As the blurb commenter of A. S. Byatt’s The Matisse Stories says, “[E]ach of A. S. Byatt’s narratives is in some way inspired by a painting of Henri Matisse, [and] each is also about the intimate connection between seeing and feeling–about the ways in which a glance we meant to be casual may suddenly call forth the deepest reserves of our being.” When one researches the works of Matisse, the two words that are most closely associated with him are draughtsmanship and color. Draughtsmanship has special affinities to seeing line, just as color has special relationships to experiencing emotion. In her series of three short stories relating to Matisse, A. S. Byatt pays tribute to draughtsmanship and color, not only by discussing things to do with Matisse and by making her characters interested in him as someone they themselves are either aware of as a cultural figure or want to follow as an inspiration, but also by embodying qualities of good fictional draughtsmanship and color in her stories themselves.
The first story, “Medusa’s Ankles,” follows the developing relationship of a middle-aged woman with her hairdresser Lucian, which is begun when she sees a Rosy Nude of Matisse’s used as an ornament in the hair salon and walks in on impulse. Though the draughtsmanship of the story shows that the people in the salon are in reality constantly a disappointment to the patron’s attempts to develop a roseate view of life, her sense of emotional color overcomes the negative things she notices (for example, when the renovation of the salon goes through a less than sympathetic actual color scheme). Thus in the first story, for a long stretch of the plot, the “line” of the story and the “color” are at odds, at war with each other in a creative way.
Because Lucian, in contrast with the stereotypical conversational habits of hairdressers, focuses on his own life story rather than on hers, the patron does not become involved with it, and is even mildly irritated by the relation of it, until Lucian dwells too long on his wife’s thick ankles, one of the petty things driving him into the arms of his girlfriend. Then the patron realizes that she too is a middle-aged woman with thick ankles, and becomes irate and destructive, supposedly because she doesn’t like the way her hair is done (by an assistant that one time instead of by Lucian himself). One sees that in the “line” of the story, Lucian has rejected the patron twice, not only in his “shadow plot” rejection of his own wife, but in this time passing her hair styling on to an assistant. The “colors” of the salon, the delicate combinations of cream and pink which have given way to steel, “storm-grey” and black and white, are “clarified” out by her wrathful destruction of the salon, which resolves itself because Lucian says insurance will pay, and he’s getting out of the salon business anyway. The final irony is of course that later at home the patron’s husband, who doesn’t normally notice her hair, comes out with an interesting remark:”‘You look different. You’ve had your hair done. I like it. You look lovely. It takes twenty years off you. You should have it done more often.’ And he came over and kissed her on the shorn nape of her neck, quite as he used to do.” At this point, though there is no longer a place for the patron to get her hair done unless she goes somewhere else, the line and the color of the story have otherwise reached a peaceful resolution.
The second story, “Art Work,” begins with a direct “quote” from Matisse in the sense that it is a word-picture of a Matisse painting, Le Silence habité des maisons, and is a domestic scene of a mother and child together over a book, under a “totem” picture on the wall. But the story which follows is about the domestic life of two married artists with two children, and how they get along with Mrs. Sheba Brown, their housekeeper. For she is the “totem” in their lives, and comes to dominate the scene in the way totems do. All of the characters and objects in the story are described in language which strives to paint a verbal picture, replete with shapes and color words, even to what may seem, to a reader uninitiated to Byatt’s way of making points, a callous degree. For example, with no outright emotional color words but with literal color words, Mrs. Brown’s bruises and discolorations at the hands of a man with whom she has been close are “painted.” The distance in this relation is obviously meant to depict the distance the family keeps from involvement with Mrs. Brown, though their relations are friendly on the surface. There are also many descriptions of the interiors of rooms, as if Matisse were himself observing.
