A. S. BYATT
"Art Work," by the English novelist, short story writer, and literary critic A. S. Byatt, was first published in The Matisse Stories in 1993 after Byatt's most popular novel, Possession: A Romance (1990), had made her famous. "Art Work" is the second of three short stories in the collection based on paintings by Henri Matisse. Her fiction is filled with intelligent people who are creative thinkers, inspired by great art and philosophy. Her stories demonstrate how art can widen and enrich understanding, even when the definition of art keeps changing. Byatt admits to being obsessed with Matisse as a touchstone for art, and although he appears in every story in the collection, it was not planned that way. The stories were collected as a group later.
In "Art Work," the Dennisons are artists who love Matisse's paintings. However, they are taught an important lesson by their cleaning lady, Mrs. Brown, whose garish tastes clash with their own and with Matisse's classic style. Byatt is one of the most famous English postmodern, or avant-garde, experimental novelists to date. In this story, she continues ideas raised in her novels, by entertaining the theme of the breakdown between high art and popular culture, as the cleaning lady's artwork is given a showing in a gallery over the artist's. The story is widely discussed in classes and by critics because it illustrates the dilemmas of life and art in the late twentieth century. The Matisse Stories was reissued in paperback by Vintage in 1996.
A. S. Byatt was born Antonia Susan Drabble on August 24, 1936, in Sheffield, England, the eldest of four children, to Kathleen Bloor Drabble and John Frederick Drabble. Her father was a judge; her mother was a former elementary school-teacher, angry at having to give up her career for her family. Though her parents came from working-class families, they had studied at Cambridge, and the household was one of books, conversation, music, and art. Her younger sister, Margaret Drabble, is also a successful and well-known novelist.
As a child, the author was not happy attending a Quaker boarding school in York, where she was quiet and socially withdrawn, but it was there she began writing at age thirteen. She thought Cambridge was paradise, however, and did her undergraduate work at Newnham College, coming under the influence of F. R. Leavis and the New Criticism. She graduated in 1957 with honors, then studied for a while at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. At Somerville College, Oxford, she studied as a postgraduate, doing work on seventeenth-century allegory.
In 1959, she married (Sir) Ian Byatt, a British economist, and had two children. In the 1960s, she taught at the University of London and the Central School of Art and Design. She wrote criticism and fiction, taught, and attended to her family. In 1969, she divorced Byatt and married Peter Duffy, with whom she had two more children. In 1972, her son, Charles Byatt, was killed at the age of eleven by a drunk driver, and she spent a decade trying to cope with his death.
Also, in 1972, Byatt became a Lecturer in English and American Literature at University College London; she worked there until 1983, when she began to write full-time. She has traveled widely lecturing on her work. Between 1990 and 1998, she was a member of the Literature Advisory Panel for the British Council. She has served on the judging panels for literary prizes, including the Booker Prize for Fiction, and is a distinguished critic, known for her regular contributions to journals and newspapers.
Byatt's first novel, Shadow of the Sun was published in 1964, and her next novel, The Game, was published in 1967. The Virgin in the Garden (1978) is the first of a quartet of books about a Yorkshire family. Byatt's next novel continues the tale in Still Life (1985), which won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award. Babel Tower (1996) is the third book in the quartet, while the fourth novel in the series is A Whistling Woman (2002).
Her most successful book, Possession: A Romance (1990), won the Booker Prize for Fiction, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It was also made into a film. Angels & Insects (1992) consists of two novellas, "The Conjugal Angel," an exploration of Victorian attitudes toward death and mourning, and "Morpho Eugenia," the story of a young Victorian explorer and naturalist, William Adamson, and his relationship with the daughter of his employer, adapted as a film in 1996. Byatt's novel The Biographer's Tale was published in 2000.
Byatt's collections of short stories and fictions include Sugar and Other Stories (1987); The Matisse Stories (1993), which includes "Art Work"; The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994), a collection of fairy tales for which she won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature in 1998; Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998); and Little Black Book of Stories (2003).
Byatt's critical work includes two books about Iris Murdoch: Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965) and Iris Murdoch: A Critical Study (1976), as well as Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (1970). She was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1990 and a DBE (Dame Commander) in 1999. In 2002, Byatt was awarded the Shakespeare Prize by the Alfred Toepfer Foundation, Hamburg, in recognition of her contribution to British culture. Byatt was then honored as a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2003. Byatt is considered one of the great postmodern, experimental novelists in Britain.
"Art Work" is set in London in 1990. The story has an omniscient narrator and opens with a description of a black and white reproduction of Matisse's 1947 painting, Le Silence habité des maisons (the inhabited silence of the house), in Lawrence Gowing's book on Matisse. It appears to be of a mother and child sitting at a table, but their faces are blank ovals, without features. The child is turning the pages of a book. In front is a vase of flowers and behind them, a window with trees outside. Above them "is a chalked outline" of a round shape like a head on the wall. The narrator says it is a pity there are no colors in this reproduction, for the viewer has to imagine the colors and "Who is the watching totem under the ceiling?"
Similarly, "there is an inhabited silence in 49 Alma Road," London. Since this is the 1990s, the Dennison house is lacking voices but is overlaid with noise. The house is full of the sound of the washing machine with its "banshee-scream of the spin-cycle," the thumping dryer, the children's television show with no one watching, the electric trains of the young son, Jamie, and the muffled teen music of daughter Natasha, heard through earphones, while she is lying on the bed like one of Matisse's empty and beatific models.
The mother, Debbie Dennison, is typing her article for A Woman's Place, of which she is the design editor, and leans her oval face on her hands. She is working from home "because Jamie has chicken pox and the doctor is coming." Debbie writes an article on the new colors and shapes of plastic kitchenware. We see by the photographs of the children on the wall and woodcuts of fairy tales that she has other, neglected artistic talents.
- The Matisse Stories is available as an audiobook by Recorded Books, read in a four-and-a-half hour unabridged version by Virginia Leishman (1997).
- The Matisse Stories was read as an audiobook by Nadia May on a recording released by Blackstone Audio in 1995.
Debbie's editor phones, and she tries to placate him about missing a meeting. Though he is the editor of this woman's magazine, he is not always understanding of working mothers. Meanwhile, a noise, which dominates the household and unites "all three floors," is the Hoover vacuum cleaner wielded by Mrs. Brown, the colored cleaning lady from Guyana, who has been with the family for ten years. She came in answer to Debbie's frantic ad when Debbie was pregnant and about to lose her job. Mrs. Brown, with her wild appearance and wilder clothes of rainbow colored scraps, has a face like "a primitive mask," without expression.
Debbie's greatest terror is losing Mrs. Brown, whom she thinks is closer to her than anyone on earth except her family. They know each other's problems, yet keep a formal distance, respecting each other's space. It takes Debbie a long time to find out about Mrs. Brown's two sons and their abusive father, Hooker, against whom Mrs. Brown gets a court injunction after he beats her up. Debbie comforts her, as Mrs. Brown comforts Debbie during postpartum depression.
Robin Dennison is Debbie's full time artist husband. He yells at her from his studio on the third floor, and she drops everything. He complains that Mrs. Brown has moved his things again. They argue. Debbie is used to being torn between Mrs. Brown and Robin, trying to make peace.
Robin has a thin, mystical look, which could be photographed or painted in different ways. He has been dedicated to neo-realism as an artist since the 1960s, painting shiny objects isolated in space. He has a collection of fetishes, or items with primary colors—perfect blue, yellow, red, green, purple—that he uses as models for mixing his colors.
Debbie remembers their mutual passion for art at Art School, when she was going to be a wood-engraver and illustrate children's books. She was attracted to Robin's serious dedication to his art and to the quality of his paintings. Robin married Debbie because she alone appreciated what he was doing. When they married, his painting got better, but she gave up her art for the family, supporting him with her high-paying commercial job.
Debbie feels both love and hate for her husband, because he doesn't remember her wood engravings and what she has sacrificed. He seems bent on driving Mrs. Brown away; without Mrs. Brown, Debbie would be lost. Robin is over forty and stuck in a rut doing the same art he did twenty years ago. He has a sensuous love of color and tells Debbie his theory of color, derived from Matisse's ethic (taken from the title of a Matisse painting) of "luxe, calme et volupté" (light, calm, and beauty), which has come to be like "a religious experience" to him. When he tries to imitate Van Gogh and Matisse, however, it is a disaster. He is left painting his neo-realist objects that are no longer in vogue.
Robin does not know that his dislike for the cleaning woman stems from his father's similar dislike of charwomen: a panic that someone has invaded his private space. Mrs. Brown gives the family presents that Robin refuses. She makes her own flamboyant clothes and clothes for others out of old curtains or discarded scraps. He is livid about the way she combines magenta, vermillion, pink, and lime green. She makes jumpers for the children in clashing hues.
