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Encounters with Matisse: space, art, and intertextuality in A. S. Byatt's The Matisse Stories and Marie Redonnet's Villa Rosa.

This article takes as its focus two texts written by contemporary European women writers and published in the mid-1990s, which draw upon the work of the French modernist artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954). These are: A. S. Byatt's The Matisse Stories, a collection of three short stories written in English and first published in 1993, and Villa Rosa, by the French novelist and playwright Marie Redonnet, published in 1996. Both texts incorporate protagonists who either have themselves met Matisse or have ancestors who have done so. As well as weaving direct references to Matisse's life and artistic productions into their narratives, Byatt's stories and Redonnet's tale also feature reproductions of works by Matisse in their 'peritextual' field. (1) Chatto & Windus's 1993 hardback edition of Byatt's The Matisse Stories displays a reproduction of Le Silence habite des maisons (1947) on the front of its dustjacket, while his Le Nu rose (1935) and La Porte noire (1942) appear on the back. (2) In addition, each of Byatt's three stories is prefaced by a line drawing by Matisse. Similarly, Flohic's hardback edition of Redonnet's Villa Rosa features a small-scale reproduction of Matisse's Jeune Fille en rose (1942) on its cover and the text is interspersed with a series of prints--thirty-seven in all--of works by Matisse. The prints, which are not reproduced in a chronological sequence, appear on the edition's left-hand pages and the novel's text on the right. The main body of the text is followed by a reproduction of a photograph taken in 1928 of Matisse and his model Zita in the artist's studio. This photograph precedes a three-page chronology of Matisse's life and achievements. Redonnet's novella is one of a series of more than twenty-five texts published since the mid-1990s by the French art-publishing house Flohic. The series, entitled 'Musees secrets', aims to explore the fertile common ground occupied by art and literature by means of short (semi-)fictional texts which are illustrated with reproductions of works of art by a single artist. As Alain Salles's article on the series published in Le Monde makes clear, each author selects the work or life of a celebrated artist and takes that material as the starting point for their recit. The series was conceived, however, with a view to avoiding the conventions of formal art criticism: 'Il ne s'agit pas d'une etude sur un peintre, mais d'un texte inspire par son oeuvre, qui fonctionne en echo avec les illustrations, soit a partir de la vie de l'artiste, soit sous la forme d'une fiction.' (3)

If I have chosen to explore Byatt's The Matisse Stories and Redonnet's Villa Rosa in tandem, it is not simply because they both use Matisse's work as a 'touchstone' (4) for their narratives and, like Matisse's artwork, make ample use of colour symbolism. It is also because both texts are united by a focus on the figure of the artist and the practice of artistic creation, a focus that has long been discernible in the fictional output of both writers. The texts contained in The Matisse Stories provide further evidence of Byatt's fascination with art, and painting in particular; a fascination already apparent in fictional works which predate this collection, such as Still Life (1985) and the short stories 'Precipice-Encurled' and 'Sugar', the tenth and eleventh stories respectively in her 1987 collection Sugar and Other Stories. (5) A similar interest in artistic or visual modes of representation, and what they awaken in and reveal to the individual, is apparent in Redonnet's fictional oeuvre. As Aine Smith has pointed out, Redonnet's texts are populated by a whole host of characters, including writers, dressmakers, dancers, and circus performers, for whom artistic practice serves as 'a means of generating identity, or, at the very least, of elaborating a fuller, more cohesive and enduring sense of self than that which originally exists'. (6) It is worth noting, however, that, prior to Villa Rosa in 1996, Redonnet's interest in what the individual derives from the process of artistic creation manifests itself most prominently, not in a fictional exploration of the artist/viewer and the painted canvas but rather in a textual preoccupation with the cinematic medium and the use of photography. Redonnet's novel Rose Melie Rose (1987), in particular, displays a preoccupation with the photographic image, while the cinematic image is a recurrent motif in Silsie (1990) and Candy Story (1992).

To return to Byatt's The Matisse Stories and Redonnet's Villa Rosa, however, both texts assemble a series of fictional characters who might be described as either 'aspiring artists' or 'scholars' of art, protagonists who experience differing degrees of success in their pursuit of self-expression and artistic excellence. The discussion that follows suggests that the Matisse-inspired creators foregrounded by Byatt and Redonnet in these two fictional narratives might more accurately be viewed as 'confectioners' and 'consumers' of art; protagonists for whom the appropriation and modification of key Matissean images and motifs play a central role in their artistic practice. Yet, what of Byatt and Redonnet's own textual appropriation of elements of Matisse's artistic vision? How might we interpret the role accorded to visual art by Matisse in both The Matisse Stories and Villa Rosa? It is with this question that I am principally concerned in nay comparative discussion of these two texts. In her non-fictional essay Portraits in Fiction, published over ten years after The Matisse Stories in 2001, Byatt reflects on the textual effects produced by a writer's inclusion of depictions of paintings in his/her fictional narrative. Such depictions may, for example, Byatt asserts, operate 'as an imagined icon or unifying motif', accentuating the narrative's thematic and aesthetic concerns. (7) Paintings set down in words, Byatt suggests, can also be used to reveal a protagonist's identity, casting light on their traits, attitudes, and self-image. They act as 'temporary mirrors', allowing protagonists 'to see themselves with a difference' (Portraits in Fiction, P. 5). What is striking about Byatt and Redonnet's deployment of intertextual references to Matisse's artwork in their texts is that both writers use these sets of references in conjunction with two key areas within their narratives. Broadly speaking, Byatt and Redonnet deploy features of Matisse's artistic vision, first, to flesh out a fictional location or landscape and second, to shed light on the workings of the creative process in which their often troubled protagonists are engaged. Intertextual references to Matisse's artworks are used in both The Matisse Stories and Villa Rosa to explore the human subject's interaction with space through the medium of art, an exploration that is facilitated, I shall argue, by Matisse's long-established association with the richly decorated bourgeois interior. As I shall demonstrate, this focus on the interconnectedness of art and spatiality is achieved specifically by means of a focus in these texts on the key role played by artwork or art objects in the creation and modification of domestic and commercial spaces. The second half of nay discussion considers a second dimension of Byatt and Redonnet's deployment of a Matissean intertext in these works. By means of an examination of Byatt and Redonnet's focus on the artistic practices of borrowing and copying, nay analysis detects within Byatt's collection and Redonnet's tale a wider meditation on the notion of artistic 'originality'. This meditation, as we shall see, enables both authors to reflect on the function of artistic creativity and, ultimately, to assert its transformative power.

In each of the stories contained in Byatt's triptych The Matisse Stories, a different commercial or domestic space serves as a vibrant and richly coloured backdrop for the action. The first, 'Medusa's Ankles', tells of a visit to a fashionable hairdressing salon by Susannah, a respected translator, the story's middle-aged central female protagonist and the metaphorical snake-haired 'Medusa' of the title. The Matissean image of the 'Rosy Nude', featured on the back of the collection's cover or dustjacket, plays a key role in Byatt's staging of the dynamic and colour-swathed commercial space represented by the salon's interior. We learn that a reproduction of Matisse's painting Le Nu rose (1935) hangs in the salon, providing a theme for its decor and helping to lure weary customers into its sensual, feminized interior:

She had walked in one day because she had seen the Rosy Nude through the plate glass. That was odd, she thought, to have that lavish and complex creature stretched voluptuously above the coat rack, where one might have expected the stare, silver and supercilious or jetty and frenzied, of the model girl [...]. In those days the salon was like the interior of a rosy cloud, all pinks and creams, with creamy muslin curtains here and there, and ivory brushes and combs, and here and there--the mirror-frames, the little trollies--a kind of sky blue, a dark sky blue, the colour of the couch or bed on which the rosy nude spread herself. (8)

To enhance the soft, harmonious decor the stylists wear matching pink and cream overalls (MS, p. 11) and coffee is served to customers 'in pink cups' accompanied by 'a pink and white wafer biscuit in the saucer' (MS, p. 5). Byatt's textual enumeration of the uniform worn by the stylists and the objects habitually used in the salon suggests that they have been chosen by its head stylist and owner, Lucien, because they are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The 'Rosy Nude', however, unlike the staff uniforms and the salon crockery, has no functional value. The print, purchased from a shop in London's Charing Cross Road, Lucien believes, 'gives the salon a bit of class' (MS, p. 4). Byatt's tracking of the sale, movement, and exhibition of the Matisse print in 'Medusa's Ankles' illuminates the manner in which objects and artefacts are routinely consumed. Moreover, the fact that Byatt's narrative invokes the perceived cultural value attached to Matisse's 'Rosy Nude'--and reproductions of it--allows her text to flag up the status of that work as a cultural commodity. In other words, Lucien's conviction that the Matisse print gives his salon an air of refinement points to the image/object's desirability on account of the symbolic value with which it is imbued. In choosing to purchase the Matisse print Lucien has sought to appropriate for his salon--and by implication, for himself--the sense of flair and sophistication denoted by the Matissean image within the cultural domain. Byatt's narrative, then, casts the reproduced image of Matisse's 'Rosy Nude' as a marker of luxury and elevated social status.

In the course of Byatt's narrative, Susannah discovers, not without some dismay, that the salon has been revamped by Lucien, and the print of Matisse's 'Rosy Nude'--for all that it signifies refinement--unceremoniously removed. The comforting pastel-themed interior is traded in for a Japanese-inspired 'monotone' look. The narrative bristles with irony as Susannah's quick eye surveys the all-new 'bleakly minimalist' workspace: (9) 'battleship-grey and maroon. Dried blood and instruments of slaughter, Susannah thought on her return' (MS, p. 15)' The salon's new clinical appearance denotes youthful aggression and contemporary edginess--a mood that is ironically much more in keeping with the forbidding 'stare' of the silver-tinged photographic model Susannah had expected to greet her when she visited the salon for the very first time (MS, p. 3). The design, in sharp contrast to the sumptuous decor it replaces, is hard-edged and honed, even down to the black, geometric crockery and flat, spherical complimentary sweets:

The Rosy Nude was taken down. In her place were photographs of girls with grey faces, coal-black eyes and spiky lashes, under bonfires of incandescent puce hair [...] The new teacups were black and hexagonal. The pink, flowery biscuits were replaced by sugar-coated minty elliptical sweets, black and white like Go counters. (MS, p. 16)

Susannah's dislike of the salon's transformation is such that she thinks, momentarily, of going to another salon. Like the pink-themed Matissean decor, the decorations and objects which make up the salon's new interior would appear to have been carefully chosen to co-ordinate. Repeatedly purchasing material goods and installing them in his salon, Lucien's interaction with his workspace casts him in the role of 'man the designer' (homme de rangement) as theorized by the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard in his analysis of technological developments and consumer goods, Le Systeme des objets (1968). (10) For Baudrillard (p. 36), this phenomenon characterizes the production of everyday space in advanced technological society and is reflected in its advertising discourse, one in which the consumer is impelled to manipulate and maximize his homespace. Described as a kind of 'active technician' (informateur actif) or 'engineer' of the space he inhabits, the individual does not 'consume' objects--such as furniture, gadgets, and antiques--in a literal sense but 'dominates, controls, and orders them'. In doing so, he invests material objects with symbolic value, 'personalizing' his environment and generating 'atmosphere' (ambiance) (pp. 37-38). Byatt's description of the salon's chameleon-like interior suggests, moreover, that Lucien has succumbed to what Roland Marchand has referred to as the '[a]esthetic of the ensemble': (11) that is, a principle promoted by modern consumer culture which works to sell increased quantities of household goods. In Byatt's narrative, then, Lucien emerges as an arch-consumer who has been 'persuaded that everything should match'. (12)

As well as illuminating the manner in which works of art are consumed and used to shape the (fabricated) environments we inhabit, in 'Medusa's Ankles' the salon's decor also serves as a barometer for the state of mind of its central female protagonist. On overhearing the salon owner disparage his wife--whom he has recently discarded for a mistress--for having 'let herself go altogether' and dismayed by the 'hideousness' of the mass of newly coiled hair piled on top of her head by a garrulous and patronizing female stylist, Susannah is consumed by a 'red' rage: a rage fuelled by empathy for Lucien's scorned wife and despair at her own loss of youthfulness. In Byatt's tale of mental unravelling, then, the calm exuded by the salon's once cocoon-like interior is exposed as a 'sham' as Susannah trashes its newly decorated interior. In an ironic twist, on seeing his premises in total disarray, the image-conscious salon owner expresses his gratitude to Susannah: 'You've done me a good turn in a way. It wasn't quite right, the colours' (MS, p. 27). Thus, Lucien's remark allows Byatt to reveal the way in which our interaction with the environments in which we live is subject to the fickle dictates of fashion mediated by the discourses of consumerism. Clearly, Byatt's salon owner is endowed with the sense of 'experimentation' with regard to his workspace much prized by advertisers. (13) Lucien's willingness to transform his living space regularly in accordance with the latest trends would seem to stem from his desire to flatter his own artistic sensibilities and cultivate an air of 'distinctiveness'.

The second piece in Byatt's collection, like 'Medusa's Ankles', uses references to a well-known work by Matisse as well as scholarly commentaries on his artistic productions to dramatize the living spaces inhabited by the tale's protagonists. In doing so, Byatt's text flags up the dynamics of the 'constructed' spaces we inhabit--in this case, homespace. What is more, Byatt's intertextual references to Matisse reveal the way in which textual/pictural representations of these spaces can operate as a 'window' on human spatial configurations. 'Art Work' revolves around the inhabitants of 49 Alma Road, a bourgeois family made up of Debbie and Robin, their two children, and their eccentric housekeeper, Mrs Brown. It is noteworthy that all three principal protagonists are former students of and/or active practitioners of art. Mrs Brown, by day the family's housekeeper, is revealed to be an experimental artist, whose outlandish installations mix large fabric sculptures with a multitude of household and decorative objects such as fans, cleaning equipment and items of furniture. Debbie, her employer, is a former graphic designer turned journalist for a women's style magazine, while her husband, Robin, is a struggling artist and exponent of 'neo-realist' painting. The couple, we learn, were brought together by their love of art, colour, and Matisse (MS, p. 56). The narrative opens with a short, but detailed, description of Matisse's work Le Silence habite des maisons, interspersed with extracts from Sir Lawrence Gowing's critical commentary on Matisse's 1947 painting (14)---a critical work recommended by the central protagonist of 'Medusa's Ankles' when the salon owner quizzes her on what he should read in order to learn more about Matisse (MS, p. 9). The effect created by the opening of 'Art Work' is that of a narrator/protagonist reading Gowing's text and reflecting upon the book's black and white reproduction of the painting (MS, pp. 31-32). A description of domestic life in the family home immediately follows, one that draws upon and echoes the contemplative mood of Matisse's tableau. The family's homespace is cast by Byatt as an 'inhabited silence', reminiscent of the reflective mood of Matisse's 1947 canvas. Inside the walls of the house there is no human noise, only mechanical noise exemplified by the 'churning hum' of the washing machine, the 'chuntering' of the tumble dryer, and the repetitive and dehumanized 'cheery squitter' of female presenters emanating from the television (MS, pp. 32-33).

Similarly, Redonnet's Villa Rosa displays a preoccupation with the imbrication of the notions of space/place and visual art as well as an emphasis on artworks as cultural commodities. (15) Villa Rosa features a central male protagonist called Henri Matisse, who, we are told, was named by his maternal grandfather, Jean, in honour of a stranger, the real-life painter, whom he once befriended during a crossing of the Atlantic. On the ship's arrival in New York, Jean Matisse is given a series of ink portraits by the artist as a gift of thanks, the prompt sale of which, to a Brooklyn art collector, enables the grateful Jean to purchase a quantity of gold. This gold allows him on his retirement to buy the idyllic 'Villa Rosa' of the title, located on the island of Gore, an island apparently praised by the real-life Matisse during their conversations: 'Le peintre Henri Matisse qui un jour y avait fait escale lui en avait parle comme du paradis.' (16) The property is later inherited by the narrative's central protagonist, the young Henri Matisse, on the death of his grandfather.

The 'Villa Rosa' serves as a locus for the action recounted in the second half of Redonnet's tale and, like Matisse's artwork, also represents, for Henri, a symbolic bond with his male ancestor and benefactor, Jean. (17) Redonnet's text suggests that Henri's experience of the villa and his new environment on his arrival in Gore is shaped by his appreciation of Matisse's landscapes: 'Il avait l'impression etrange que la Villa Rosa etait un tableau d'Henri Matisse, dont il etait l'habitant' (VR, p. 49). As is the case with the hairdressing salon in Byatt's 'Medusa's Ankles' and the family home in 'Art Work', the fictional spaces inhabited by Redonnet's protagonists are revealed to the reader by means of direct references to Matisse's visual art. The 'Villa Rosa'--a large white house decorated with climbing roses, which overlooks the sea (VR, p. 43)--and its environs are cast by Redonnet as bathed in a warm, soft pink light:

C'etait son heure preferee a la Villa Rosa, quand le ciel devient rose [...]. Le rose du ciel impregnait toutes les couleurs jusqu'au bleu de la mer. [Henri] peignait Rosa Bell et Tiss, nues sur la plage dans la vapeur rose du soleil couchant. (VR, p. 55)

The rosy sunlight, which beats down on the island, is reinforced by the inclusion in the prelude to this section of the narrative of a series of paintings of Collioure in southern France done by Matisse in 1905. (18) Redonnet represents the 'Villa Rosa' as a maternal space filled with sound and movement as well as light (VR, PP. 55, 57). Music is provided by Tiss, a young female violinist, and children from the nearby orphanage attend the dance classes held every morning at the villa by Rosa Bell, with whom Henri is in love and whose first name heightens the reader's sense of the blissful existence the couple enjoy in the inherited villa. According to Redonnet's narrative, their home is 'une ile dans une ile' (VR, p. 61), a refuge from tragedy which grants 'une nouvelle vie' to Henri after the loss of his adoptive mother, Desiree, and also to the children of Gore, when the island is torn apart by guerrilla conflict (VR, p. 51). In addition, the walls of the villa become an exhibition space for Henri's artwork. Guided by his 'ange gardien', Matisse, Henri paints 'de grandes fresques' on the walls of the dance studio in celebration of the warmth and artistic creativity that have thrived in and around the villa since his arrival, and of the presence in his life of Rosa Bell (VR, p. 59). Later in the narrative, the house also serves as a performance space for Rosa's solo ballet performance and a play penned by the children (VR, p. 67). Additionally significant in Redonnet's depiction of the 'Villa Rosa' is its status as a site of remembrance. As well as signifying community and creativity, it is, for Henri, a monument to his artistic mentor, the Chinese copyist through whom he first became acquainted with the life-affirming artwork of Henri Matisse: '[Henri] trouva les mots justes pour honorer la memoire du vieux Chinois, grace a quiil avait eu la revelation de la peinture d'Henri Matisse. [Henri] voulait que la Villa Rosa devienne un hymne a sa gloire' (VR, p. 69). In Henri's eyes, then, the 'Villa Rosa' will forever symbolize the creativity inspired in him by Matisse's vision and his faith in the cathartic power of art.

The following section of my discussion retains a focus on Byatt's and on Redonnet's incorporation of a Matissean intertext into their narratives. However, it moves away from a focus on the manner in which these two texts use references to visual art by Matisse to elucidate the way in which human subjects respond to and transform their environment. It is concerned instead with the reflections these Matisse-inspired narratives offer on the status of the work of art and role of artistic practice. I shall argue that in The Matisse Stories and Villa Rosa one can identify two differing approaches to, or understandings of, artistic endeavour--both of which engage with the practices of assimilation and copying of artistic styles and images by the artist. My discussion of The Matisse Stories in this section will be confined to the third and final story in Byatt's collection, 'The Chinese Lobster'.

In embarking upon such a discussion, it is appropriate to devote some time to reviewing how the central protagonists in Byatt's story and Redonnet's novella come into contact with Matisse and his artistic legacy. Byatt's 'The Chinese Lobster' revolves around a lunchtime meeting which takes place in a Chinese restaurant between Dr Gerda Himmelblau, a female academic, and Peregrine Diss, a high-profile professor of art. In this novella Diss is cast in the role of 'bad' or unsympathetic mentor, in sharp contrast to Redonnet's benevolent copyist. Himmelblau in her capacity as Dean of Women Students is investigating an allegation of sexual harassment made against the professor by a research student named Peggi Nollett. In this tale Matisse's representations of the female body are cast by Byatt as a source of deep antagonism between Nollett, who is writing a dissertation entitled 'The Female Body and Matisse', and Diss, her eminent research supervisor. Nollett, we learn, is also working on a series of 'mixed media' pieces, which combine commercial reproductions of works by Matisse with organic matter, such as eggs, blood, and faeces (MS, p. 111). These pieces form part of her project 'of revising or reviewing or rearranging Matisse', conceived with a view to expressing her antipathy towards what she perceives as the sexism and brutality inherent in Matisse's vision of the female body (MS, p. 103). According to Nollett, that vision distorts female corporeality and hinges upon the long-standing but highly questionable equation of female sexuality with notions of the exotic (MS, p. 102). Diss, however, is appalled by her work and believes her to be guilty of obsessive and pointless desecration of 'sacred' works of art (MS, p. 112). The dynamics of the case are rendered additionally complicated by the fact that, as the reader soon discovers, Peggi Nollett suffers from anorexia nervosa and acute depression (MS, pp. 18-19).

According to Byatt's depiction, Professor Diss endorses a mode of artistic practice underpinned by the principles of respectful imitation and disciplined enmlation. Nollett, on the other hand, views art as a medium for reworking and challenging artistic conventions and ideological positions. In their combination of materials other than paint and canvas in a kind of montage, the impact of Nollett's pieces derives precisely from their capacity to shock their audience by means of their perceived 'ugliness'. Diss complains:

it seems to me, that if she [Nollett] could have produced worked copies of those--masterpieces--those shining--nevermind--if she could have done some work--understood the blues, the pinks, and the whites, and the oranges, yes, and the blacks too [...] then I would have had to feel some respect. (MS, pp. 412-13)

As Hillel Schwartz explains in her 1996 study of human civilization's fascination with doubling, The Culture of the Copy, the technique of copying has long been an integral part of the artist's apprenticeship and the perfecting of painterly skills. (19) It is noteworthy in this respect that in Villa Rosa Redonnet's central protagonist Henri first encounters the work of Matisse on visiting the New York premises of an elderly Chinese copyist who produces reproductions of works by Matisse. On entering the Chinaman's shop, the young Henri becomes fascinated by one painting in particular. Entitled Le Nu au tambourin, the painting, unbeknownst to him, is a faithful copy of the real-life Matisse's 1926 oil painting Nu assis au tambourin. On learning that the artist's name is identical to his own, and the year of Matisse's death identical to that of his late grandfather, Henri becomes convinced that he is the reincarnation of the real-life Matisse--a revelation that foregrounds the theme of doubling which, as critics such as Evert Van der Starre have indicated, recurs throughout Redonnet's novels and plays (VR, p. 13). (20) Exchanging his tailor's craft for that of the painter, Henri sets out to fulfil his artistic 'destiny'. Before leaving for China to study the techniques of the great Chinese masters, the copyist donates his entire collection of reproductions to Henri--a bequest that only serves to fuel the latter's conviction that he is the reincarnated Henri Matisse (VR, p. 13). Further, Henri first encounters Matisse's 1939 painting La Musique in the form of an impressive copy shown to him by Rosa Bell. Prior to his making Rosa's acquaintance during the sea crossing to the island of Gore, the work is unknown to Henri owing to its curious omission from his collection of Matisse copies executed by the Chinese copyist (VR, p. 39). In Rosa, who was given the painting by a former fiance before being jilted by him on the day of their marriage, Henri finds not only a link to his 'seul maitre' (VR, pp. 15, 47), the Chinese copyist, but also a fresh impetus for his artistic efforts.

It is my argument that Redonnet's self-styled Henri Matisse--like Byatt's Peggi Nollett and unlike his mentor, the copyist, and Byatt's Professor Diss--embodies a highly postmodern conception of the creative process. As Hillel Schwartz explains (pp. 246-47), such a conception is governed by the principle that 'appropriation is creation' or 'making [viewed] as taking' to the extent that in post-industrial societies 'creation and imitation, invention and repetition may become as indistinct as knowing is from copying'. (21) At the heart of Redonnet's Villa Rosa would seem to be a repeated questioning of the notion of the 'original'. In his bid to be an inspirational painter like his namesake, Henri churns out a series of what for him are original works--inspired, not by 'original' artworks by Matisse, but by copies of artworks by Matisse done by the copiste: 'Ce ne serait pas une copie puisqu'il n'avait aucun don de copiste, mais un tableau original, son premier tableau' (VR, p. 15). Moreover, these reproductions are copied not from other painted canvases but made 'd'apres des reproductions photographiques decoupees dans des magazines'--that is, photographic reproductions commercially produced in the popular press (VR, p. 13). This episode is accompanied in the narrative by a reproduction of Matisse's L'Atelier rouge (1911), a tableau that depicts an artist's studio in which several tiny 'reproductions' of works by Matisse hang on the walls, thereby foregrounding both the painter's creative environment and the notion of a work of art within a work of art that is already a feature of Matisse's canvases. What is further striking in Redonnet's dramatization of this episode is that, although Henri is convinced that he is the reincarnated Matisse, the spirit of Matisse with which he believes himself to be possessed allows him to create new and original works of art: 'Il etait bien la reincarnation du peintre Henri Matisse qui a travers lui commengait une oeuvre nouvelle. Son tableau n'etait pas une copie, mais un original. Bouleverse il l'intitula Nouveau Nu au tambourin' (VR, p. 21). In this respect, Henri's artwork resembles the clothing designed by the young dressmaker Marguerite, whom he meets in New York. Marguerite's designs are inspired by clothing and textiles depicted in Matisse's paintings but are 'reworked' (reinventdes) by her 'a la mode de Brooklyn' (VR, p. 33). Redonnet, then, foregrounds a creative process in which the artistic production is never finished. Rather, it remains open-ended, modifying and assimilating self-consciously that which has gone before it to create something new yet undeniably familiar. This lack of closure typical of postmodern artistic productions is further exemplified in Redonnet's text by the unfinished, equivocal quality of the frescos painted by Henri on the walls of the 'Villa Rosa': '[Henri] decida que ses fresques etaient terminees. Elles garderaient quelque chose d'inacheve, une incertitude, une interrogation venue tout a la fin a laquelle il ne donnait pas de reponse' (VR, p. 65; emphasis added).

