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Interviews / May 10, 2016

Julian Barnes: There’s No Right Response to a Painting

An interview with acclaimed Man Booker Prize–winning novelist and art critic Julian Barnes about the blockbuster show, Internet outrage and more.
Author and critic Julian Barnes, who will be speaking in Toronto May 31. Photo: Ellen Warner. Author and critic Julian Barnes, who will be speaking in Toronto May 31. Photo: Ellen Warner.

How does art criticism interact with fiction? Can sensitivity to narrative and written language add to a nuanced view of visual art? Such questions are prompted by Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art, a new collection of critical writing by Man Booker Prize–winning British novelist Julian Barnes, which intersperses colour reproductions of paintings by Redon, Vallotton, Braque and more with Barnes’s reflections.

On May 31, Barnes speaks about art and art criticism at a sold-out event in Toronto organized by Canadian Art. Here, David Balzer interviews Barnes about the problems of blockbuster shows, the limitations of didactic panels and the joys of learning to trust one’s own instincts about art.

David Balzer: I wanted to start by going outside the works you write about, as it’s something I became more and more curious about as I read the book. You seem to want to look at the artwork in this hermetic, Platonic space, but I wonder what your opinion is on contemporary exhibition contexts for art-historical works. How do you feel, in general, walking through a contemporary museum or gallery? Do these spaces provide the moments of contemplation necessary for the kind of writing that’s in the book?

Julian Barnes: I’m slightly against the blockbuster show. Most people will go to a large exhibition once. That’s the reality. If you have 300 works, then you’d have to spend five hours there without any fuelling in order to spend one minute with each work. So in that way it’s kind of nonsense. And then of course, because they’re so big, they have to be funded and therefore have to be heavily advertised and preferably slightly vulgarized. Maybe economics will sort this one out, but we’ve noticed since the economic downturn that since museums are getting less money, they tend to run shows for a longer time. It obviously depends on the curator and the show, but there are times when you think, why does every show have to have a thesis? Or, why can’t the thesis be, “There hasn’t been a show of X for 30 years, so we’re going to borrow the best pieces we can, and leave you to think about them.” That would be quite a good way of doing it.

I like very much the idea of the small show about a particular picture or a particular topic. The one that comes to mind is the one on Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian that I wrote about in the book. And that was absolutely brilliant. It was just the right size. You took it all in. They put together those three paintings that had never been put together before. And I think that what I respond to is either something more focused—for instance I went, just before Christmas, to a huge show in Paris called “Prostitution in Paris.” I wrote about it for the London Review of Books. It’s grotesquely unfocussed. It’s enormous. It’s mind-blowingly exhausting, so that by the end you simply can’t take anything more in.

I would like to see more shows that put artists together. I was in Amsterdam and saw a show of Munch and Van Gogh together, in the Van Gogh Museum. And it was brilliantly instructive. Obviously Munch lived longer, but they were born around the same time. We think of them both as, in quotes, “mad painters.” And they painted themselves a large number of times. So you can think of the parallels. But I really had a sense of the public going around, as I was, engaged and stimulated by this picture of the artist in profile, with another artist doing himself in profile, and so on. And they’d intersperse them with a few pictures of what else was going on. Exactly where did their Impressionism come from? I found it very stimulating and attractive.

DB: The phenomenon of didactic panels in contemporary museums is both very interesting and very frustrating to me. I often think, when I read a didactic panel for an art-historical work, Is the information I’m getting on this panel necessary? Where is the information that I actually need? I’d much rather get facts about a painting than interpretation: A bit of history around the painting, relevant biography, information about the technique, and then make interpretive decisions for myself. I wonder, then, for you: What is the ideal didactic that you would like to see next to an art-historical painting? What is necessary and what is unnecessary? 