Mrs. Brown has her own color theory based on the fact that God makes and mixes all the colors in the world; therefore, anything goes. Debbie feels bad that the family rejects Mrs. Brown's presents and gives her more of the family's clothes to use. During one fight with Robin when Mrs. Brown almost leaves, Robin softens enough to explain his color theory to her, about complementary colors, and the magic line of yellow that appears between pure green and red. Mrs. Brown seems pacified and stays.
When the wealthy art patron, Shona McRury, who owns an art gallery, comes to view Robin's paintings for a possible show, she notices only that the paintings are about the littleness of life. Robin thinks to himself they are rather about the infinite nature of color. Shona asks Robin if he is going to be changing direction soon because his art seems repetitive. As she leaves the house and walks down the road, Mrs. Brown runs after her.
A month later, Debbie goes with a photographer from her magazine to cover a new exhibit at Shona's Callisto Gallery. The exhibit is stunning like Aladdin's cave or a fairy tale. The centerpiece is a fabric sculpted dragon that looks like a Hoover vacuum cleaner, to which is chained a lady victim. The dragon is made of bits of clothing from the Dennison household. The sign reads: "Sheba Brown. Work in Various Materials. 1975-1990."
Mrs. Brown becomes an overnight artistic sensation and is interviewed on television. Debbie reads an article on the background of the woman she supposedly knows so well, learning for the first time Mrs. Brown's first name and place of origin. She wants to hide all this from Robin, but Jamie points out the cleaning lady on television and shows his father the Muppet like parody of the Dennison household. The family goes to the exhibit together and recognizes their old clothes in her work.
Mrs. Brown is now too busy and successful to be a cleaning woman. She comes with a replacement, Mrs. Stimpson, and says she will train her so the Dennisons will never notice the difference. Debbie realizes they were never close friends, as she thought they were. It was just an arrangement. Yet things do not go on the same, after Mrs. Brown leaves. Debbie finally returns to her wood engravings of fairy tales, and publishes them. The good fairies look like Mrs. Stimpson, and the bad ones, like Mrs. Brown. Robin goes on to a new style of painting, geometric and mythic, brightly colored, with a portrait of the goddess Kali (the destroyer), who looks like Mrs. Brown. He has a new "savage energy" in his use of color and movement.
Mrs. Sheba Brown
Mrs. Brown is the not very clean cleaning woman (a secret smoker) for the Dennisons. She is half Guyanese and half Irish but not well known to her employers, except that she has two sons, Lawrence (at Newcastle University) and Gareth, who is in distribution, or selling drugs, with the wrong kind of friends. These sons she had by a man named Hooker, who was abusive and had to be restrained by court order from beating her up. Mrs. Brown thus represents the poor immigrant in London, with clear class and color lines between her and the Dennisons. Robin Dennison hates the wild, clashing colors Mrs. Brown wears and the outlandish clothes she makes for herself and the family. She has amber colored skin, wiry hair tied with a bandeau, and likes to go barefoot. She has a face like "a primitive mask," with no particular expression. She has been with the family for ten years and keeps Debbie's life balanced. Mrs. Brown takes their cast off clothing and, unknown to her employers, makes art work out of it, learning some tricks from their knowledge of art and design. She is revealed as a creative genius in her own right, and becomes famous, because she is from the slums and yet produces art out of the discarded detritus of life. In the interview by the art critic in her own woman's magazine, Debbie finds out Mrs. Brown's studio is in the basement of the council flat, or public housing, she lives in, where she had to make arrangements with the caretaker to have a space for herself. She has supported her two sons and herself on Social Security and her slim earnings as a cleaning lady, but though her art reflects feminist perspectives on the boredom and slavery of her life, she mentions that she harbors no resentment. Mrs. Brown takes her materials from everywhere, including rubbish, sales, and cast-off items from her employers. She is praised in the article for making the ugliness of life absurd and beautiful with her colors and wit. In the television interview, Mrs. Brown explains she makes art for the sheer joy of it, to show the joy of life, and in this way, asserts art is a natural thing to do, not just for professionals. Though Mrs. Brown has some of the same feminine issues as her employer, and Debbie sympathizes with her, Debbie does not really cross class lines to become intimate friends with a woman of color from the council flats. This is not necessarily a prejudice against cleaning women, as in the case of her husband Robin, but more a lack of imagination about someone else's life, one of the points of the story.
Debbie is the working mother of the family, and is a design editor for a women's magazine. Making peace with her boss, and between her husband and Mrs. Brown, Debbie is skillful at juggling the parts of her life and the people around her. She is the one who negotiates for the art gallery owner to look at her husband's pictures, and she financially supports the family as well, all at the cost of doing her own art. The photos of the children on the wall, and the engravings from fairy tales that she can no longer afford to do, testify to her many unused talents, and her devotion to the children. Debbie is good with them (we see her rubbing down her son's chicken pox with calamine lotion, and encouraging the drawings of her daughter). She is beautiful, giving, and talented, and living precariously, trying to hold several lives together. She loves her husband, yet she hates him for not understanding her sacrifice. Debbie's fingers remember the feel of carving wood, and she feels the presence of her unmade art. Although she believes Mrs. Brown is her true friend, she does not know that much about her. Embarrassed that the family rejects the clothes Mrs. Brown makes for the children, Debbie tries to display other items she has made, like doilies and decorations for the house. She has to be careful, because anything made by Mrs. Brown insults her husband. Debbie takes Mrs. Brown's success as a hint to return to making her own art, wood engravings of children's fairy tales. She doesn't seem to resent Mrs. Brown's success, but the bad fairies in her engravings all look like Mrs. Brown, so one imagines, at the least, she thinks of Mrs. Brown as a cheeky and tricky person.
Jamie is ten and the youngest child of the family, and he has chicken pox during the story. He is too sick to watch television and plays with his electric trains. Jamie enjoys seeing Mrs. Brown's success.
Natasha is beautiful, with dark hair and ivory skin, like her mother. She is presented as a generic teenage girl, lost in her music, squirming in rhythm on her bed with earphones on. Her mother has carefully saved her promising childhood artwork and framed two paintings by Natasha that seem curiously in her father's style.
Robin is the father and artist. He is thin, wearing jeans and a fisherman's smock. He has a long, English face. In any case, he is a bit indefinite, not confident, but rather, unworldly and interested in pure art, which is the only thing he is good at. A neo-realist painter in pursuit of pure color, he hates the dirtiness of Mrs. Brown and her wild combination of color. Debbie loves Robin and his art and is a loyal fan. She understands his mystic love of color, inherited from Matisse, and tries to protect his fetishes, or colored objects, from Mrs. Brown. His studio is the entire third floor of the middle class house in London, which is a far cry from Mrs. Brown's tenement basement studio. Robin seems unaware of the irony of calling Mrs. Brown filthy when his studio is littered with old food, bottles, and debris. He is obtuse about a lot of things, including that he inherited a prejudice against cleaning women from his father. He is unaware of his wife's difficulties and sacrifice because he is largely self-centered and not good at dealing with others, the way Debbie is. Robin fell in love with his wife because she understood his art. In Art School, she looks at his neo-realist paintings and says that they cause the viewer to really see the object and go on seeing it, out of time. This impresses Robin; he is also impressed with her beauty and her willingness to support him financially while he paints. He truly loves his wife and sees her as the opposite of the dirty Mrs. Brown. It is hinted that he has some feelings of guilt or inadequacy that Debbie supports him, and thus he tries to make peace with the cleaning lady he knows is indispensable to Debbie's routine. In a moment of conciliation, he tells Mrs. Brown his color secrets, which she uses to good purpose to sell her own art. He seems to resent Mrs. Brown's success more than Debbie does, because, for one thing, she stole his possible gallery show from Shona McRury, and for another, he is the trained artist, and she is an amateur with no knowledge. Robin takes his revenge by painting Mrs. Brown as the goddess of destruction, Kali. Nevertheless, she has spurred him on to a new and more successful phase of his art.
Shona is the rich and fashionable woman who owns the Callisto Art Gallery and rejects Robin's paintings, but chooses to show Mrs. Brown's fabric work and soft sculptures. She has topaz eyes, long silky brown hair, and dresses like a thin and elegant model, with an olive silk suit, matching accessories, and lizard skin shoes. Shona has an eye for what sells and what is current, and thus counsels Robin to change or update his style. Obviously a woman of power who can make or break artists, she is wooed by Debbie, who is herself a professional visual artist and knows how to negotiate, but Robin does not have the ability to talk to Shona on her terms. It is implied he has not been keeping up with current trends, and besides, he believes himself to be the modernist master, like Matisse, who should dictate the fashion. Shona's world includes women and women's art, something Robin seems unaware of, especially in terms of his own wife's repressed artwork. There is possible meaning in the name of her gallery, the Callisto. According to myth, Callisto is the nymph who was turned into a constellation with her son to form Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Shona seems to champion underdog women, making them into stars in their own right.
Tom is the ambitious young photographer from Liverpool who goes with Debbie to the Callisto Gallery to cover Mrs. Brown's exhibit. He has dyed blonde hair and baggy trousers.
Mrs. Stimpson is the cleaning lady Mrs. Brown gets to replace her after she achieves fame. Mrs. Stimpson is trained to do exactly the same things, so the family will think it is Mrs. Brown. The family uses images of Mrs. Stimpson for good faces in their art, and Mrs. Brown turns up as the bad images (Kali, bad fairies) after Mrs. Brown leaves.
Life in Postmodern Society
The story takes place in London, 1990. The Dennison family has a mother, father, and two children—traditional enough, but other details point out the irony of the postmodern family. The Matisse painting that begins the story has generic faces with blank ovals and no features. Similarly, the Dennison family is described with featureless or ambiguous faces. Matisse was a modernist painter, who broke the traditional expectations by painting flat shapes in brilliant colors that made a design. His purpose was to create innocent figures existing out of time. But the narrator views the painting in a book in a black and white copy. The color is gone. The Dennison family is like everyone else in contemporary culture, finding it difficult to be unique—predictable, like a copy of a copy. There are no originals in a postmodern culture, only intertextualized or mixed echoes of what is already out there. It is like cutting and pasting from the Internet. The daughter looks like others her age and listens to the same music. The boy has trains and watches children's cartoons. The impersonal nature of this culture is represented in the fact that Debbie neither knows Mrs. Brown's first name, nor is interested, yet she thinks they are friends. Communication is difficult, though it is an age of communication technologies. No one watches the television; the family members are in different rooms and on different floors.
Interpretation is highlighted as a theme in the story and in postmodern culture, for there are no absolute meanings available. Each of the main characters is given alternative descriptions. Debbie has her own idea of Mrs. Brown that turns out to be quite different from who Mrs. Brown is, or how Shona McRury sees her. Shona views Robin's art in a completely different way than he does. Debbie thinks Mrs. Brown is part of the family, but Mrs. Brown creates a parody of the life of a cleaning woman by making the Hoover a dragon in her art. There is a sort of interdependence and caring among the characters, but Byatt shows the difficulties in truly knowing another. Even Robin, who loves his wife, is totally unaware of her anguish at giving up her art.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Look at several paintings by Matisse after reading "Art Work." Write a paper on the similarities between the use of color and composition in both the paintings and the story. How does Byatt use Matisse's artwork to enrich her content and style of storytelling?
- How are women depicted in novels by nineteenth-century writers such as Jane Austen or George Eliot? How are they depicted by Byatt in "Art Work?" Write a paper explaining the difference and research the vastly different time periods in which these authors were writing. How do real historical differences influence these stories?
- Research Matisse's life and work. What was he trying to accomplish and how did he change art? Give a presentation using visual aids in which you examine the artist's continuing cultural influence.
- Write an essay in which you compare and contrast two postmodern novels, explaining the characteristics that make them experimental and open-ended; two examples, for instance, are The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles and Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt.
A corollary of this is the idea of high culture versus pop culture. Robin's values are still very much tied to the aesthetic ideas of modern art. Modern art had an exclusive bias of what was good and what was not. Robin is full of scorn at color that is not as pure as in his models, Matisse and Van Gogh. Mrs. Brown represents postmodern culture and art in several ways. She is a marginal person, a poor woman of color, who was not trained to be an artist. She makes art out of her life, her scraps that she finds. This is the condition of the postmodernist who recycles images and materials in a creative way. Postmodern art is pastiche, the way Mrs. Brown's is. She takes whatever colors or textures she finds and puts them together in any order, thus making a new version of something already there. Robin, on the other hand, like the modernists, has theories, practices, discipline.
Women's Varying Roles
Byatt has denied the label feminist because she does not want to be tied to an ideology in her art. Yet she is skilled at portraying the challenges of being female. Debbie is the middle class working mother, torn between home duties, work, and her own desires to create art. She works as a commercial artist and writer. She keeps her workplace and home going at her own expense. She thinks she is allied with Mrs. Brown because they are both women, but Debbie does not understand the class differences between them.
Mrs. Brown comes from a tough life where she has, like Debbie, had to support her family, but without benefit of a husband, education, or status. She cleans houses, has seen violence and, it is implied, her son "in distribution" is probably involved in drugs, and is engaged in criminal activities, like his father, Hooker. She is a marginal female of color in English society, living in public housing (council flats) yet she makes a success of her life, sending one son to college and becoming a celebrity with her art. She uses her marginality and creativity to make comments on the trivia of a woman's life, such as vacuuming.
Shona McRury is the rich patron of artists, a gallery owner, with the power of the salon hostesses of earlier eras to create new tastes and reputations. She seems a discriminating and intelligent businesswoman, on the prowl for what is new and exciting. She recognizes the energy and wild color in Mrs. Brown's work. Furthermore, Natasha Brown is a stereotypical teen girl without a personality of her own yet, protected in a middle class womb of comfort, playing with her emerging sexual power. Certainly, these depictions are all portraits of different types of postmodern women.
The Passion of the Artist
"Art Work" is part of The Matisse Stories, all of which are concerned with Matisse's work and the influence of art. In this story we have three visual artists—Robin, Debbie, and Mrs. Brown—with Matisse, the fourth, hovering like a god of art in the background. They are all passionate about their creative life, and this is what unites them. What divides them are their particular approaches and practices and opportunities.
Robin is the central artist in the beginning of the story, the heir of Matisse in his own eyes, and in aesthetic practice. Matisse's work is classic modernism, and Robin comes in at the end of that era at the beginning of postmodernism. He is ahead of his time in being a neo-realist when others are doing abstract art. When Debbie met him in the late 1960s, she admired his commitment to realistic representation. He paints single realistic objects in a single, pure color, thus, as Debbie puts it, making time stop for viewers who have to keep looking until they see. Robin feels he is a blind man without his brushes, so his passion for color is like a religion, the paradox of luxe, calme et volupté (light, calm, beauty), the sensuous calmness in Matisse's work. Robin's passion for art is allowed to hold the central position in the house. The women, equally passionate about art, have to fit it into their day when they can.
Mrs. Brown's love of color thrown together in clashing hues is part of her lower class dirtiness to Robin. Yet Mrs. Brown tells Debbie that "they're all there, the colours, God made 'em all, and mixes 'em all in His creatures, what exists goes together somehow or other." Her lime green, purples, vermilions, and sickly ice-cream colors, go into her handmade clothes and fabric sculptures, that Jamie compares to Muppets, from the scraps of the Dennison family clothes. They are a hit for a postmodern audience, captivated by her "mak[ing] everything absurd and surprisingly beautiful with an excess of inventive wit," according to an art critic.
Both Robin and Debbie are ironically forced by Mrs. Brown's success into renewed creativity with their own art. Mrs. Brown not only encourages by example but becomes the model for their subjects, the mythical Kali in Robin's work, and the exotic bad fairies in Debbie's. Though the story puts forth clashing philosophies of art with equal enthusiasm, and Mrs. Brown and the Dennisons seem to be rivals, they demonstrate the world Byatt loves that is alive with thought and creative endeavor. Byatt is not so interested in espousing one theory over another but in showing how these artists have stimulated each other, and ultimately, the world, with their passionate artwork.
Though she has written fairy tales, Byatt publishes primarily realistic fiction; that is, fiction that gives the illusion of verisimilitude, or the texture of ordinary human life. Her characters, such as the Dennisons, live in a recognizable place, for instance, London, 1990, not a fantasy world; they worry about money, jobs, success, their children. The characters are not idealized or heroic, as in epic or mythic literature, although Byatt includes mythic references in her work. The stories and novels are rich with detail taken from the everyday world: washing machines and television shows, vacuum cleaners, and high-pitched telephones ringing. Byatt's favorite realistic novelists are George Eliot, Honoré de Balzac, and Iris Murdoch.
Realism as the dominant mode of representation in storytelling arose with the emergence of the modern novel in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Readers in an industrialized world wanted to see, not ideal models out of time, but contemporary characters in a world like their own. Eliot's and Balzac's complex and intricate worlds recreate the feel of nineteenth-century society, where things don't always end happily ever after. It is a mode of plotting based on cause and effect. Murdoch, similarly, creates twentieth century life, with a huge cast of difficult and nuanced people.
Early realist writers had a moral point of view, not necessarily didactic, but showing characters and society confronted with ethical choices. A character had to be weaned from selfish desire to a larger view of the greater good. Byatt inherited from her Cambridge background the New Critical attitude of F. R. Leavis that literature was to be appreciated as an art form and read closely to see how it was constructed. It had moral seriousness and therefore was thought to make the world a better place. Byatt still uses these qualities in her work.
In the last half of the twentieth century, fictional realism became modified with postmodern concerns. If modernism dominated the first half of the twentieth century, postmodernism dominated the second half. Postmodernism is often a sort of nostalgic look at the past when there were clear and shared values, and so it uses a lot of pastiche (patchwork), or parody of earlier artists or works (See Historical Context section). Mrs. Brown's fabric art is an echo and a parody, made of scraps of other objects, like much postmodern art. Andy Warhol's painting of Campbell soup cans is postmodern realism—the playful quality of portraying an object with verisimilitude but not an object that would be thought worthy of high art or moral seriousness. It is often some marginal object from culture, framed and made visible, as a nonjudgmental statement.
Postmodern art is often ironic, showing the impossibility of closure or a final meaning. It is open-ended. We see a slice in the lives of the Dennisons and Mrs. Brown, but no final judgment or moral from the author, though readers are invited to draw their own conclusions. Postmodernism reflects an era shaken by world events like Vietnam, racism, and the Cold War, where moral choice is difficult and meaning is both obscure and dependent upon the viewer. The problem of interpretation is a central concern.
Meaning has always depended on individual viewpoint, but postmodern culture, with its fragmented or multicultural texture, finds little common ground for the unified values of a Dickens novel, for instance, where the good characters are clearly good, and the bad, clearly bad. Is Mrs. Brown bad for taking ideas and things from the Dennisons? She appears so to Robin, but she has her own point of view where white middle class employers are fair game, part of what she picks up as a cleaning lady. She means no disrespect, she says in an interview.
In postmodern fiction as in art, it is frequently the person on the sidelines or object in the corner that is the focus of attention. Postmodern art is anti-authoritarian and so does not accept boundaries about what is acceptable or even what belongs to the artist. The modernist idea that the author owned the artwork, as Robin owns his paintings, is replaced by Mrs. Brown's lifting ideas and fabrics from her employers. It is like the world of Internet and Open Culture where it is hard to define the boundaries of ideas and what belongs to whom. In this way, Byatt herself plays off a painting of Matisse's in the introduction of the story, but in typical postmodern fashion, it is a copy of a copy, not even with colors. This could be depressing, as though everything is fading out with time, but in another way, it is exciting, for as the narrator says: "We may imagine it," one of the themes of the story. It means that life is interactive—one may add to or reinvent it. This is the postmodern aspect of Byatt's realism. Realism is opened up for multiple and shifting interpretations, a never-ending creative construction of life.
Like Robin's question ("Why bother, why make representations of anything at all?"), Byatt not only uses realism as a mode of trying to represent the world we live in, but she asks, within her fiction, questions about how she does her art. Shona only sees Robin's paintings as repetitious, but he himself sees each painting as answering serious questions about his craft. Byatt similarly tries to solve the problems of her craft, taking in the reader as confidante. This reflection on how one is writing the text at the moment, included within the content of a story, is called metafiction, or fiction that talks about its own construction. In the story, which is about the visual arts, everything has a secondary meaning in terms of the craft of writing. This is reflected in the Matisse line drawing that precedes the actual story, L'artiste et le modèle reflétés dans le miroir (The artist and the model reflected in the mirror). In the foreground we see the nude model; in the background, we the back of her reflected in the mirror, and the artist is caught there too, as though by accident. Realistic fiction would be only about the foreground, but metafiction shows the hand of the artist in the background, of equal interest. The Matisse line drawing is thus an image for metafiction, for the maker visible in the product, like the tendency of filmmakers to do a cameo shot in their own films.
Modernist fiction attempts to find or make meaning in a chaotic world where old, established values no longer apply. Postmodern fiction goes farther to question how we make meaning at all. Where does it reside? Is it in the characters, plot, writer, reader, or culture? In "Art Work," the discarded school tie of Robin's is an abomination to him, but Mrs. Brown takes it out of the waste-basket and makes art of it. It had a negative meaning to him and a positive one to her. Similarly, a lot is left up to the reader to interpret, even in terms of a character's appearance.
Like Matisse, who makes people with featureless faces that we can fill in, so Byatt refuses to pin down her characters absolutely, even in their looks. In Robin's case, for instance, "a photographer could choose between making him look like a gentle mystic and making him look like a dedicated cricketer. A painter could choose between a haziness at the edges … and very clear sketched-in features … in a kind of pale space." Thus, Byatt shows us the writer or artist at work trying to decide which way to go with the character, and in the process, invites us in to make some decisions. Do we see Robin more as a mystic or a sportsman? The point is to show that we all have choices regarding how we interpret or how we construct our reality.
Matisse and Modernism
Byatt's The Matisse Stories take place in the 1990s in London and all three stories refer specifically to the paintings of Matisse, one of the giant figures behind twentieth century art. The stories, "Medusa's Ankles," "Art Work," and "The Chinese Lobster," speak specifically of the life of English artists and intellectuals in the 1990s, while looking back to the legacy of modern art, particularly the art of Henri Matisse (1869-1954), and of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). They were both primarily interested in color, and hence, they are Robin Dennison's idols in "Art Work." The visual arts, and discussion about them and their creation, offer Byatt the opportunity to reflect on two of her favorite topics: postmodern life and the artist's craft.
Both Matisse and Van Gogh were influenced by Impressionism, one of the first flowerings of modern art in the nineteenth century, in its use of bright colors and more attention to abstract, flat composition. The Impressionists argued that people do not see objects as they are but as they reflect light. The Impressionists thus introduced the idea of seeing reality not as it is, but from a certain perspective.
Intense areas of saturated color, simple, childlike form and distortion of shape to present emotional response are qualities of Matisse's early period work in Fauvism (literally translated as "beast-like"). There are repeated references in Byatt's story to an early painting by Matisse called Luxe, calme et volupté (1904-1905). An artwork inspired by a poem by Charles Baudelaire, the painting shows naked bathers on a light filled beach. This title illustrates as well Matisse's creative process, which was attracted to the way sensuous color expressed light. He was fascinated by flat shapes and patterns. His light and color express emotion, as well as serenity and silence. The idyllic scenes, outdoors or through windows, and the generic but energetic people, give out a joyous innocence, such as his famous The Dance. Matisse's women are sensuous and languorous, like Natasha Dennison as she drapes herself across her bed.
Matisse was self-contained as an artist; like Robin Dennison, he was not interested in politics, though he lived through the world wars and the Cold War. Matisse creates a pre-civilized world, allowing us to see again with simplicity and freshness, a world of pure shape and color, pattern and texture. Matisse represents the aloof and godlike modern artist, free to experiment and give out his answers from on high. With Pablo Picasso, he shaped twentieth-century art as a highly inventive but disciplined discovery of new subject matter and technique.
The Art World in the 1960s and 1970s
In "Art Work," we learn that the main characters, Robin and Debbie Dennison, were in Art School at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, when the modernism of Matisse, though still influential, was being questioned in important ways. Robin thus falls between the modern and postmodern periods of art. As a young man, he is an artistic rebel. Like Matisse or Van Gogh, he carries on the formalist's passionate search for pure color, which becomes almost a religion to him. Turning away from the modernist abstraction of the first half of the twentieth century that had become the usual mode of painting, Robin becomes a neo-realist before it is fashionable to be one. Robin paints isolated realistic objects in empty space, emphasizing one pure color at a time. Shona McRury, the art gallery owner, describes these paintings as showing the littleness of life, and wonders when he will get on to a new style, for he has been doing the same thing for twenty years, while the art world has gone on to other things.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1990s: Like Mrs. Brown in the story, black British writers and artists from the servant class, such as the painter Sonia Boyce and the writer Andrea Levy, are beginning to gain fame in Britain.
Today: In 2007, twentieth-century black British history and culture is an academically studied topic in universities, demonstrating that black immigrant artists are recognized as part of mainstream British culture.
- 1990s: In the early 1990s, the below-market sale of tens of thousands of council flats (such as the one in which Mrs. Brown lives and produces her art), made them a respectable form of housing for the poor and minorities in Britain.
Today: In 2007, council housing is more and more marginalized and stigmatized, used mostly by refugees and organized gangs. This has led to much legislation and reorganization regarding the management of social housing for the poor in England.
- 1990s: "The Children of the Nineties" is a research project being conducted by the University of Bristol. The project tracks 14,000 British children and their parents in order to document the changing nature of families.
Today: In 2007, research studies verify that the proportion of working mothers (like Mrs. Brown and Debbie Dennison) in Britain is increasing.
Matisse and other great artists continually experimented, but Robin demonstrates how an artist can be ahead of his time one moment, and then suddenly be left behind. He is stuck in his style, yet he imitates his hero Matisse, who never paid attention to anything but his painting. This stance of the pure and remote genius, that Robin clings to on the third story of his London house, while his wife juggles her job, the children, and the ordinary details, was in the process of giving way in the 1960s and 1970s for that of the involved artist, whose life and work made a social statement.
For instance, there was the Pop art of artists like Andy Warhol, celebrating and criticizing consumer culture by painting Campbell's soup cans. There was Land art or Earthworks that used natural materials in the environment to call attention to the land. Conceptual art was a force against the formalism of artists like Matisse and did not rely on an artist's skill, but made use of a clever idea, such as Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917), made of a urinal; or Yoko Ono's book, Grapefruit (1964), a set of written instructions and drawings on how to have an aesthetic experience. Women artists were finally entering the world of art at this time, giving Debbie hopes of being a serious artist with her wood engravings.
