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Mining the Unknown in Julian Barnes and John Berger’s Essays on Art

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Left: John Berger, ‘Portraits: John Berger on Artists’ (2015), edited by Tom Overton (image courtesy Verso Books); right: Julian Barnes, ‘Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art’ (2015) (image courtesy Knopf)

Underlying Julian Barnes‘s and John Berger’s respective new collections on art, Keeping an Eye Open and Portraits, is the notion that we’re still figuring out how to engage with and portray the past. Both books are similarly structured, with chapters dedicated to individual artists, many of whom overlap between the two. Both writers, white and British, lean toward painting by white European men (Barnes inexcusably fails to discuss a single woman artist and Berger does not reach a woman until page 335 of 502, with Frida Kahlo) and have a general aversion to contemporary art. These are writers who largely reinforce the art historical canon, with a few exceptions from Berger, who’s gotten away with writing about established artists by framing them in refreshing and politicized ways. It’s also true that Barnes, the novelist, is not assuming the position of an art critic (Berger, who is considered one, despises the term); Barnes’s essays are the result of personal, casual discoveries he made within the walls of great museums.

While I was torn between sharing an admiration for and being a little tired of the artists Barnes and Berger discuss, these books — especially when placed side by side — nonetheless make the case that we still haven’t exhausted the art in question, because the past, an endless resource for interpretation, will always be partially unknown.

Both writers begin with the moment that transpires between the naked eye and a given artwork: what the eye searches for, what it imposes, what it already knows and doesn’t. Barnes is especially wary of the stories we assign to paintings. “A little biography is a dangerous thing,” he writes in an essay on Pierre Bonnard, who repeatedly portrayed his wife. Barnes claims our tendency to impose artists’ lives on their work is not only irrelevant but oftentimes harmful to our perception of it. He takes up this issue most in depth with Edgar Degas and Édouard Vuillard — the former’s absent sexual life and the recent discovery that the latter had one have led some to believe Degas was a woman hater, while others have revisited Vuillard’s paintings with new romantic narratives. Barnes insists that even as we place such information at the forefront of our minds, “the art itself goes on regardless, above our heads, massive and uncaring.” What’s more, many of these claims, he says, are baseless speculation.

“Perhaps,” Barnes suggests, “instead of looking at an artist’s life and letting it colour or decide our view of his or her art … we should look at things from the opposite direction.” Interestingly, this is what Berger often does in his own writing: he creates a life for the artist around his or her work, building portraits that bridge the imaginative and the factual. He often tries to embody the moment in which the artwork came into being, such as Rembrandt presumably looking at himself in the mirror while painting his self-portraits. Alternatively, Berger inhabits an artist’s environs, which he believes greatly influence a painter’s vision. For instance, the dark, rocky, green landscapes in which Gustave Courbet grew up explain the slivers of sky, the oblique light, and, yes, predominance of rocks in his paintings. But more than that, the setting informs how “there is visual fact but a minimum of visual order” in his imagery.

Impressively, Berger is unafraid to imagine new narratives for famous artworks based primarily on what he sees — such as his theory that “nobody posed” for Francisco Goya’s “The Nude Maja,” which he claims has “the uncanny identity” of and was based on “The Clothed Maja.” Like the observant artists he writes about, Berger is generally convincing. It’s rare for us to depart from the image he’s discussing, even when he’s delivering outside information, whereas Barnes, to allude to his title, keeps one eye seemingly shut, keeping what he perceives and what he learns disconnected and often in opposition.

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Francisco Goya, “The Clothed Maja” (1798–1805) (image courtesy Verso Books)
20.iv Goya The Maja undressed
Francisco Goya, “The Nude Maja” (1797–1800) (image courtesy Verso Books)

With Barnes, this sense that analyzing works of art can feel like a battle — like we have to choose between ways of seeing — stems from a struggle to reconcile our present point of view with images from the past. He often describes the relationship of the viewer to the art or artist as a power dynamic in which the viewer always dominates. “The painting which survives is the one that outlives its own story,” he writes. And elsewhere: “Pictures do escape their creators’ intentions; over time the ‘reader’ does grow more powerful.” Whereas Barnes follows the life art takes after it’s been released from its maker, Berger wishes to restore the art to its maker, even if that means taking imaginative leaps.

