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Komáromi Réka (o0cdje)

Major Réka
Reading A.S. Byatt


In my essay, I am particularly interested in painted art representations in A.S. Byatt’s short

stories. Both stories the Medusa’s ankle and Christ in the house of Martha and Mary are

excellent examples of painting coming to life. I intend to find out why choosing a painting for

theme of literary work can be fascinating. Furthermore, I examine the differences between the

places of the paintings in these short stories. What is most striking is that in Medusa’s ankle art

is shown as something consumed, in contrast to Christ in the house of Martha and Mary where

art itself is created in the narrative.


It has precedents that literature explores the fertile ground of visual representation.

Postmodern Julian Barnes was also inspired by a painting in History of the World in 10½

Chapters. In Chapter 5 the Shipwreck story tells us about the events that happened to survived

crew members in Gericault’s painting the Raft of the Medusa, then gives an analysis of the

painting. This story has a tragic, thought-provoking narrative and clearly the author lamented

over the state of mind of these rescued men. They were on a raft for 13 days before they have

been found. Somehow lack of information that a painting can represent, has awaken an author

imagination and then become a material for literary work. The French publisher house Flohic

in 1990s started an interesting experiment. In Musées secrets they connected contemporary

authors who wrote semi fictional texts about the work or life of a celebrated artist. Thus, the

work of Degas, Cézanne, Peter de Hooch can appear in a different light and become

acknowledged by a wider audiences ( Fishwick 52 ). I do not understand how A.S. Byatt was
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not involved in this project, (not writing in French must have to do something with it). Her

study of painted art and fascination about the creative process resonate the original goals of

Musées secrets. She has a penchant for pictorial intertextuality thus, certain visual works are

placed iconically at the head of the stories. She is one of the master of ekphrasis, which is a

literary description or commentary on a work of art. She makes the reader to think how colours,

artistic vision on shapes and indeed the artistic process are echoing with the characters’ inner



The short story appears along with three other stories in Byatt’s The Matisse Stories,

published in 1993. The title shed light on the main motif of this book that is Henri Matisse’s

life and artistic productions. As Sarah Fishwick in her analyze cited; Byatt firstly uses Matisse’s

artistic vision to create fictional location and landscape and then to represent the working

process of artists (54). Fishwick highlighted that in Medusa’s ankle through the medium of art

nothing uplifting, intellectual happens. The Matissian picture of Le Nu Rose is accommodated

in the commercial space ( the salon of Lucien) because it can provide a theme for its décor

(Fishwick 54) . The owner uniformized his salon interior to the painting because he thought it

“gives the salon a bit of class”. Functionality and aesthetics play a big role in choosing the

painting as the starting point of the salon’s style. Pink, Blue colour scheme and cream is

everywhere from the uniform of the hairdressers to the tea cups and plates. The main message

of Fishwick’s analyze is that Byatt draws attention to the way paintings with artistic value are

routinely consumed, become simple cultural commodity ( 55) . Le Nu Rose painting in a salon

catches the desire of Lucien to be more flair and sophisticated, it is the marker of luxury and

elevated social status ( Fishwick 55 ). For further understanding of painting embedment in this

story, let us examine how the protagonist, Susannah encounters with the Rosy Nude.
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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 ( Medusa’s Ankle 2)

The first sentence describes how welcoming the glimpse of the Matissan painting made

Susannah. She felt at home because she was a scholar, a refined consumer of art. No place

where Matisse is displayed can be bad, she thought. The visual impact of the painting as

Campbell stated is achieving calmness, joy, power and trust. They are associated with the

release of energy that can free the character from being trapped in her own thoughts ( 170) .

Susannah is obsessed by her alleged ugliness and her repulsiveness due to her aging body.