Postmodern Art during the 1980s and 1990s
Postmodern art, begun in the rebellious 1960s, represents a rejection of modernism in many ways. Starting from the post-World War II period, fewer artists used painting as their primary medium; large installations, a departure from traditional sculpture, erased the line between art and life, such as the work of London artist, Richard Wilson, the sculptor, musician, and installation artist whose famous 20:50 is a room constructed to appear upside down. Performance art is similarly the unique expression or performance during a moment that breaks the notion of art as a solid object.
Robin Dennison's neo-realism anticipates several movements in postmodern art, including pop art, photorealism and hyperrealism. Hyperrealism is an illusory realism, with its roots in the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, who spoke of simulating or copying something that doesn't exist. Byatt is interested in these different expressions of realism in the visual arts because they relate to her narrative art. How does one represent life, visually or verbally? Hyperrealists create a false reality that is a convincing illusion, like a digital photograph. Hyperreal paintings and sculptures look like high resolution images on computers. Important European artists in this style include the photo paintings of Gerhard Richter that show the tension between a realistic object and the artist's making of the object, a theme in Byatt's work. Richter takes a photograph and blurs the outlines, calling that art.
Mrs. Brown's exhibit in "Art Work" is postmodern in that it does not pretend to be high art; it is found or assembled art that demonstrates the fragmented but creative possibilities of culture today. Her pieces are made with scraps of fabric put together in the basement of her tenement or council flat, the kind of subsidized housing that is typically occupied by Asians and blacks in England. She is one of the fringe members of society, a cleaning woman, with no studio or formal training. Yet her work is taken seriously and compared by the art critics in the story to the mad Victorian painter, Richard Dadd, who painted tiny intricate fairy scenes, or Kaffe Fasset, an actual popular London patchwork and needlework artist who had his own television show in the 1990s. These types of works are clearly outside the boundaries of the more respectable and intellectual modern art of venerable figures like Matisse, whose fame is worldwide and enduring. Postmodern art is not necessarily meant to be classical and enduring, but saying something about the now.
The traits associated with the use of the term postmodern in art include bricolage (or do-it-yourself, as you find it), collage (assembling unlikely things together), simplification, appropriation (borrowing), depiction of consumer or popular culture and performance art. In the 1990s, media and video art become prominent, with many artists exploring technological means. Kitsch, or camp art that is deliberately sentimental or in bad taste, is cultivated as an ironic demonstration that the borders between high art and popular art are blurred. Scottish artist, Jack Vettriano's The Singing Butler, showing a dancing butler with an umbrella on the beach, sold in the United Kingdom for 74,500 pounds sterling in 2004.
The Matisse Stories received enthusiastic reviews when it was first published. Kathleen Coyne Kelly, in her book A. S. Byatt, notes that the Guardian contributor Stuart Jeffries has remarked upon the narrative "ease" and emotional "fierceness" of the stories. Furthermore, the interplay of
the characters in "Art Work" is generally admired for its balanced, though tense tone. Indeed, in the Christian Science Monitor, Merle Rubin notes: "Byatt provides a gently mocking yet essentially sympathetic portrait of this flawed but definitely functional and loving family"
In her portrayal of female characters, Byatt avoids a strident feminist analysis. Bruce Bawer, writing in the New York Times Book Review comments that "Ms. Byatt deftly juggles an impatience with feminist ideology and a sharp insight into female sensibilities." Byatt thus holds the difficult ground of being concerned with women's issues, yet not labeled with any brand of feminism. Because of this, as Richard Todd points out in his book A. S. Byatt: Writers and Their Work, the author "has always attracted an unusually high proportion of male readers"
Kelly notes that some reviewers, such as Alex Clark in the Times Literary Supplement, bring up Byatt's well-known postmodern interest in the "indeterminate and ambiguous nature of representation itself." The nature of art and how it reflects life is a chief theme in "Art Work."
Andersen holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay on "Art Work," she discusses the story in terms of who is creating the work of art.
"Art Work" begins with a description of a black and white reproduction of Matisse's Le Silence habité des maisons (the inhabited silence of the house). It shows two people in a house, with trees outside a window. Above, sketched apparently on the wall, is an oval shape that could have been made by a child. Byatt calls it a watching totem. "Who is the watching totem under the ceiling?" A totem is a symbol for something or someone, and who, she asks, is the watching intelligence over this scene?
Kathleen Coyne Kelly answers in A. S. Byatt that the watching totem is Mrs. Brown, the maid who gathers all the information and materials from the household to become an artist herself. This essay extends the interpretation of who the totem face represents, suggesting that it stands for the point where reader, writer, and characters join in to imagine the story together. Like Matisse's paintings, the characters in the story are vivid but sketched in, the story unique but universal at the same time. It recognizably represents the pressures of contemporary life. Byatt, by leaving room in the story for imagination, points out the open-endedness of our own stories. Imagining and interpretation change the crude facts. We may have only a black and white reproduction before us, or a black and white life, but we must imagine with the intensity of Matisse's color. "Art Work" not only refers to the creation of art objects, but the creation of our lives. "We may imagine it." We are free to imagine.
In the beginning of the story, it is obvious the real artist at 49 Alma Road, London, in 1990, is not so much the painter, Robin Dennison, as his wife, Debbie. She is the one who most embodies the ideal of luxe, calme et volupté (light, calm, beauty), the name of an early painting by Matisse which is in turn inspired by Charles Baudelaire's poem "L'Invitation au voyage" ("Invitation to the Voyage"). Baudelaire invites us to imagine a land of beauty where all is orderly, full of light, and bliss. This is the reigning vision behind all Matisse's work. He does imagine and paint this world for viewers to enter and enjoy.
When the story opens, as many reviewers note, there is an immediate switch from the calm of the Matisse painting described, Le Silence habité des maisons to the frantic noise of the Dennison house. There is "the churning hum of the washing-machine" and the "banshee-scream of the spin-cycle." The television is tuned to an obnoxious children's show with no one watching. The vacuum cleaner "surges a roaring and wheezing noise" upstairs and down, wielded by the colored cleaning lady, Mrs. Brown. Natasha, the daughter, listens to loud music on headphones, and the boy Jamie, who is sick, plays with his loud electric trains.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Possession: A Romance (1990) is A. S. Byatt's best-known work. The plot of this novel goes back and forth between modern scholars who are investigating the secret love life of two Victorian writers, and the actual story of the writers. The intersecting plots allow the reader to question how we interpret the past. Byatt is a master at juxtaposing Victorian and postmodern cultures. The novel won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1990 and was adapted as a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow in 2002.
- The novelist Iris Murdoch was one of Byatt's role models and is the subject of two of Byatt's critical studies. Murdoch's Under the Net (1954) contains characters who are funny, intellectual, and who discuss morality and philosophy, like some of Byatt's characters. The book was selected by the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century.
- George Eliot's Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-1872) has also influenced Byatt's writing. Eliot's compassionate narrator interprets her characters in complex ways and makes the reader think through their dilemmas.
- Matisse on Art (1995), edited by Jack Flam, is a collection of the major writings and interviews of Henri Matisse. A general introduction outlines the development of Matisse's aesthetic values and theories.
Debbie is trying to work on her article for the magazine A Woman's Place, making noise on an old fashioned typewriter. Her editor calls to put more pressure on her. Despite interruptions, distractions and noise, she is the working mother who juggles in her awareness the sick boy, the doctor about to arrive, her husband working upstairs, the cleaning lady, her editor's demands, and the piece she works on, describing the color of new plastic kitchen ware for women readers. Is this a parody of Matisse's calm world, unachievable in these times?
Kelly quotes Hilary Spurling, a biographer of Matisse, on the function of Matisse in Byatt's stories: "Matisse is present, so to speak, as an under text…. Matisse's paintings … ride high above the surface of these stories: powerful, majestic, sensuous images, imposing their own equilibrium and detachment on the casual turbulence of daily life." This could imply that Matisse is "present" a contrast to the turbulence, or that Matisse "rides high" to inspire a kind of detached meditation on the turbulence of life. Byatt, however, moves beyond either of these options to invite us to infuse Matisse's ethic into the story, the characters, and our reading. Michael Worton states in "Of Prisms and Prose: Reading Paintings in A. S. Byatt's Work," in Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real, that Matisse is more than a trigger, or a clue to the content of the stories; Matisse shows us how to read them. By leaving areas blank or merely suggested, it "is the stimulus for the reader to engage in co-creating the text."
