It does what it says on the tin, the book is a collection of essays on art. Most of them have been published before and they were written over several years, which makes it surprising that this book feels as coherent as it does.
I started reading this book when all the bad news was just too much and I couldn’t focus on fiction. I usually use literature as my escape, but f I need something stronger then art is my thing. Also this book being a collection of essays, rather than a continuous narrative was exactly what I needed.
Each essay is devoted to one painter and they are organized chronologically, so we start with Géricault and finish with Howard Hodgkin. The usual start point for Barnes is one of the artist’s paintings, from there he goes on to add more details about their life and personality, or about the history of the painting. This often leads him to the most interesting part for me – the general considerations about art.
The essay form allows Barnes to avoid the rigor of academic writing about art, he is free to roam, express his opinions, joke and not know things and he’s using this freedom in the best way possible, the essays are thoughtful but also entertaining. He tries to decode the creative process and decisions the painters made from the final work of art. Invites us to imagine alternative solutions for some of them, so we can understand why the painting in its final form looks the way it does – a result of many decisions taken along the way.
He analyses how we interact with art, how tiresome the blockbuster exhibitions can be, how curators manipulate us when putting together an exhibition. He wonders if it is important for us to know what kind of person the painter was to understand their art, for example is it important to know if Degas hated women or not for us to appreciate his art? I also realized that once we know something there is no way to unknow it, it will always impact the way we look at art.
Barnes writes in an entertaining way, throwing in juicy anecdotes, also as he gets closer to modern art he does not hesitate to let his opinions show, which is great, because art is personal and the fact that something is in a museum does not make it great by default, as viewers we have to remain critical and form our own opinions.
I enjoyed this book a lot and would have probably enjoyed it more in paper form, able to see the paintings in colour without googling them.
Here is the list of artists mentioned in the essays: Géricault, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Fantin-Latour, Cézanne, Degas, Redon, Bonnard, Vuillard, Vallotton, Braque, Magritte, Oldenburg, Freud, Hodgkin.
I’m also planning a ‘visual quotes’ post with one piece that I liked by each of the artists, so keep an eye open for that. (…I know it’s an awful pun.)
Visual quotes from Keeping an Eye Open
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska