Keeping an Eye Open : Essays on Art
by Julian Barnes

Overview - An extraordinary collection--hawk-eyed and understanding--from the Man Booker Prize-winning, best-selling author of The Sense of an Ending and Levels of Life .
As Julian Barnes notes: -Flaubert believed that it was impossible to explain one art form in terms of another, and that great paintings required no words of explanation.

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More About Keeping an Eye Open by Julian Barnes
An extraordinary collection--hawk-eyed and understanding--from the Man Booker Prize-winning, best-selling author of The Sense of an Ending and Levels of Life.
As Julian Barnes notes: -Flaubert believed that it was impossible to explain one art form in terms of another, and that great paintings required no words of explanation. Braque thought the ideal state would be reached when we said nothing at all in front of a painting . . . But it is a rare picture that stuns, or argues, us into silence. 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.-
This is the exact dynamic that informs his new book. In his 1989 novel A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters, Barnes had a chapter on Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa, and since then he has written about many great masters of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, including Delacroix, Manet, Fantin-Latour, Cezanne, Degas, Redon, Bonnard, Vuillard, Vallotton, Braque, Magritte, Oldenburg, Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin. The seventeen essays gathered here help trace the arc from Romanticism to Realism and into Modernism; they are adroit, insightful and, above all, a true pleasure to read.

  • ISBN-13: 9781101874783
  • ISBN-10: 1101874783
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publish Date: October 2015
  • Page Count: 288
  • Dimensions: 8.6 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Art > Criticism & Theory
Books > Art > History - Modern (Late 19th Century to 1945)

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2015-06-22
  • Reviewer: Staff

In these sharply observed essays, English novelist Barnes (Sense of an Ending), levels a fine critical eye at the visual arts, principally focusing on French painting and the transition from romanticism to modernism. The Booker Prize–winning novelist first wrote about art for his novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), which contains a study of Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa; that study is this collection’s stirring opener. French art remains Barnes’s forte, and the book includes pieces on Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet, Odilon Redon, and Georges Braque. He submits thoughts on these and other artists with sentences that coolly snap and continually delight. In his wonderful study of Edgar Degas’s portrayals of women, Barnes knocks down the charge of misogyny and shows an argumentative spirit that is somewhat wanting in other places. “Do you constantly and obsessively fret at the representation of something you dislike or despise?” he provocatively asks. Barnes also revisits Édouard Vuillard’s late paintings and Henri Fantin-Latour’s star-studded group portraits; vividly brings out the crude bravado of Gustave Courbet, “a great painter, but also a serious publicity act”; and questions some of the more astronomical praise of Paul Cézanne. He is equally deft on non-French artists, too. Pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s work is “about as political as a hot dog,” and Lucian Freud’s pictures are exclusively about the “here and now.” It’s both a pleasure and an education to look over Barnes’s shoulder as he interrogates, wonders at, and relishes works of art. He’s a critic who prioritizes the objects themselves, and his work is always satisfying. Illus. (Oct.)

BookPage Reviews

Capturing moments in time

Discover the glorious Renaissance days of Florence, peek at Picasso’s paintbrushes or catch Mick Jagger poised between boyhood and manhood. Whether you’re a serious art scholar or a casual admirer, these books offer something for everyone.

Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743 is an art lover’s dream come true—a collection of nearly 2,000 images that includes every painting and fresco on display in the Uffizi, the Galleria Palatina of the Pitti Palace, the Accademia and the Duomo, and works from 28 additional museums and churches. Arranged chronologically, the masterpieces are accompanied by seven comprehensive essays by art historian Ross King, as well as shorter discussions by art history professor Anja Grebe of the University of Freiburg in Germany.

It’s fascinating to see these treasures of the Western world collected in one volume, with page after page of magnificence, including the works of Uccello, da Vinci, Correggio, Titian, Michelangelo and more. You won’t have a better tour unless you visit the city itself—and even then, reading this book first would be worthwhile. 

Near the end of photographer Cecil Beaton’s life, Sotheby’s acquired 100,000 of his photographs and negatives. Editor Mark Holborn sifted through this vast studio archive to create the truly monumental Beaton Photographs. The deservedly weighty volume is not only an amazing record of a brilliant career, it’s a history lesson as well, beginning with 1920s portraits of Beaton’s sisters at the beach and stretching into the ’60s and ’70s, with mesmerizing photos of Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and Tom Wolfe. In between, this photographer of remarkable range captured the royal family, Fred Astaire, Truman Capote, Grace Kelly, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor and more. Particularly fascinating are his shots of London ruins during World War II (sometimes with a model in their midst) and portraits of Pablo Picasso in his studio. 

As Annie Leibovitz writes in her introduction, Beaton “was a journalist, an artist, a set and costume designer, a memoirist, a historian, an actor. All of this went into his portraits. How can one not be impressed with what he accomplished?”

When Brandon Stanton started photographing strangers on the streets of New York City in 2010, he was certainly onto something. He follows up his best-selling first book with the similarly titled Humans of New York: Stories. It follows the same format, with a variety of anonymous photographs accompanied by the subjects’ own words, offering intriguing glimpses into the worlds of strangers: young, old, parents, children, rich, homeless. These “stories” never stray from Stanton’s winning format of anonymity and brevity. For instance, one woman discusses the stark contrast between her sister’s manic and depressive episodes, admitting that she envies her sister’s freedom during the mania: “I’d almost like to join her and run around the city if only she could keep it from spinning out of control.” These longer stories contrast nicely with one-liners, such as the photo of a man’s wrist encircled by a hospital bracelet. “They told me I was fine,” the man says.

This is people-watching at its best, without the guilt of being discovered. 

Copyright © 2015 Brandon Stanton. From Humans of New York: Stories, reprinted with permission from St. Martin's.

British novelist Julian Barnes didn’t start out as an art lover, but over the years he evolved into one, as revealed in Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art. Each of the 17 essays in this collection explores an individual artist, ranging from Géricault and Delacroix to Magritte and Barnes’ personal friend, British abstract painter Howard Hodgkin. 

Barnes often muses on the relationship between viewing art and discussing it: “Braque thought the ideal state would be reached when we said nothing at all in front of a painting. But we are very far from reaching that ideal state. . . . Put us in front of a picture and we chatter, each in our different way.” He writes about art in a perceptive and often humorous way. He contrasts how Manet told his models to be natural, talk, laugh and move, while Cezanne demanded “guardsmanlike” stillness. As a result, Cezanne’s portraits are like still lifes, unintended “to catch a mood, a passing glance, a fugitive moment which releases the sitter’s personality out towards the spectator.”

Art enthusiasts will find Barnes’ artistic journey edifying and enjoyable.

Art historian Robert Cumming acts as an efficient museum guide in Art: A Visual History, an updated version of the previously released Eyewitness Companion: Art. While working in London’s Tate Gallery, Cumming learned that museumgoers want answers to three questions: “What should I look for?”; “What is going on?”; and “How was it made?” This handy compendium concisely answers these questions about more than 650 artists, arranged chronologically and interspersed with short discussions of Western art periods and movements. Key works are listed for each artist, which is uniquely helpful for those wanting to investigate further. As with all DK books, the visuals are striking; the volume’s sturdy slipcase, shaped like an artist’s palette, adds to the appeal. Art can be used as a refresher course for rusty art lovers, as well as a comprehensive starting point for serious beginners.

BAM Customer Reviews