JB: Depends how much you know and how much you want to know. I always feel sorry for those people who are going around clogging up the view of pictures because they are attached to headsets. I think you should, as far as possible, go in information-blind, decide what you like and why you like it, and then seek the information afterwards. I was at a Goya portrait show in London, and I thought, I don’t want to know if this is the seventeenth Duke of Brobanzo or whatever. And if the woman on the left is his third wife, and the small boy in the front became the eighteenth Duke of Brobanzo or whatever. I just looked at them as pictures. And then funnily enough I thought, Actually, there’s some quite rough stuff here—if some of the didactics said, “Unknown Eighteenth Century Spanish Painter,” you wouldn’t be surprised, but you’re half going around on bended knee because it’s a portrait by Goya.

I think if I was an autocrat or if I could direct people’s tastes, I would say, Don’t be frightened. Don’t think there’s a proper response to this painting which you have to find out first before you can enjoy it. Slabs of information, fed into people while they’re looking at a picture for the first time, might help them to talk about it at dinner the next night, but it doesn’t actually help that moment of aesthetic interaction with a picture.

And then there are some contemporary painters who don’t want anything on the wall, just the pictures themselves. I quite approve of that. Leave us alone with the pictures. The trouble is also physical and technical—technically physical, in that you have to adjust focus in order to read the label; you often have to bend in order to read the label. Then you start reading and think you have to read the whole label. So let’s imagine you have this exemplary 5 hours for a 300-piece show, there’s gone 20 seconds of your one minute with each painting.

I feel in some ways sympathetic to the problem of exhibition curators in that they have to cater to all sorts of different audiences: those who know nothing and those who know quite a lot. Sometimes, if in doubt, they just go for some uncontentious and banal pieces of information. Every so often there’s something you see which really lights it up.

DB: Your book is a compilation of pieces you’ve written so you can’t really ascribe an overarching deliberation to it. When I brought your book home I pulled Kenneth Clark’s Looking at Pictures off my bookshelf, and I compared the sizes of the books, the plates, and I thought, it’s a similar project. A lot of books that are published about canonical, art-historical works are very deliberately generalist. The title of this anthology suggests that, but it also seems to me that there’s a strong personal aspect in terms of what you are specifically interested in. Are you more interested in explication to a general audience that might not be familiar with these art-historical works, or are you doing something that really gives you a lot of pleasure, and if other people get pleasure from that, amazing? There’s a lot of balancing between the two approaches going on in your anthology. I suppose what I’m suggesting is you’re not always concerned with being a teacher.

JB: No. When I’m writing about a picture, I kind of imagine the reader beside me, and we’re both looking at it, and maybe because I’ve been looking at pictures for as many decades as I have, I have more points of comparison, and I’m less anxious in front of the painting, and I’m chatting. I’m not saying that if I go and review a show that I’d read all the art-historical literature; I probably will have read none. I’m a novelist and I’m used to looking at things and people and responding to them. The writing is clearly generalist and celebratory, though I have one or two moments where I talk about artists I’m not so keen on, the occasional sideswipe.

I hope that someone who picks up this book and reads it, someone who hasn’t read about pictures before, or who reads it simply because they like my novels, will be enthused to look at paintings with more straightforwardness, less self-consciousness, and more individuality, because eventually there’s no point pretending to a reaction. There’s no point bowing to what you are told is the best picture. If anything, I’m trying to free the reader up to think, “Whatever you think is okay, as long as it’s an authentic feeling. As long as you’ve thought about it and come to a conclusion, that’s alright. Some pictures are boring to some people even though they’re very interested in other art. You can’t and won’t like everything. We all have our prejudices. And don’t pretend.” I’m trying to say that in a friendly and approachable manner.

DB: There’s so much meditation, in both your art writing and your fiction, on this idea of being certain or not certain about something. What I took from Keeping an Eye Open is that you feel it is important to eventually become certain about your opinion on works of art that you enjoy. There’s a lot in this book about decisions artists make: why do they do certain things but not others? As someone who’s a critic and a fiction writer as well, I am intrigued to know if you feel that that impulse to look at why artists did what they did, or do what they do, is related to the fact that you write narratives? You’re particularly attuned to motivation, to acts of choosing. I suppose I’m asking if you still feel a bit like a novelist when you’re writing about art.