This does not mean Berger disregards our present perspective. On the contrary, this is where his political pronouncements become most apparent. In an essay on Matthias Grünewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece” (1512–16), Berger writes:

It is a commonplace that the significance of a work of art changes as it survives. Usually however, this knowledge is used to distinguish between ‘them’ (in the past) and ‘us’ (now). There is a tendency to picture them and their reactions to art as being embedded in history, and at the same time credit ourselves with an over-view, looking across from what we treat as the summit of history. The surviving work of art then seems to confirm our superior position. The aim of its survival was us.

This is illusion. There is no exemption from history.

Matthias Grünewald, "Isenheim Altarpiece" (1512–16) (image courtesy Verso Books)
Matthias Grünewald, “Isenheim Altarpiece” (1512–16) (image courtesy Verso Books)

In articulating why a work still resonates with us, Berger seeks to fill the gap between past and present. “I was anxious to place it [the altarpiece] historically,” he writes. “Now I have been forced to place myself historically.” Oftentimes, this impulse leads him to pessimistic views on the present, comparing the despair of past times to that of our own: for instance, he paints Bosch’s turbulent scene of hell in “The Garden of Earthly Delights” as prophetic of “the clamour of the disparate, fragmentary present.”

Whereas Berger finds clarity in the past, Barnes feels almost stuck in “our current preferences and principles,” which, he says, “are, of course, only current.” In other words, Berger will often trace a continuum between the past and present, whereas Barnes detects a transformation. In his essay on Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1818–19), Barnes notes how, with time, the painting has changed our perception of the real-life shipwreck, leading us to imagine the men as resilient rather than feeble. He then makes an argument that could be seen as at odds with Berger’s: “The painting has slipped history’s anchor …. We don’t just imagine the ferocious miseries on that fatal machine; we don’t just become the sufferers. They become us.” The “deeper, submarinous emotions” stirred inside of us, however distant from the actual events, dictate the painting before us. In a sense, “the aim of its survival was us.”

Théodore Géricault, "The Raft of the Medusa" (1818–19) (image via Wikimedia)
Théodore Géricault, “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818–19) (image via Wikimedia)

Barnes makes the fair point that our contemporary tastes and social norms inevitably influence how we see. But he treats our immediate response as the response, for better or worse. Berger longs for the company of the past. Perhaps we’re dealing with the difference between the mind of a novelist and the mind of a critic: the former does not tether his story to an established reality — he allows his mind wander — whereas the latter wishes to add to or even challenge that reality.

But the differences also seem to boil down to something else: Berger owes the power of an artwork primarily to its maker. In his introduction, he says, in regard to his practice, “I’m always in doubt. One thing, however, I’m sure about, and that is my gratitude to all the artists for their hospitality.” In stressing that the artists he writes about offer him true, honest portrayals of the world — “pulling down the screen of clichés” — his intent is to honor their visions and how they came to be. Whereas Barnes, seeking to communicate the “thrill of life” that art inspires, approaches it from a physical, and therefore personal, place: “does it interest the eye, excite the brain, spur the mind to reflection and move the heart”?

On the one hand, Barnes beautifully articulates the way in which art moves us; on the other, his impulse to not taint his initial reactions can feel at times like playing safe. Berger encourages us to push beyond our initial assessments, not by looking elsewhere but by looking harder. But both, in the end, agree there is only one true “way” to approach art, and that is through silence. “It is a rare picture that stuns, or argues, us into silence,” says Barnes. “And if one does, it is only a short time before we want to explain and understand the very silence into which we have been plunged.” The results, however, are always disappointing: “Painterly achievements are not describable in words,” Berger says. And Barnes: “Those who have eyes know just how irrelevant words are to what they see.” For them, art wins: it will always be superior to whatever stories we create for it — a realization that leaves our writers feeling slightly ashamed (“I suspect writing about art is a vanity,” Berger admits).

Is writing about visual art a futile pursuit? A selfish one? Or is it a means of connecting to the essence of human nature? Probably all of the above. But contrary to what Berger and Barnes seem to believe, their words, rather than acting as lesser substitutes for the art, help us dive into this space of silence that extends deep into the past.

Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art by Julian Barnes, out from Knopf, and Portraits: John Berger on Artists by John Berger and edited by Tom Overton, out from Verso Books, are available on Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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