented. Enough words? Not if they belong to Barnes.
Keeping an Eye Out by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). To order a copy for £13.59 go to bookstore.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK postage over £10, online orders only. Telephone orders min. p&p from £1.99.