Mrs. Brown has been with the family for more than ten years, and is firmly resented by the husband, Robin Dennison, because she straightens up his painting studio, and because she dresses in fantastic color combinations, which Robin, though he wants to imitate Matisse’s vivid colors, cannot appreciate. The “kicker” to the story occurs when, after a gallery agent comes to look at Robin’s work and decides not to feature it, Mrs. Brown makes a play for her attention for her own knitted art works (made from the cast-off rags of the family’s clothes) and immediately gets an exhibition of her work. It is thus she and not them who has kept the “history” of their family in her use of the clothes, which Debbie Dennison, the mother, is able to identify and remember the provenance of when she sees the bits and pieces used creatively at the gallery. Mrs. Brown does, of course, find them another housekeeper, but her surprise dereliction of duty has had some unusual results. For one thing, Debbie retreats from her profitable but spiritless magazine work to make wood-engravings for children’s books, her original love, and Robin, though just as angry at the new cleaning lady, experiences a rebirth as well. The story ends with Debbie’s reaction to Robin’s new work, explained initially to her by Mrs. Stimpson, the new cleaning lady: “‘It’s a picture of Kali the Destroyer.’ It is not right, thinks Debbie, that the black goddess should be a simplified travesty of Sheba Brown, that prolific weaver of bright webs. But at the same time she recognises a new kind of loosed, slightly savage energy in Robin’s use of colour and movement. ‘It’s got something,’ says Mrs. Stimpson pleasantly. ‘I really do think it’s got something.’ Debbie has to agree. It has indeed got something.” Hence, it’s possible to see that in restoring both a certain “line” to the two artists in the Dennison family by causing them to re-visit their creative roots and also by giving them a certain “color” through her lesson to them of how they had failed, as a family, to know her well enough as a friend to be aware of her secretive art work, Mrs. Brown has been instrumental in a key art lesson from Matisse’s own palette.
In the third and most somber of the three stories, “The Chinese Lobster,” a Dean of Women, Dr. Himmelblau (“blue heaven,” a significant name if ever there was one!) and Peregrine Diss, an art professor, are meeting to discuss a suicidal problem student who has made a complaint of sexual harassment and intellectual neglect against the professor, her supervisor. But as the title indicates, the real subject isn’t so much the student (though copious amounts of detail about the student, her life, her works, and her attitudes, as provided by her letter of complaint, are provided in the story as a sort of red herring); rather, the subject is the “meal” art provides us with, and what we can make of our lives when art fails us. In a glass box at the front of the gourmet Chinese restaurant, there is a lobster, some crabs, and some scallops, all on display but not kept in salt water, which means they will gradually expire in agony. Though this point is not made strongly at the beginning of the story, as the two academics have a leisurely lunch, Dr. Himmelblau remembers how a friend of her own after numerous suicide attempts succeeded and died, and it becomes obvious to her that Professor Diss knows something about suicide too, as she sees by the scars on his wrists. So, they more or less make a mutual decision to let the really quite untalented student change supervisors, to someone whom they know will be sympathetic and will pass her, rather than be responsible for failing her and having on their hands a suicide attempt. Their whole meal has been very artistic, and they have discussed Matisse, whom the student was studying for her work, but dominating the whole conversation is their mutual awareness that art fails to reach some people, even amongst those who consider themselves devotees. As they finish the meal, however, something has happened. Though Gerda Himmelblau has herself made some half-hearted attempts to end her life, we only find out about it near the end of the story when Perry Diss and she are getting ready to leave the table. He has forged a bond with her when the two of them were previously seemingly at odds, and it is because they both know what can happen when there’s “a failure of imagination,” that is when someone fails adequately to think about how the people left behind will feel. They part with no absolute assurance of any kind, either to each other, or to the reader from the authorial voice. The scallops in the glass display box, we are told, have died, though the crabs and lobster are still alive. “The lobster and the crabs are all still alive, all, more slowly, hissing their difficult air, bubbling, moving feet, feelers, glazing eyes. Inside Gerda Himmelblau’s ribs and cranium she experiences, in a way, the pain of alien fish-flesh contracting inside an exo-skeleton. She looks at the lobster and the crabs, taking accurate distant note of the loss of gloss, the attentuation of colour.” It seems thus as if one is forced either to take matters in one’s own hands when in pain and end things, or to slowly and painfully expire while waiting life out, as the helpless shellfish in the display case are doing. The story ends with Dr. Himmelblau kissing Diss on the cheek and the two of them parting amid assurances that somehow ring a little hollow, though they are now at one, not only on their problem with the student, but also on the questions of art and life. The message delivered by the “line” and “color” of the predominant image of the title seems thus to be that art is not something which offers assurances, but instead is something which offers only itself, as Dr. Himmelblau realizes “cruelly, imperfectly, voluptuously, clearly.” This indeed is an encapsulization of “the intimate connection between seeing and feeling,” as the two characters stand before the glass display case and empathize both with each other and with the “alien fish-flesh.” If there is a positive message, it is in their new relation to each other, their achieved understanding and empathy.
In many of her books and short stories, A. S. Byatt uses color language and spends quite a lot of time painting vivid images of people, rooms, inanimate objects, and natural surroundings. She glories in the extravagances of vocabulary, and causes the attentive reader to visualize color and line with emotions at the ready, and to react imaginatively to the sensuous word-play and imagery. In this book, she has excelled as usual with this technique, and has pointed openly to at least one of her own inspirations, Henri Matisse; she can easily rejoice in the title “the Matisse of prose writers.”