Mining the Unknown in Julian Barnes and John Berger’s Essays on Art

  • 2016-04-13
  • Hyperallergic

Underlying Julian Barnes‘s and John Berger’s respective new collections on art, Keeping an Eye Open and Portraits, is the notion that we’re still figuring out how to engage with and portray the past. Both books are similarly structured, with chapters dedicated to individual artists, many of whom overlap between the two. Both writers, white and British, lean toward painting by white European men (Barnes inexcusably fails to discuss a single woman artist and Berger does not reach a woman until page 335 of 502, with Frida Kahlo) and have a general aversion to contemporary art. These are writers who largely reinforce the art historical canon, with a few exceptions from Berger, who’s gotten away with writing about established artists by framing them in refreshing and politicized ways. It’s also true that Barnes, the novelist, is not assuming the position of an art critic (Berger, who is considered one, despises the term); Barnes’s essays are the result of personal, casual discoveries he made within the walls of great museums.

While I was torn between sharing an admiration for and being a little tired of the artists Barnes and Berger discuss, these books — especially when placed side by side — nonetheless make the case that we still haven’t exhausted the art in question, because the past, an endless resource for interpretation, will always be partially unknown.