Byatt shows everyone in the act of creating his or her own text. Debbie is the artist of her own and her family's life. She is both in the picture as the mother or wife, and as a watching totem above the action, balancing all the energies of the house to achieve the greatest beauty and coherence available at that time, making a living art work, as it were. Aware of the repetition, and loath to repeat her usual part in marital arguments, she nevertheless plays the role with her husband as "somehow necessary to their survival." She accepts whatever might release tension, so they can continue in their lives.
Byatt, as an author, does the same balancing act. Though she writes of the chaos in the Dennison household, her descriptions transform all the details into brilliant and coherent compositions, thus allowing us to see beauty underneath. A good example is the portrait of Natasha on the bed with earphones: "Natasha's face has the empty beatific intelligence of some of Matisse's supine women. Her face is white and oval and luminous with youth." She is lying on a bed-spread with a design of black and red seaweeds influenced by Matisse's designs. Byatt spends pages luxuriously coloring in the rooms and objects and people of this inhabited silence of the house.
Byatt's language of color is obviously inspired by the painters she loves, particularly Van Gogh and Matisse. Like her character, Robin Dennison, Byatt searches for pure color. Language is sensuous and creates a physical sensation: "[Debbie] taps a tooth (ivory lacquer, a shade darker than the skin) with an oval nail, rose madder." Jane Campbell speaks of Byatt's "gifts for compression" in A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination. Byatt is attracted to the art of painting, imbibing its principles in writing, because, like music, it can move beyond concepts, it can evoke things economically and directly.
In an essay on Van Gogh in Passions of the Mind, Byatt points out his mystical ideas of color: "colours as the natural language of light and the earth." Byatt quotes a letter from Van Gogh in which he mentions he wants to use color to create an eternal halo around things, through the marriage of complementary colors. One is reminded of Robin's mystical yellow line created through the juxtaposition of red and green. Kelly asserts that Byatt's colors are an emotional grammar, or objective correlative for things or people. For instance, the portrait of Shona McRury could be the graphic representation of a woman from her own art gallery: "topaz eyes and long, silky brown hair, like a huge ribbon, caught up at the back with a tortoiseshell comb … an olive silk suit … a lemon-yellow silk shirt … lizard-skin shoes." She comes to the reader whole, in a brush stroke, as a self-created glamour ad.
Byatt's omniscient storyteller is able to track the extent to which each character is both actor and watching totem—that totem above the daily turbulence—representing the artistic or transforming consciousness itself. Robin, for instance, seems less aware of what is going on around and within him, absorbed with the outer form of his paintings in his search for color, stuck in a rut of repetition. His irritation at the "filth" of Mrs. Brown almost results in the cleaning woman leaving, a crisis which would undo Debbie's delicate management of the house. Robin is unaware that his dislike of Mrs. Brown is probably linked to an inherited panic of his father's at being invaded by charwomen who move things. It is this kind of unconscious behavior and prejudice that Byatt wants to identify as dangerous to society in general. Robin's ambitions, once large, have atrophied and do not include the needs of others. Growing up herself with the life of ideas and passionate reflection, Byatt celebrates novelist George Eliot in Passions of the Mind, because she populates her novels with characters "ambitious to use their minds to the full, to discover something, to live on a scale where their life felt valuable from moment to moment."
Byatt believes in the imagination as a saving grace. Ordinarily, Robin dismisses Mrs. Brown as ignorant. Yet knowing Debbie might lose Mrs. Brown due to his repulsion, he opens up in a moment of excitement to explain his secrets of color to the cleaning woman. This helps Mrs. Brown learn her craft as an artist, which in turn, ends up influencing Robin to change his style and become more successful. Life, Byatt shows, is not an escape to a separate world of light, calm, and beauty. Life happens only when those generous qualities are present or glimpsed, in art work, or around us—when they are invited in.
And what of the reader? The reader identifies with the situation of the characters but is also given a chance to create an art work of "Art Work" as well, through the act of reading. Like Matisse's figures in the painting, Le Silence habité des maisons, the faces of the Dennison family and Mrs. Brown are left somewhat blank or ambiguous, so the reader may choose how to color them in. "We may imagine it."
Debbie is a beautiful woman, but we only get hints: she has "ink and ivory beauty" like her daughter's, an oval chin, rose madder nail polish. Robin thinks her beautiful and orderly, the opposite of Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown presents an eccentric and interesting exterior: a sort of yellow skin and "wiry soot-coloured hair, which rose, like the crown of a playing-card king, out of a bandeau of flowery material" and her clothes are "flowery and surprising." The portrait of Robin seems precise, with his long thin form in jeans and face "like a worried colt," but a photographer could make "him look like a gentle mystic" or "a dedicated cricketer." Every character is many-sided and open to interpretation, even in appearance, for appearance is also constructed by the eye of the beholder.
Robin is a complex and sympathetic character, fascinating to his author in his attempt to answer the question: "Why bother, why make representations of anything at all?" This is Byatt's own question as an artist. As Richard Todd points out in A. S. Byatt: Writers and Their Work, Byatt can be read as a complex social realist, but at the same time, she questions the ability to accurately represent things in language. How is it possible to shed the cultural bias in language and see things as they are? Why bother to try? These are the questions of her predecessors and artistic models as well: George Eliot, Robert Browning, Henry James, and Iris Murdoch—passionate thinkers and feelers who wanted to put thought into accurate and effective form. Campbell states that this is Byatt's "self-conscious realism." Self-conscious inquiry into the process of making up stories within a work of fiction is called metafiction, or fiction that is about itself. Byatt uses Robin's attempt to paint realistically to reflect on her own art as a storyteller.
Robin's realism is naïve at first, "just this side of kitsch." He isolates the object and colors creating "nostalgic emptiness containing verisimilitude." He never paints anything alive, and the gallery owner, Shona McRury, comments that the paintings are about the littleness of our lives. Robin is shocked, for he is more concerned with technique: "they are not about littleness but about the infinite terror of the brilliance of colour, of which he could almost die." Without colours, "he was grey fog in a world of grey fog." This, without doubt, describes Byatt's own need for language. She speaks in Passions of the Mind of Browning's sense of "incarnation" or clothing thought in sensuous image to make it alive. Robin, like Byatt in her career as an author, moves from early and simple realism, to more experimental forms, such as his painting of the goddess of destruction, Kali, a geometric and mythical portrait of Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown herself can only express what a vacuum cleaner means by turning it into a dragon. Byatt's own experimentation with form includes the interplay of realism, historical fiction, and myth.
Mrs. Brown, the postmodern artist, is not afraid to combine, experiment, and use what she finds to create something beautiful. Like Debbie, she is an artist of life, cleaning houses to send a son to college, helping Debbie to keep her life together, but Mrs. Brown cannot help being an artist in another sense, as well. Though not trained in an Art School, like the Dennisons, she demonstrates that creating is itself a human activity, not reserved for the educated or the upper classes. In the medium of soft sculpture made from the cast-offs of her employers, she creates a world of fantasy, thus becoming an overnight success, and in turn, inspiring the Dennisons to new creative efforts. Debbie returns to her fairy-like wood engravings, and Robin's new style has "slightly savage energy." Debbie thought she knew Mrs. Brown, and Robin did not care for her at all. Yet, she became a turning point in their lives.
One purpose of metafiction, then, is to reflect on how humans in general construct their own reality. There could be a lot of Mrs. Browns out there, living on the margins, unknown, unimagined by us, and we could be Mrs. Brown ourselves, not yet fleshed out or recognized. Campbell speaks of "Byatt's insistence on openness and inclusiveness." Stories demonstrate the way we can imagine life to be fuller: "Narration is as much part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood," says Byatt in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." She continues in that essay to emphasize imagination as akin to life itself: "Stories are like genes, they keep part of us alive after the end of our story." Imagination is also prerequisite to the moral sense. Art as Byatt sees it, claims Campbell, "has the power, by engaging the imagination, to break cycles of repetition, to jolt us out of apathy into a renewed perception of the uniqueness of the ordinary, and to release us from enclosure." Therefore, not only may we imagine, we must.
Source: Susan Andersen, Critical Essay on "Art Work," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Fishwick gives a close critical reading of The Matisse Stories, concluding that the stories are an exploration of art and creativity.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Source: Sarah Fishwick, "Encounters with Matisse: Space, Art, and Intertextuality in A. S. Byatt's The Matisse Stories and Marie Redonnet's Villa Rosa," in Modern Language Review, Vol. 99, No. 1, January 2004, pp. 52-64.
Lewis Burke Frumkes and A. S. Byatt
In the following interview, Frumkes talks with Byatt, who speaks about The Matisse Stories, the collection that "Art Work" appears in. Byatt also discusses her writing process and the authors who have influenced her.
Lewis Frumkes: One of England's most distinguished writers, A. S. Byatt, won the Booker Prize for her novel Possession, and she has written a number of other novels, as well as criticism. Her latest work, The Matisse Stories, published in the United States by Random House, won high critical acclaim. Let me begin by asking A. S. Byatt to talk a little about The Matisse Stores. What prompted them, and what makes them different from your other stories?
