Encounters with Matisse: Space, Art, and Intertextuality in A. S. Byatt's the Matisse Stories and Marie Redonnet's Villa Rosa

Article excerpt

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. …