The exploration of the themes of inspiration and creativity instigated by both Redonnet's Villa Rosa and Byatt's 'The Chinese Lobster' is inextricably linked to the anxiety and restlessness suffered by their central protagonists. In other words, both authors cast Matisse's artistic vision as the stuff of obsession. As such, Redonnet and Byatt's textual appropriation of artworks by Matisse is an integral ingredient in the meditation they offer on the nature of the creative process and the restorative power of artistic creativity. Christien Franken has detected in Byatt's fiction an emphasis on the 'transcendent potential of art', an emphasis that, according to Franken's discussion, manifests itself early on in Byatt's writing career in her fictional depiction of the writer as visionary and the troubled pursuit of literary excellence contained in The Shadow of the Sun (1964). (22) I would argue that a related interest in art and the healing potential creativity offers comes to the fore in Byatt's portrayal of the tormented visual artist in 'The Chinese Lobster'. As the narrative progresses, the discussion between Himmelblau and the professor focuses less and less on the allegation of sexual harassment made against the latter. In fact, Diss vigorously denies Nollett's claim and Himmelblau appears to believe him. Instead, the focus of the narrative becomes Diss's failure to recognize the genuine distress and suffering articulated by Peggi Nollett's artwork. Rather, what Byatt's story does flag up is the intensity of feminine bodily anxieties in the face of the rosy 'wellbeing' signified by many of Matisse's paintings. While Diss is baffled by Noggett's vilification of Matisse, suggested in the text by his reiteration of the question 'Why Matisse?' (MS, pp. 119-20) and also by his assertion that he doubts whether 'she [Nollett] has ever spent more than [half an hour] looking at a Matisse' (MS, p. 113), it is left to Himmelblau to explain the motivation behind Nollett's rage: 'Because [Matisse] paints silent bliss. Luxe, calme et volupte. How can Peggi Nollett bear luxe, calme et volupte?' (MS, p. 1:21). (23)

In the course of their conversation, Diss responds to Himmelblau's defence of Nollett's work by making reference to Matisse's oft-quoted assertion that art should be like an armchair--in other words, an aid to relaxation bringing calm and balance. (24) According to Diss, '[Matisse] knew the most shocking thing he could tell people about the purpose of his art was that it was designed to please and to be comfortable' (MS, pp. 122-23). I would argue that this view of art--adumbrated by Matisse and endorsed by Byatt's Professor Diss--is contested in this story by Byatt's female protagonists. As Himmelblau points out to Diss, 'it would be perfectly honourable to argue that this was a very limited view' (MS, p. 123). None the less, as Victoria Glendinning has commented, Diss and Himmelblau's discussion enables them to 'come to recognise their own hidden despair and self-hatred, and reassert their faith', a faith in the possibility of the kind of 'untroubled sensuality' celebrated by Matisse in his paintings. (25) In Byatt's text 'the white room' is cast as a metaphor for the depths of despair and the desire for death--a completely blank room, devoid of colour without any doors or windows: (26)

You look around you and everything is bleached, and clear ... You are in a white box, a white room, with no doors or windows. You are looking through clear water with no movement--perhaps it is more like being inside ice, inside the white room. (MS, p. 125)

