The British painter Howard Hodgkin came to the Frick Collection some years ago to lecture. After pained attempts to deliver a prepared talk, he abandoned his notes for a monologue. Zig-zagging through art in general, his own work, and the historical canon, he came to that curious contemporary genre: art writing. Hodgkin dismissed legions of contemporary art writers with one sentence: “Too many people think they can write without ever having had to read.” It was a nimble curtsy to his longtime friend Julian Barnes.
Booker-winning novelist and decorated Francophile, Barnes is a keen, absorbent reader. His writing is a measure of the breadth and pitch of his reading. And he said as much in Through the Window:
I have lived in books, for books, by and with books. . . . And it was through books that I first . . . encountered that deeply intimate bond made when a writer’s voice gets inside a reader’s head.
The voices in his head are mainly French, Flaubert in the lead. From them come the depth and carry of Barnes’s own prose. He takes painting into custody as cover for his own working process. What he keeps his eye open for, in looking at art, are opportunities to put words to work—and he does it with dazzling efficacy. Whoever comes to this publisher’s bouquet to develop an eye for art will not be disappointed. But blessed are those who come to calibrate their ear for language. They will be exhilarated.
All but one of the 17 pieces gathered here are commissions that appeared between 1993 and 2013. The single exception, a tour of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, was born as a segment of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Barnes’s 1989 novel-of-a-sort. Discount collegial tact toward Alex Danchev, a fellow contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. Take Barnes’s fond tribute to Hodgkin (“a writer’s painter”) as a lively specimen of the creative writing that makes painting irresistible to wordsmiths. In the main, though, these essays remain wonderfully free of that mannered oddity—discourse production—that fuels standard art writing. All testify to John Cheever’s claim that “the first canon of aesthetics is interest.”
Stay awhile with “Géricault: Catastrophe into Art,” the writer’s first excursion into pictures. It showcases the demands of composition—painted or written—with a deft combination of two tellings at once. A chronicle of the nightmare saga of the doomed Medusa and her luckless crew annexes authorial delight in the subservience of life to art. Harrowing and witty by turns, two divergent moods penetrate each other in support of Barnes’s own contention that historians—artists themselves—“keep a few true facts and spin a new story around them.”
Géricault did his homework on the 1816 shipwreck. He read survivor accounts and adjusted historical details to heighten the emotional and allegorical tenor of his painting. Barnes, too, read eyewitness testimony, holding historic events against details chosen for depiction. He weighs the significance of facts kept to those omitted. With a novelist’s eye for the narrative hook, he winnows what his own art needs from a 13-day hell of storms, delirium, mutiny, murder, and cannibalism that reduced 150 castaways to 15.
The actual raft was too weighted to float on the surface of the water. It was submerged a full meter, leaving terrified occupants herded together up to their hips in the sea. Yet the painting shows it riding the waves. Why? Because “what is true is not necessarily convincing.” Géricault discarded his preliminary sketch of an act of cannibalism: “Tone was always going to be a problem here.”
A pioneer of art’s turn from neoclassicism toward realism, Géricault went to a morgue to study the skin tones of the dead. Where is any corresponding verisimilitude in the bodies of his starved and dehydrated castoffs? Why the classicized, Michelangelesque muscularity of survivors and cadavers alike? How come the central figure at the apex of the painting is African, a seemingly inappropriate choice? Why omit Géricault’s test sail at sea on a scale model of the Medusa? Leave all that for an art historian. A novelist cares only for the narrative potential of the incident:
Why did it happen, this mad act of Nature, this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that is what catastrophe is for.