I first came across this book in a review on another blog. It would be a struggle for me to find it again but it was complementary and struck me as a book which could teach me a thing or two about art and how to enjoy it. Last year I visited The Manchester Art Gallery and The Walker Gallery in Liverpool. I saw some paintings I liked and many I didn’t or couldn’t really be bothered to give more than a five second glance to. To be honest I didn’t ‘get’ many of them and didn’t know how to. In fact, I felt quite disappointed while walking around The Walker; pictures you had to walk backwards and backwards from due to the position of a light throwing an almighty blob of luminescence right across the canvass at the optimum viewing angle.
But then, a few years ago, lazing by a swimming pool in Spain I read Jeremy Paxman’s The Victorians which shed its own light on paintings from the Victorian era. The book described how many works of art from the period reflected the growing technological advances of the era and the developing sense of women’s sexual awakening. Paxman spent a good few pages on Ford Madox Brown’s, Work which I confronted me during my walk around The Manchester Art Gallery. The whole canvass was a revelation because I got it, I really did get it because, thanks to Paxman I knew how to read it and solve it. It was a revelatory moment during which I genuinely enjoyed regarding a painting. And when the Arts Officer at the local council told me what a wonderful gallery The Walker is, I realised I was missing something, largely through ignorance.
So on another visit to the wonderful London Review Bookshop I bought Keeping an Eye Open. I began it in mid January but my reading was curtailed for two weeks when I was struck down with flu and I had neither the energy or inclination to do anything as remotely active as holding up a book. But on making a full recovery I returned to this very readable book which contains a collection of essays by the author primarily known for writing novels including Booker winner The Sense Of An Ending. This work of non-fiction focuses on the art and lives of, in mostly chronological order, a succession of artists rom Géricault to Hodgkin, many of whom I hadn’t even heard of. It’s by thanks to the wonder of the internet as well as some handy prints on the pages I realised I had seen many of the paintings described but had done nothing more than assign their image to my subconscious.
Each essay offers a compact biography of each artist highlighting their friends, their contemporaries, their lovers and their beligerancies. It helped me understand that a painting is not some two dimensional drawing on canvas but an expression of the thought and attitude of the artist which contains more within it than the latest box-set available to download from Netflix. As the title tells us, it’s all about keeping an eye open and not being a “window-shopping gallery-goer”, who will give a painting, “a five second glance”.
Keeping an Eye Open is a great introduction to artists and art. It doesn’t talk down to the reader but invites them to see art for what it is and how to enjoy it. Now I’ve completed it, I can’t wait to re-visit The Walker!