A.S. Byatt: I didn't have the idea of writing a book called The Matisse Stories. I've come to realize that it's quite important to say that. The idea of putting these three stories together under this title actually belongs to my French translator, who said to me a couple of years ago, "I think I'll translate your three stories that have Matisse in them." So, it wasn't a commercial or technical decision for me to write three stories on this theme. It was more that I am totally obsessed with Matisse. He sort of gets into everything I do. He's my touchstone for art, the importance of art, as opposed to anything else, in its purest, most uncompromising state. The third of the three stories, "The Chinese Lobster," is one of my favorites of anything I've ever written. You know, every now and then, you do something that comes out right. I think that one goes rather deep and does come out right.
LF: You work with words the way Matisse works with tints and colors. Do you have favorite words that recur, or words you have a fondness for?
ASB: They tend to be color words. At the moment, I am very keen on vermilion and emerald, which I think are very beautiful words. I like words that go running along, like Shakespeare saying, "the multitude in an incarnadine sea making the green one red." I like the one thing the English can do well, setting one of those very long words next to a very short word. I like what I learned at school about putting long Latin words next to very short Anglo-Saxon words. Really, I like almost all words.
LF: You've read a lot of Iris Murdoch's work, haven't you?
ASB: Yes. When I was a post-graduate student I was really looking for a kind of novel to write that wasn't full of macho, lower-middle-class or lower-class British people beating up on girls. I discovered Iris Murdoch and felt her novels had a kind of thinking tension. They were actually trying to work out what life was about, and at the same time, they were funny. They moved fast. They were elegant and passionate. I thought, "This is it."
Then, I wrote a small book about her work. I have admired her for a long time. She believes that beauty and goodness are the same thing. She has a sort of frightening idea that all art except the very greatest is conciliation.
LF: Who were your literary heroes, heroines, and models when you were young?
ASB: Coleridge, that kind of strange world of "Kubla Khan", and The Ancient Mariner … I read all of Jane Austen, most of Dickens, and a lot of Walter Scott, when I was a little girl, as I think children did in those days, because there was no television.
LF: And as you grew older?
ASB: George Eliot, whom I now greatly admire. Willa Cather is a very recent hero. She is my latest discovery, and she has somehow changed the way I write. Moby Dick is wonderful. I think Wallace Stevens is the greatest modern poet. He also has an obsession with color.
LF: When did you start writing?
ASB: Almost when I started reading. I was writing stories at about nine or ten. I had a letter from somebody in Canada who said, "I was at boarding school with you when you were writing this novel about a highwayman, and you would read it to us in the evenings in the bedroom." That is not how I remember my school days. I remember nobody speaking to me. I felt rather abashed at this kind memory this lady had sent me. I did write another whole novel, which I burned in the school furnace. I was right. Then, I wrote another novel and a half while I was a student, but it strikes me that during the whole of that time, I thought I wasn't doing anything. I thought, "Help! Help! I haven't begun. I'm nearly twenty-one, and I am a failure. I won't be a writer." I seem to need to feel that I am not getting anywhere. Then, I go even faster.
LF: Why, Antonia Susan Byatt, do you call yourself A. S. Byatt?
ASB: I think maybe it has to do with T. S. Eliot, who was another of my heroes. Also, when I grew up, there were a lot of writers who used initials. Even Dorothy Sayers wrote as D. L. Sayers. Occasionally, when I get depressed about people treating me as if I were odd or trying to change the name on the cover to Antonia, I think that P. D. James gets along fine.
LF: What writers do you read for pleasure?
ASB: I just discovered Walter Moseley. His titles all have different colors. There's one called White Butterfly, another called Red Death. His books have wonderful narrative tension. I also like reading Martin Cruz Smith, whom I have finally met. I was amazed to find that he reads my work; it didn't strike me that it would necessarily be reciprocal. I read P. D. James. These are the books I read when I need narrative and relaxation.
LF: How do you work? What are your writing habits?
ASB: I work every day if I possibly can. I write anything I regard as serious writing with a pen, slowly. I can do journalism on the word processor. I actually enjoy the word processor. I skipped the typewriter phase completely. I hate them. I still have to think with my fingers. I like to work from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day. I have taken to stopping for a swim in the middle. Writing is incredibly sedentary.
LF: What advice would you give to people who would like to write?
ASB: The first is to keep reading. Read everybody. I've met a lot of people in writing groups, and one of the things they tend to say is, "I don't read other writers in case it destroys my originality." You will not be original if you do not read other authors' writing. People who do not read other people's writing are all the same. The second piece of advice is always to stop when you are in the middle of something that you know the next bit of and are excited by it. Then, you can take it up again the next morning. That keeps the continuity going, which is one of the real hassles. If you stop when you know what you are going to write next, then you do not have a blank page facing you. The third is to carry a notebook everywhere. Write down things that you see. I never write things down about myself. Play with the language. I do not have any advice about professional forms and structures. Walter Moseley is about as far from me as you can get, but I have learned things about rhythm from him. People should read very widely, and then digest what they've read.
LF: What does it feel like to be A. S. Byatt?
ASB: It feels rather good at the moment, because for a long time I went on writing all by myself and had my little audience. Suddenly, I had a very big audience. When I was talking in Boston recently, and about five people came up to me and said that I was their favorite writer. That isn't the type of thing I expect to hear. I am enjoying it, because I write as I have always written. I have another four books and about twenty stories in my head. So, I am not frightened about running out of material.
Source: Lewis Burke Frumkes and A. S. Byatt, "A Conversation with … A. S. Byatt," in Writer, Vol. 110, No. 5, May 1997, 3 pp.
John F. Baker
In the following article, Baker provides a critical overview of Byatt's writing career along with a profile of the author.
To Meet Antonia (A.S.) Byatt at home you must travel, unless you want a very hefty taxi fare, by underground to a station a couple of stops across the Thames in Putney, a not particularly fashionable district in southwest London. A brisk 10-minute walk brings you to a substantial Edwardian semi-detached villa which, on an early March evening, dank and gloomy, seems to embody the essence of British middle-class complacency.
Inside, improbably, lives a polymath who is not only a bestselling novelist on both sides of the Atlantic but an admired critic, a highly productive reviewer, a radio dramatist, an editor, a university lecturer, an authority on writers ranging from Proust to Grace Paley, somewhat of a pillar in the English intellectual establishment and a concerned mother to three grown daughters.
It was Byatt's Possession a bittersweet romance that was also a tour de force of literary scholarship, affectionate parody and epistolary legerdemain, that, much to everyone's surprise, catapulted her onto American bestseller lists for a dazzling five months in the first half of 1991. Before that, she had won admiring reviews rather than readers and had enjoyed nothing like the presence on the American scene of her younger sister, Margaret Drabble. (It is generally understood in London literary circles, incidentally, that one does not discuss one sister with the other; but in terms of their respective careers, it seems that, after a much slower start, Byatt's is now clearly on the ascendant.)
She is an attractive woman in her upper 50s with sharply intelligent eyes and a softly humorous mouth. She settles herself into a chair beneath a wall of bookcases in the front parlor and proceeds to regale PW for two hours, like someone well practiced in being interviewed, with the contents of a formidably well-stocked mind. Subjects touched on in passing included, but were by no means limited to, the Joan Collins lawsuit, 19th-century costume design, the work of Anthony Burgess, the psychology of Salman Rushdie (a close friend), Hollywood and the writer, the state of writing in Britain today, the role of women in the American ethos, the relationship of psychiatry to literature and the need for publishers to understand better what many of their readers want.
The occasion for the interview is the publication this month by Random House of a new novel that is epic in both size and scope, called Babel Tower (Forecasts, Mar. 25). Although the fact has not been much noted here (largely because its predecessors had made comparatively little impact in the States), it is the third in a series of novels chronicling the life and times of Frederica Potter, a brilliant, sensitive Cambridge graduate (like Byatt herself) as she comes to terms with the world of the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. The earlier volumes were The Virgin in the Garden (Knopf, 1979) and Still Life (Scribner, 1987).
Still to come is a fourth book, to be called A Whistling Woman, which will bring the Frederica saga to an end and, Byatt hopes, will conclude in 1968, the year of student revolutions that also saw the beginning of the rise of contemporary feminism. "I'm planning to write about a big conference on the mind, to be held in Yorkshire, that is invaded by all the forces of unreason abroad at that time—pop groups, the way-out variants of religion."
Consumed by Ideas
Byatt, who has spoken of "intellectual passions being as vibrant and consuming as emotional ones," and whose best work balances both varieties, is the kind of writer whose mind is so compendious that deciding what to leave out of her books is more of a problem than an author's usual frantic search for ideas. Throughout her career, her fictional ventures have been interspersed with critical studies (of Iris Murdoch, George Eliot, Wordsworth); collections of essays (the revealingly titled Passions of the Mind was one); and even a recent book in which she collaborated with Argentine psychiatrist Ignês Sodré to discuss the inner workings of a number of significant women writers (including Willa Cather, another favorite, and Toni Morrison, "a major writer by any standard").
