English novelist Barnes (Levels of Life, 2013, etc.) focuses his analytical prowess on significant artists and their oeuvres, opening fresh vistas to readers—and viewers.
The author is an accomplished critic with a penetrating grasp of art history, but erudition never overwhelms the cogency or delights of his prose, as much about the heart as the mind. He decodes the romantic notion of a “charismatic, secret process” of art, arguing persuasively for the revolutionary influence of Manet and Cézanne on painting and stating that Cézanne is where modern art began. Art changes over time, as does what is considered art, and Barnes claims that it is difficult today to respond to an older work as the artist intended. Especially with works that have endured, we forget how quickly “the shock of the new becomes absorbed, museumified and commodified.” Also, each new art movement implies a reassessment of the past, thus altering it, but also “re-alerting the sensibility, reminding us not to take things for granted.” So we locate new stimulation in the work, knowing that all art movements have inherent strengths, weaknesses, and shelf lives and that painters seldom live to see exactly what they achieved. Barnes weighs the possibility of prejudice in his own observations, yet little is betrayed. Cannily, he wonders if the greatest art is that which melds beauty with mystery, which withholds “even as it luminously declares.” He reminds us that just as art moves on, so do art history and museum conventions. Works of art are not spared the vagaries of fashion or material decline. In time, subject matter becomes less important, while the skill of exhibition hanging (its geometry and narrative) remains pivotal.
Barnes knows that one of the immeasurable pleasures of art is its capacity to approach us from unexpected angles and excite our senses of wonder. The same may be said of his scholarly and astute yet accessible and exciting essays.