As Julian Barnes himself admits, writing about something visual in art is not just difficult but, in some people eyes notably Degas , worthless. His essays have however been critically acclaimed and I was curious to read them. Where would they be pitched: at the cognoscenti, the literati, or the Julian Barnes fan? I like to think that I am a bit of each having read and enjoyed many of his novels and essays, notably the one on Lloyds.
He writes on many painters, mainly French, in a scholarly and well researched way. He often refers to biographies he has read of a painter. He describes their use of paint and colour, he is no dilitante yet he adopts prose style you do not usually find in art books. He must be the first to use “fist-fucking” or write of a Lucian Freud nude “Non boy would masturbate over it”. This may be true, but for me it jars. He can also be dismissive – consigning Dufy away in one sentence: “Never improved on his postcards.”
In the first chapter, when he narrates beautifully the shipwreck that Gerichaut painted, I thought I was about to read a masterpiece where he first describes the subject matter then the painting. This is not maintained. The essay on Lucian Freud contains numerous references to Flaubert, the relevance of which is unclear, and to Martin Gayford’ s account of sitting for him. The chapter on Delacroix and Ingres was about line (Ingres) and colour (Delacroix) but, unless I missed something, I found little else of substance. However the essay on Braque – describing his life, fauvism and cubism – was quite brilliant.
A practical problem is that pictures of the paintings do not appear well on a Kindle. I “read” it in audio and the reader’s use of accent got on my nerves. By the end when Barrnes assesses his good friend HH (Howard. Hodgkkin ) I found myself posing another question namely why did Barnes write these essays? Is it to show that he is more than a successful writer ? Could he convince his publisher and agent that these essays are readable and bankable ? Is he a genuine scholar of the arts as well as the written word? Agains perhaps it’s a mixture but one question I can definitely answer is that the reader will not be disappointed.