What Byatt's text shows is that although Diss's and Nollett's responses to Matisse's artwork differ sharply, the function that artwork serves in their lives is very similar. That is, while Nollett seeks to fend off the encroaching despair of the 'white room' by transforming or 'defacing' works of art, Diss does so by looking to Matisse for colour and light: 'Matisse was the first to understand orange, don't you agree? Orange in light, orange in shade, orange on blue, orange on green, orange in black' (MS, p. 130). Significantly, Professor Diss goes on to tell Himmelblau of a visit he once payed to an ailing, visually impaired Matisse at the painter's Nice apartment towards the end of his life. In Byatt's rendering of that (fictional) visit, Diss is shocked to find the curtains drawn and the room inhabited by the master of colour and light 'shrouded in darkness'. Sensing the young Diss's horror, Matisse assures him that 'black is the colour of light' (MS, p. 131). To understand Matisse's insistence on the luminosity of the colour black, Diss maintains, one only has to look at his 1942 painting La Porte noire: 'It has a young woman in an armchair [...] and at the side is the window and the coloured light and behind--above--is the black door. Almost no one could paint the colour black as he could' (MS, pp. 131-32). In Redonnet's Villa Rosa likewise, black is symbolic of inspiration and creativity. When gripped by artistic fervour, the young Henri often experiences hallucinations. In Redonnet's recit these dazzling--and frequently erotically charged--visions, perhaps not unsurprisingly, are inflected by Matisse paintings and are announced by 'une tache noire vibrante', which gives way to bursts of coloured light (VR, p. 17). In both narratives, then, the creative force of art emerges as paramount for, as the Chinese copyist points out to Henri in Villa Rosa, out of the depths of frustration comes creativity: 's'obstiner dans son travail meme quand il paralt sans issue parce que c'est alors que surgit la lumiere' (VR, p. 15). Further, for both writers, art has the power to assuage suffering. While for Byatt that power derives from art's capacity to reassure or enrage the human subject, for Redonnet its restorative power stems from its ability to commemorate that which has shaped our identity--most notably in Redonnet's fictional universe our ancestors, benefactors, and mentors. Like Henri's eventual adoption of 'Monsieur Jean'--a reminder of his late grandfather's forename--as his artistic pseudonym, Redonnet's conclusion to Villa Rosa is further testament to her protagonists' desire to honour those from whose guidance they have benefited. In the final phase of the narrative, Henri and Rosa's idyll on the island of Gore is shattered when both Rosa and their friend Wadi, a political activist and the island's president, are nmrdered. Distraught at their loss, Henri flees to the 'grotte aux Images', whose name is emblematic of the proliferation of images which has been a feature of Henri's feverish artistic productions. Meanwhile, the shell of the 'Villa Rosa' sinks into disrepair. The remnants of Henri's vivid Matissean frescos, which once decorated the villa's walls, and his portrait of Rosa stand as a monument to her and the creative community they established on the island. Redonnet writes:

Entre les plantes et les fleurs qui envahissaient les ruines, un visiteur curieux aurait pu decouvrir, un peu partout, des morceaux de fresques et de tableaux, aux couleurs toujours vives. Et sur un pan de tour encore debout, il aurait decouvert le portrait de Rosa Bell, intact, une pure merveille. Il aurait pu alors raver a la Villa Rosa telle qu'elle avait du etre avant de tomber en ruines, et en reinventer l'histoire pour en sauver la memoire. (VR, p. 81)

It is further significant in this extract that Redonnet's treatment of the descent into dystopia undergone by the once vibrant space of the villa emphasizes the spur to the imagination it will continue to offer to the 'curious visitor'.

By way of a conclusion to my comparative discussion of these two short, tragi-comic texts, it is apposite to reflect upon the reasons why two women writers writing in the 1990s might be so taken with the work of Matisse. It is clear that both Byatt and Redonnet use Matisse's work to conjure up a fictional location or 'landscape' and to communicate its mood--whether it be a hairdressing salon, an idyllic retreat, or the family home. What is more, as my discussion has demonstrated, by means of the connection they establish between visual art and the human subject's experience of his/her living space, both The Matisse Stories and Villa Rosa foreground the ways in which human subjects interact with the spaces they inhabit and the 'objects in use', which are a feature of those spaces. (27) The Matissean emphasis on the embodied human subject and his frequent depiction of homespace is such that his work serves as a highly pertinent point of reference for Byatt and Redonnet's narratives. In the case of Byatt in particular, her appropriation of Matisse's human forms would seem to reflect a fascination with the textual representation of the (female) body and how the viewer engages with those representations. As my discussion has revealed, there are further ways in which Byatt and Redonnet's deployment of intertextual references to Matisse's work shares common characteristics--characteristics that have a distinctly 'postmodern' resonance. The weaving of Matissean images into both narratives supports a sustained reflection on the status of works of art as commercial commodities whose meaning is incessantly elaborated within the cultural domain. In addition, Byatt's deliberation on how art speaks to the individual and Redonnet's fictional treatment of art as a channel for memory serves only to stress further the supremacy and endurance of the image. That the published versions of these narratives incorporate reproductions of works by Matisse into their very fabric renders their reflection on the image and the power it wields all the more compelling.

(1) According to Gerard Genette's use of the term, elements of the 'peritext' include main titles and chapter headings, covers, prefaces, and notes. See Gerard Genette, Seuils (Paris: Seuil, 1987), pp. 10-11, 20-37. The 'peritext' combines with the 'epitext' (interviews, letters, and critical reviews) to make up what Genette refers to as the 'paratext' or, according to Graham Allen, 'those elements which lie on the threshold of the text and which help to direct and control the reception of a text by its readers' (Graham Allen, Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 103).

(2) This is also true of Vintage's 1994 paperback edition of The Matisse Stories.

(3) Alain Salles, 'Flohic, entre arts et lettres', Le Monde, 9 March 2001, p. 10. Other writers featured in the 'Musees secrets' series include: Tahar Ben Jelloun (on Alberto Giacometti), Sylvie Germain (on Jan Vermeer), Andree Chedid (on Theodore Gericault), and Marie Ndiaye (on J. M. Yr. Turner).

