Art rarely floats free of biography - or autobiography, for that matter

Michael Prodger on new books from Julian Barnes and Michael Craig-Martin.

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Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art
Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £16.99

On Being an Artist
Michael Craig-Martin
Art/Books, 304pp, £22.50

Gustave Flaubert once stated, “Explaining one artistic form by means of another is a monstrosity. You won’t find a single good painting in all the museums of the world which needs a commentary.” Flaubert is Julian Barnes’s abiding hero, whose words have the writ of law, but despite noting this stricture approvingly, Barnes has always ignored it.

Keeping an Eye Open is a book of monstrosities, a series of 17 essays on art and artists written by Barnes over the years and here collected for the first time. He was, he confesses, a slow starter because he believed: “By being solemn, [art] took the excitement out of life.” He discovered that this wasn’t the case when he spent a year in Paris between school and university and came across the symbolist paintings of Gustave Moreau. He first wrote properly about art in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (its disquisition on Théodore Géricault’s disaster painting Raft of the Medusa is included here) and he has been an occasional critic ever since. His chosen painters are largely 19th- and early-20th-century Frenchmen – the likes of Delacroix and Courbet and petits-maîtres such as Fantin-Latour and Bonnard (with Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin thrown in for good measure). His interest lies in the way that French art “made its way from Romanticism to realism and into modernism”.

The essays, as one would expect, are high-quality affairs – thoughtful, discursive, highly wrought and full of aperçus. In these qualities, they resemble the writings of Anita Brookner, whose Hotel du Lac pipped his Flaubert’s Parrot to the 1984 Booker Prize. Curiously, just as he ignored Flaubert’s instruction, Barnes ignores his own high-mindedness. He insists throughout on his belief that art is all about the paintings and not the painter (“as if you go to an exhibition in order to get to know the artists better, rather than to get to know the art better . . .”), but because he can’t escape being a writer (“Artists are what they are, what they can and must be”) he returns again and again to the “creeping anecdotalism” and biographical stories that he disparages.

So, for every insight (that everything in Bonnard’s paintings “seems to take place a few hours either side of lunchtime”, or that for Cézanne art “had a parallel existence to life rather than an imitative dependence on it”), there is an often fruity fact about the artist’s life. He relates dismissively – but he relates it nonetheless – that a newly discovered bit of 19th-century gossip suggests that Degas’s genitals were underwhelming (a “lack of amorous means”) and that this affected the way he painted women. He notes that Bonnard, who obsessively painted his wife, Marthe, in the bath, had an affair with a younger painter, Renée Monchaty, who committed suicide. He describes Courbet’s horrible death: alcohol caused him to swell to such an extent that he was “tapped” of 20 litres of liquid. And in a piece of autobiography, he confesses, “It would be a very disturbed schoolboy who successfully masturbated to a book of Freud nudes.” That “successfully” seems telling.

Throughout these essays, Barnes uses art as a way of getting to know not just his chosen artists better but himself, too. When discussing Delacroix, the most unromantic of Romantics, he describes how he “faced the world with an exquisite cold courtesy” and that the painter was a “self-defended man”. He quotes Félix Vallotton’s observation: “All my life I shall have been one who sees life through a window.” The subject of these sentences (and there are plenty more) could be Barnes himself. This strand in no way undermines the elegance of the essays or the quality of his observations – if only all art writing were as good as this – but, because of it, when he states that “Art tends, sooner or later, to float free of biography,” you want to respond that no, it doesn’t, and it rarely floats free of autobiography, either.

If Barnes is an aficionado, Michael Craig-Martin is a practitioner. He is a sculptor and painter who, as a tutor in the art department of Goldsmiths, was a guru to the Young British Artists. He is also the “co-ordinator” of this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. On Being an Artist is less a unified manifesto than a compilation of “fragmented notes” written over his long career, part autobiography and part pensées. His writing resembles his art: simple, direct and, it must be said, often dealing with the mundane.

There are few hints here to show why he has been such an influential teacher. He admires Duchamp and Warhol and thinks life drawing is a dubious skill (“I oppose the idea that [it] should underlie all art practice”). His marriage gets only one page, as does his subsequent coming out as gay, but then topics such as “controversy” and “taking risks” are allotted only five lines apiece. It is disappointing, though hardly surprising, that there is little here on his motivation, inspiration or what he wants his art to do – the very questions Barnes is so adept at suggesting answers for.

Craig-Martin describes his linear drawing style as being the equivalent of objects such as light bulbs that are “not designed”. It is a description that covers this only intermittently interesting book, too. 

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition