Starting with a story and ending with a memoir, Keeping an Eye Open (Knopf, $30) is a personal, personable, and eloquent look at art by the Man Booker Prize-winning Julian Barnes. While his point of departure may be that “a great painting compels the spectator into verbal response,” Barnes worries about the ethics of turning one art into another, even as his quotes from Flaubert and artists’ own letters and journals suggest that visual and literary arts are just different paths to the same gleaming City of Art, where real life is heightened and intensified. Readers of Barnes’s many essays and novels know him for a confirmed Francophile, and the bulk of his commentary here focuses on French painters, from Géricault and Delacroix to Manet, Bonnard, and Vuillard. Barnes is also, in the old debate between line and color, a devoted colorist; “let the colors tell the story,” he says, and revels in taking the temperature of paintings through their “cool and playful…blue-gray and gray-brown,” their “hotter…scarlet and orange and yellow” compositions. A true art aficionado, Barnes reports in an account of visiting the Phillips Collection that his “top ten…[paintings] runs to over a hundred by now.”
Gathering 74 essays on as many artists—presented chronologically from Aurignacian Man, circa 30,000 BC, to Randa Mdah, born in 1983—and written over some fifty years, Portraits (Verso, $44.95) is a dazzling retrospective of John Berger’s criticism—garnished with samples of his poetry, fiction, correspondence, and other writings. For Berger, writing about art is the same thing as telling a story, and the story he tells so vibrantly is about artists’ abiding faith “that the visible contained hidden secrets”; indeed, the word “mystery” comes up repeatedly. Berger himself has an especially keen eye, able to discern that Cézanne’s black is like Rembrandt’s, but more “tangible,” and that in Francis Bacon’s work, unlike Goya’s, “there are no witnesses and there is no grief. Nobody painted by“ Bacon notices the pain of others “painted by him.” In virtually every piece, Berger distills reams of history, biography, and theory into succinct and memorable readings. He observes that Rembrandt’s great theme was isolation and the embrace his “iconic act,” a combination that made him the first modern painter, and that “Frida Kahlo lay cheek to cheek with everything she depicted.” When he cites Caravaggio as the painter he feels closest to, it’s because he admires the artist’s heresy in turning “religious themes into popular tragedies.” Agree or disagree, joining Berger as he assesses these oeuvres is an exhilarating experience.