(4) Helen Dunmore, 'Demolish, then Rebuild with Care', Observer, 2 January 1994, p. 17.

(5) For a useful discussion of Byatt's treatment of art and creativity in Sugar and Other Stories (London: Chatto & Windus, 1987), see Jane L. Campbell, 'Confecting Sugar: Narrative Theory and Practice in A. S. Byatt's Short Stories', Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 38 (1997), 105-22.

(6) Aine Smith, 'Memory and Identity in Redonnet's Fiction', in Women's Writing in Contemporary France, ed. by Gill Rye and Michael Worton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 42-52 (p. 44).

(7) A. S. Byatt, Portraits in Fiction (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), p. 2.

(8) A. S. Byatt, The Matisse Stories (London: Vintage), pp. 3-5. All subsequent references to this text will be given in abbreviated form (MS) in the main body of the article.

(9) Dunmore, 'Demolish, then Rebuild with Care', p. 17.

(10) (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), p. 37.

(11) Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-40 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 132.

(12) Peter Corrigan, The Sociology of Consumption (London: Sage, 1997), P. 105. On the ritualized practices involved in 'dwelling' and the 'keeping' of homespace, see Tim Dant, Material Culture in the Social World: Values, Activities, Lifestyles (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999), pp. 69-76.

(13) On the principle of 'experimentation' much celebrated by the discourse of advertising, see Corrigan, The Sociology of Consumption, p. 180.

(14) Lawrence Gowing, Matisse (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979).

(15) A number of existing essays offer stimulating insights into Marie Redonnet's treatment of the theme of place in her works of narrative fiction up until and including Silsie (1990). See e.g. Yvette Went-Daoust, 'Ecrire le conte de fees: l'oeuvre de Marie Redonnet', Neophilologus, 77 (1993), 387-94, and Anne-Marie Picard, 'Dans le paysage, une figure ... presque feminine: le triptyque de Marie Redonnet', Australian Journal of French Studies, 31 (1994), 228-40.

(16) Marie Redonnet, Villa Rosa (Paris: Flohic, 1996), p. 11. All subsequent references will be given in abbreviated form (VR) in the main body of the text.

(17) The connection between inheritance and personal identity is repeatedly foregrounded by Redonnet in her fiction. However, in many of her fictional productions, unlike Villa Rosa, legacies (in the form of artefacts or properties) tend to be a feature of female-female relations. This is true, for example of Splendid Hotel (1986) and Rose Melie Rose (1987). See Elizabeth Fallaize, ' Filling in the Blank Canvas: Memory, Inheritance and Identity in Marie Redonnet's Rose Melie Rose', Forum for Modern Language Studies, 28 (1992), 320-34.

(18) These are: Matisse's La Moulade (1905), La Plage rouge (1905), rue de Collioure (1905), Paysage a Collioure (1905).

(19) Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles (New York: Zone Books, 1996), p. 247.

(20) This is a feature, in particular, of texts such as Redonnet's collection of short tales entitled Doublures (1986), her play Tir et Lir (1988), as well as the novels Rose Melie Rose (1987) and Candy Story (1992). Evert Van der Starre's discussion of doubling in Redonnet's work is featured in Jeunes auteurs de Minuit, edited by Michele Ammouche-Kremers and Henk Hillenaar (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), pp. 53-67. As numerous critics have pointed out, one of the ways in which this theme is signalled is by means of a play with protagonists' names. In Rose Melie Rose, for example, all the female protagonists featured in the novel are named either Melie or Rose, while in Villa Rosa Henri visits a cabaret bar (Chez Lola) where all the singers are named Lola.

(21) On the blurring of the distinction between 'quoting' and assimilation effected by postmodern productions, see Fredric Jameson's critique of postmodernism, 'Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', New Left Review, 146 (1984), 53-92 (p. 55).

(22) Christien Franken, A. N. Byatt: Art, Authorship and Creativity (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 109, 40-59.

(23) Luxe, cahne et volupte was painted by Matisse in 1904. One of Matisse's best-known works, its title is taken from the refrain in Charles Baudelaire's poem 'L'Invitation au voyage', from the collection Les Fleurs du real (1857). Owing much to the work of Paul Cezanne and using small blocks of rainbow-like colour, the painting depicts a group of female bathers having a picnic on the beach.

(24) 'Ce que je reve, c'est d'un art d'equilibre, de purete, de tranquillite sans sujet inquietant ou preoccupant, qui soit pour tout travailleur cerebral, pour tout homme d'affaires aussi bien que pour l'artiste des lettres, un lenifiant, un calmant cerebral, quelque chose d'analogue a un bon fauteuil' (Henri Matisse, 'Notes d'un peintre', La Grande Revue, 52 (1908), 731-45).

(25) Victoria Glendinning, 'Pleasure Principles', Times, 30 December 1993, p. 32.

(26) For a useful discussion of Byatt's treatment of the themes of death and mortality in several of her fictional works, see Sue Sorensen, 'Death in the Fiction of A. S. Byatt', Critique, 43 (2002), 115-34.

(27) For a more detailed discussion of material objects or 'objects-in-use' and their role in social relations, see Celia Lury, Consumer Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p. 1, and Dant, Material Culture, pp. 1-16.


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Author:Fishwick, Sarah
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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