Julian Barnes, the accomplished novelist and short story writer (“Arthur & George,” “Pulse”), tells us that a “great painting compels the spectator into verbal response, despite our awareness that any such articulations will be mere echoes of what others have already put more cogently and more knowledgeably.”

Barnes subverts his own proposition with his first book-length foray into art criticism — a collection of 17 essays focusing chiefly on 19th- and early-20th-century French painters (the path from Romanticism to Realism to Modernism, from Géricault to Magritte, rounded out with two contemporary Brits, Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin, and American sculptor Claes Oldenburg).

Offering smart and surprising responses to masterpieces and slighter works, unburdened by artspeak or pedantry, Barnes displays the virtues of an informed enthusiast armed with narrative instincts. He playfully characterizes Pierre Bonnard as “the painter of the Great Indoors, even when he’s painting the Great Outdoors. … Those dappled woods are like wallpaper — though, since this is Bonnard wallpaper, it is wallpaper almost as alive as nature. … And since there is so little wind, Bonnard leaves never fall from Bonnard trees.”

Willing to pluck from biography aspects of complication that formalist analysis forbids, he muses that “Delacroix’s art speaks of extravagance, passion, violence, excess; yet his life was that of a self-defended man who feared passion and valued above all tranquility.”

In a keen paragraph, Barnes sums up the social history of modern art. “Cézanne was an obscure figure even when famous … and he had no interest in what the world called success. Braque, though a recluse by contemporary stands, was a dandy with a chauffeur; while Picasso single-handedly embodied the twentieth century’s ideal of an artist — public, political, rich, successful in all the meanings of the word, camera-loving and concupiscent. And if Cézanne might have thought Picasso’s life vulgar — in the sense that it detracted from the time, and the human integrity, required to make art — how austere and high-minded Picasso would come to seem compared to most ‘successful’ artists of the twenty-first century, flogging their endless versions of the same idea to know-nothing billionaires.”

Throughout these essays, Barnes entwines the literary and painterly professions. He locates Manet “by the triangulation of the three great writers who championed him”: Baudelaire, Zola and Mallarmé. Hodgkin he identifies as “a writer’s painter,” building his appreciation around sympathies and wrangles with Flaubert. “Ezra Pound,” observes Barnes, “said that he would throw the brick through the window while T.S. Eliot went round the back and grabbed the swag. … And there’s a sense in which Manet threw the brick and the Impressionists grabbed the swag: certainly if swag is measured in blockbuster exhibitions a century and more on.”

By turns eloquent and colloquial, this superb collection is fortified by a zesty humor seldom vested in critical sensibilities, with Barnes’ observations and expression proving equally adept and satisfying.


Fred Setterberg’s “Sam Maloof: 36 Views of a Master Woodworker” will be published next year by Heyday Books.