Art doesn’t just capture the thrill of life … sometimes it is that thrill

Julian Barnes in The Guardian:

RenoirSome years ago, a journalist friend, posted to Paris by his magazine, became in quick succession the father of two children. As soon as their eyes were able to focus properly, he would take them round the Louvre, tenderly pointing their infant retinas at some of the world’s greatest paintings. I don’t know if he also played classical music to them while they were in their mother’s womb, as some prospective parents do; but I have occasionally found myself wondering how those children will turn out: as potential directors of MoMA – or, perhaps, as adults with no visual sense at all, and a horror of art galleries. My own parents never tried feeding me culture at an early (or any other) age; neither did they seek to dissuade me from it. They were both schoolteachers, and so the arts – or perhaps, more precisely, the idea of the arts – were respected in the house. There were proper books on the shelves; and there was even a piano in the sitting room – though at no point in my childhood was it actually played. My mother had been given it by her doting father when she was a young, capable and hopeful pianist. Her playing, however, came to a halt in her early 20s when she found herself faced with a difficult piece of Scriabin. She realised, as she repeatedly failed to master it, that she had reached a certain level, which she could never go beyond. She stopped playing, abruptly and finally. Even so, the piano could not be got rid of; it moved house with her, following her loyally into marriage, and maternity, and old age and widowhood. On its regularly dusted top was a pile of sheet music, including that Scriabin piece she had abandoned decades previously. As for art, there were three oil paintings in the house. Two were of country scenes in Finistère, painted by one of my father’s French assistants. They were, in a way, as misleading as the piano, since “Uncle Paul”, as he was known, hadn’t exactly painted them en plein air; rather, he had copied – and aggrandised – them from picture postcards. I still have the originals he worked from (one smeared with real paint) on my desk. The third picture, which hung in our hall, was somewhat more authentic. An oil of a female nude, in a gilt frame, it was probably an obscure 19th-century copy of an equally obscure original. My parents had bought it at an auction sale in the outer London suburb where we lived. I remember it mainly because I found it completely unerotic. This seemed very strange, because most other depictions of unclad women had an invigorating effect on me. Perhaps this was what art did: by being solemn, it took the excitement out of life.

…I first began writing about art with a chapter on Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa in my novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989). Since then, I have never followed any particular plan. But the period from 1850 to 1920 continues to fascinate me, as a time of great truth-speaking combined with a fundamental reexamination of the forms of art. I think we still have a lot to learn from that time. And if I was right as a boy about the dullness of that nude we had at home, I was wrong in my deductions about art’s solemnity. Art doesn’t just capture and convey the excitement, the thrill of life. Sometimes, it does even more: it is that thrill.

More here.