JB: I don’t particularly feel a novelist, no. I’ve done a lot of journalism as well as fiction writing in my time. When you’re writing fiction you’re hoping to create something that has enough thickness and depth that not all will necessarily be revealed in a straightforward way on a first reading, whereas if you’re writing for a newspaper, it’s a failure if the intelligent reader can’t understand everything you say on the first reading, and I don’t want to be a failure in that respect.

DB: I guess the question is more, when you contemplate the idea of the artist, is it unavoidable that you can’t help but contemplate it from a fiction-writer’s perspective? 

JB: I think with some painters that’s true, if there is a true narrative in it, or an enigmatic narrative, such as in the wonderful paintings of Vallotton. I like trying to tease out or just identify the enigmatic narrative. But I have a couple of pages in the article on Vuillard where a creeping anecdotalism has been applied to what, to me, are paintings of pure colour and texture and tone. And there’s been a retitling of them, and I think that’s very bad. So on the one hand, I’m a writer who’s using words which are his medium, and novelists’ words, in order to approach a different art, and on the other hand, part of me is pulled to the idea that if the artist painted something he tried to say in words, then he could have used words instead! The painting is, by definition, something that can’t be put straightforwardly into words.

I am very interested in process in terms of how much you can plan in advance, how much that plan goes wrong, how much is about artistic control and how much is about artistic freedom and the subconscious and so on. I remember once when I was writing the Géricault chapter, which was my first attempt at art writing a quarter-century ago, and I remember talking to my friend Howard Hodgkin about it and I said, “luck,” and he said, “oh yes, luck.” You sometimes just have a happy brushstroke, just as you find a phrase that comes into your head that you haven’t intended, and it’s a lucky find.

DB: What about the temptation to see great works of art as if they’re great works of literature? 

JB: I try not to apply literary values. If you look at Romanticism and then Modernism, they often work themselves out in very different ways in art and literature. I say in the introduction that indeed I can follow Modernism much more clearly in art than I can in literature. The narrative is actually quite a bit clearer in art and in music than it is in literature.

DB: In your chapter on Degas, you talk a lot about conjecture around his treatment of women and his attitude toward women, his possible misogyny. You say, “We should never be too outraged on behalf of people we have never met.” We arguably live in a culture of outrage, much of which is expressed online, on social media. In terms of how we’re now reading culture, outrage seems to define discussions around cultural events and cultural works. What is your own relationship with this culture of outrage, this moment in which outrage is upheld as very much a legitimate response to culture-making? 

JB: I think I take a fairly robust line, which is, “Get over it.” And also, what I was saying in the Degas piece is that, yes, the past was different, but it wasn’t necessarily worse. The present judges the past with smugness, and can’t believe that anyone had these primitive opinions, completely standard in society at the time, when what is completely standard in our culture at the moment is going to look ridiculous in 50 years’ time. Get some context. Get some historical know-how. That’s the point of outrage—it often comes from moral smugness, and a feeling of purity, a feeling that you have sole access to the truth and that your moral values have been honed to a point that they reach you. No, no, life is always more complicated than you imagine.

DB: I know that you’re a Francophile, and this book is primarily about French artists, but I must ask, given the publication for which I work, if you have any Canadian paintings that you’re particularly fond of, any artists you’re particularly fond of? I feel like there’s some dovetailing in terms of the early period of ascension in Canadian painting and the period that you seem fixated on in this collection.

JB: Let me reply by telling you a story. Shostakovich, about whom I’ve just published a novel, was flying back from the States in 1948. His plane broke down in Iceland, and instead of flying to Frankfurt, he was forced to fly to Stockholm. When he landed in Stockholm all the Swedish composers came to see him. They were very nice to him and they asked him what Swedish composers he most liked. He could only think of one name, and then at the last minute, after answering, realized that that was a Norwegian. He apologized, and they were very nice to him. The next day, when he went back to his hotel room, it was full of piles of records of the work of Swedish composers, which they had given him. So, when I’m in Canada, perhaps I’ll find some interesting monographs on Canadian painters in my hotel room.

Julian Barnes will speak at a sold-out talk, organized by the Canadian Art Foundation, at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall on May 31. Keeping an Eye Open is now available through various booksellers.

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and from 2016 to 2019 was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.