And though her fictional works are much livelier than anything suggested by that dread phrase "novels of ideas," that is what, at heart, they are. She sees Babel Tower, for instance, as partly a study of how people behave in groups. There are long, delectable passages describing the deliberations of a learned committee studying the British school system. The book is also about "how language can be used to exclude people." Two of the novel's extremely high points are engrossing trials: one of Frederica's petition for divorce from her husband, a smugly brutal country gentleman; the other of a sprawling, challenging novel (which gives Byatt's book its own title) for obscenity. And in both cases, language is being used by some to preserve entrenched positions and by others to win liberation from them.
Both versions of Babel Tower are also about what Byatt sees as "a sort of pattern in the '60s—a longing for freedom leading to excess and ultimately to cruelty." Even those who embarked on a spiritual quest, as many did, found that it ran alongside "a damage-doing thing." Byatt is hard on cruelty. As one of the judges for the latest series of Granta awards to young British writers, she asserts that "the books we didn't list were full of nasty, sadistic things. It's not hard to be shocking, but it's best if it's done quietly and neatly; don't just beat people over the head."
Discussions of contemporary British writing today, she says, tend to focus on how members of minority cultures are reinvigorating a lifeless tradition. "In Salman [Rushdie]'s wonderful phrase, ‘The Empire strikes back,’ but I think there's more to it than that. A tradition that can embrace writers like Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, William Golding, is not at all moribund."
Byatt is so intent on discussing the present state of writing, and some of her favorite theories ("People don't seem to understand that one of the things that drives Salman is his English public schoolboy sense of mischief, a love of pranks—hence The Satanic Verses") that it is quite hard to get her to focus on herself as the subject of the interview. "I always wonder if I shall survive a publicity tour; most people always ask the same things, and after a while you find yourself looking on amazed at the strange things you say. You find yourself being observed all the time, whereas I like it to be the other way round, with me doing the observing, sitting in a corner, quietly watching."
But the details emerge. Byatt was born into a North Country family (in the steel town of Sheffield); her father was a judge who had risen to that eminence, incredibly, from working-class origins. The bright Drabble daughters went off to Cambridge and shining careers. A first marriage to an economist, Charles Byatt, saw the birth of a daughter, also Antonia, and a son, Charles. There followed the beginning, in the late 1960s, of a series of books, published as Byatt taught and lectured, in English and also, for a time, at an art school (her knowledge of art is extensive, and everywhere apparent in her work). Then, in 1972, tragedy struck when her son was run over by a drunk driver; and for years, Byatt was unable to write a word. A second marriage, to Peter Duffy, saw the birth of Isabel and Miranda.
Miranda has just got her degree ("she doesn't know what she wants to do, but it's not literature"); Antonia runs the literary festival at London's South Bank Centre; and Isabel was "somewhere up in the mountains of Peru, on the trail of the Incas—I hope she'll come down soon."
Byatt is still somewhat bemused by her strangely checkered publishing history in the U.S. "Somehow, editors didn't seem to know about me for a long time, but others did. I was taught in colleges, and people studied my books. "Her American career began when Harcourt published Shadow of a Sun, her first novel, in 1964; it got good reviews but small readership. "Then they thought my next book, The Game, was too intellectual, so I went to Scribners, and again good reviews, but …" Her agent at the time, Norah Smallwood, got her a deal with Bob Gottlieb at Knopf, who brought out the first Frederica book, The Virgin in the Garden, in 1979. He didn't want Still Life, however, so it was back to Scribner—at which point Byatt encountered, in the person of Laurie Schieffelin, "a lovely editor, the best I had in America, who asked great questions. Most American editors, you know, do far too much editing, and you have to spend your time trying to stop them."
That was certainly the case with Possession, which had a most curious history here. "No one wanted it. Peter Matson [representing her current London agent, Michael Sissons] kept sending me glowing letters of rejection saying how everyone loved it, but they just couldn't visualize who would possibly want to read it. Then Susan Kamil, to her great credit, decided she wanted it for Turtle Bay. But she wanted lots of changes—to take out most of the poetry and many of the letters, for a start. She came over and we had tea at the Ritz. I wasn't feeling well, and when she started talking about what would have to go, I fainted dead away. It was very dramatic. She took me up to her room, and when I came round I said I couldn't agree to any of it."
Then the book came out in England, albeit initially in a printing of only 7000 copies, caused an immediate stir and ultimately won the Booker in 1990, "and after that they told me I could have it just as I wanted it. It was real luck that Random took it over; there seems to have been a lot of luck in my life lately." This included the publication of her novella Angels and Insects (1993), which had been all set to come out as a Turtle Bay book just as that imprint folded: "There were no ads, no promotion, nothing." Then word of the forthcoming movie saved it. Byatt was closely involved in the movie, which got glowing notices and is still around, and worked on the screenplay with director Philip Haas and wife Belinda. "I wanted it to be over the top, and they gave me a real say in how it went."
Possession, as befits a big bestseller, has been bought outright (by Warner) for a movie, but Byatt is anxious about how it will be handled. "The real romance in the book is in the letters, and I think the partners in the contemporary romance are a bit foolish. You've got to have someone who sees that, and mocks them just a little." She goes on: "Hollywood people think writers know nothing about films, but at least we know enough to make sure the original quality that persuaded them to buy the book isn't lost."
Byatt was on tour in the U.S. last year for her most recent work, an elegant short-story collection called The Matisse Stories. According to Byatt, you could tell where she'd been because in those cities the book showed up on local bestseller lists. As she went, she found herself talking, at readings and signings, about her experience with Possession, and the cuts, originally asked for, and finding a strong response. "People in the bookshops actually began to yell: ‘Listen to us! Publishers should listen to us!’ There are enough passionate readers out there, and publishers could keep them going if only they would try to look after them. Real readers buy 20 or 30 books to every one bought by people who look for big gold letters on the cover. If you sell only 2000 or 3000 copies of a good book you're not doing too badly; just don't print two million and make a muddle."
Dusk is enfolding Putney now, and Byatt suddenly seems to realise how long, and with what concentrated energy, she has been holding forth. "I must stop talking now and let you go," she says, in a judicious mix of compassion and self-preservation. Later that night, her faithful and until recently (as part of HarperCollins) somewhat embattled London publisher, Harvill, is throwing a late-night party to celebrate both an anniversary and its recently won independence, in a remote and distant corner of North London. Byatt is tired and wonders aloud whether she should go all that way: "But I really should. I want to show my support."
Source: John F. Baker, "A. S. Byatt: Passions of the Mind," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 21, May 20, 1996, pp. 235-36.
Bawer, Bruce, "What We Do for Art," in the New York Times Book Review, Vol. 144, April 30, 1995, p. 9.
Byatt, A. S., "Art Work," in The Matisse Stories, Random House, 1993, pp. 31-90.
———, "George Eliot: A Celebration," in Passions of the Mind, Chatto and Windus, 1991, p. 64.
———, "The Greatest Story Ever Told," in On Histories and Stories, Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 166.
———, "Robert Browing: Fact, Fiction, Lies, Incarnation and Art," in Passions of the Mind, Chatto and Windus, 1991, pp. 21-62.
———, "Van Gogh, Death and Summer," in Passions of the Mind, Chatto and Windus, 1991, p. 274.
Campbell, Jane, A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004, pp. 4-5, 25, 177.
Kelly, Kathleen Coyne, A. S. Byatt, Twayne's English Author Series, No. 529, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 55, 57-58, 148-50.
Rubin, Merle, "A Novelist with a Civilized, Artistic Eye," in the Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 87, No. 101, April 20, 1995, p. 12.
Todd, Richard, A. S. Byatt: Writers and Their Work, Northcote House, 1997, pp. 1, 17, 36.
Worton, Michael, "Of Prisms and Prose: Reading Paintings in A. S. Byatt's Work," in Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real, edited by Alexa Alfer and Michael J. Noble, Greenwood Press, 2001, p. 24.
Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, Guilford Press, 1997.
This book tracks the change from modernism to postmodernism in art, science, politics, and theory.
Levy, Andrea, Never Far From Nowhere, Headline Review, 1996.
This novel by a well-known Jamaican-English writer describes the life Mrs. Brown would have lived on a council estate in London. It is a story about two black sisters and, like Mrs. Brown's children, one went to college and one didn't. The novel won the Orange Prize for fiction.
Sim, Stuart, The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Routledge, 2004.
A series of in-depth chapters explains the background of postmodernism in both theory and practice. Included are A to Z entries on the terms, thinkers, philosophies, and writers that influenced the movement.
Spurling, Hilary, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, 1909-1954, Vol. 2, The Conquest of Colour, Knopf, 2007.
This celebrated and award-winning study of the mature Matisse provides further insight into the artist and the art that inspired Byatt's short stories.
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