She thinks the academic success came late for her, because she must be on television and this

frightens her. Therefore, she turns to Lucien to cut her a decent haircut. Susannah in the end

regrets that she had trusted Lucien and made herself believe that time can freeze, art can be

eternal. Because the cruel, inevitable change came. The salon has been redecorated, black-

and-white photographs of young girls replaced the Rosy Nude. Campbell states that the

Matissian painting has liberating qualities ( 177 ). Susannah deprived from the nude’s “huge

haunches and a monumental knee”, the female body image empowerment, she needed to

start a rampage of the interior to express her feelings. According to Campbell art has the

power of breaking cycles of repetition, releases us from enclosure and from apathy. It gives

us renewed perception of the uniqueness of the ordinary (177). With this thread of thinking I

would like to elaborate into the second short story Christ in the house of Martha and Mary.


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It is undeniable that this short story fits perfectly into the succession of stories in

Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice which was published in 1998. These stories have for theme

binary opposites, like fire and ice, servant and served. There are several creative artist

characters in Elementals. The male painter in A Lamia in the Cévennes , ice sculptor in Cold,

female director of television commercials in Jael. The last story seems to be a tale about

painting but it is also a philosophical question about one’s place in life. In the last tale, our

focus would be on the “young artist”. I cannot state that the painter is Velázquez because he is

not actually named, but we indeed identify him through the environment of the story. The

original painting with the same title as the short story dates about 1618, and it is to be found in

the National Gallery, London. What Byatt has seen in Velazquez’s painting is according to

Wallhead the foregrounding of figures which are normally marginalized through class or

gender (313). As an author Byatt tends to favorize underrepresented characters and social

realism in her narratives. While, Vélazquez in his genre of bodegón which is still life painting

depicting every days objects also turns to unilluminated subjects for his art. This short story is

the mixture of these Ars poticas. For the young cook, Dolores, the painter is an interpreter of

Christ wisdom about active/passive lifestyles. Returning to the Campbellian thought that art

liberates us, renews perception of the uniqueness of ordinary. That is exactly what has

happened to Dolores on a mental and on a physical level.

His interest in the materials of her art did indeed fire her own interest in them. She

excelled herself, trying new combinations for him, offering new juices, frothing new

possets ( Christ in the house of Martha and Mary 77)

In her mind the conversations with the painter freed her, she developed a positive attitude

towards her work and her unique talents. She grows to learn that doing one’s work well is a

merit of a lifetime. On a physical level, it is described that because the artist was interested in
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her cooking she became also more attentive to it. The artist mindset was deeply “interested in

the world and its multiplicity of forms and forces “. He was fascinated by the form of a garlic,

the force of Dolores’s frown, the beauty in eggs and fish. Through his glaze which was a slit,

everything revealed to be beautiful and worth to be painted.


Both texts incorporate female protagonists who are either a character from a painting or relate

emotionally to it. It is interesting how an acknowledged scholar and a talented cook share

some similarities in Byatt’s stories. Susannah and Dolores are victims of self-insecurity and

searching their place in this world. They are dissatisfied with their own body image and as

female workforce they are questioning the meaning of their existence. Dolores has been loved

and appreciated by the wise words of the young artist. Modelling for the famous picture was

for her a healing process, in which she sensed her own importance and usefulness. I found it

extremely interesting what is the destination of painted art according to Byatt is? Is it to be

consumed widely, to be appreciated during a sacred museum visit, or to be the topic of a

conversation? The final wisdom is given from the young artist parable in Christ in the house

of Martha and Mary: no matter what is the opinion of the costumer about our work, or

whether it is appreciated, it is sufficient in itself if the work is good.

Work Cited

Byatt, A.S. Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998.

Byatt, A.S. The Matisse Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.

Campbell, Jane. A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination. Waterloo: Wilfrid
Laurier UP, 2012.
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Fishwick, Sarah. Encounters with Matisse: Space, Art, and Intertextuality in A. S.

Byatt's "The MatisseStories" and Marie Redonnet's "Villa Rosa". The Modern
Language Review, Vol. 99, No. 1 , 2004, pp. 52-64,

Wallhead, Celia M. Velázquez as icon in A.S. Byatt’s “Christ in the house of Martha
and Mary”. Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Complutense, 2001, pp 307-321,