I recently read The Matisse Stories, by A.S. Byatt, three stories centered loosely around three paintings by Henri Matisse. It was an interesting book, and I particularly enjoyed the first story, but I’ve had a hard time sitting down to write a review of it because, well, frankly there was a lot to think about. So letting it sit and simmer for awhile was just the thing to do.
The stories are about individuals and relationships, not about Matisse, but were inspired by the three paintings by him. I love her writing, so definitely consider reading this book, but it probably shouldn’t be your introduction to her. The first book I read by her was The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, which I loved and would highly recommend if you’ve never read any Byatt!
The first story, Medusa’s Ankles, was the one I enjoyed the most. It’s about a middle-aged woman who chose her hairdresser because of the Matisse reproduction hanging in his salon. It was the Matisse that drew her in, and she loved the salon, decorated in the colors from the painting, and loved having her hair done there. Unfortunately, things change, and her hairdresser decided to divorce his wife, redecorate the salon, and when he removed the Matisse, this woman simply couldn’t cope with all those changes. I won’t tell you what she did and what happens as a result, but I found it both humorous and heartfelt. And I’m sure my own age and stage of life had a great deal to do with my enjoyment of this story.
The second story, Art Work, was about two married artists and their housekeeper — a look at three different artists and their influences on each other. It’s a quiet and subtle story, but an interesting look at a family of artists.
I found the third story, The Chinese Lobster, disturbing and harder to read. This is a story of a very unstable art student who has accused her professor/ mentor of sexual harrassment. The story unfolds during a discussion over dinner with the dean of the art department as the two discuss the issue of the mentor’s harrassment, their differing perceptions the portrayal of women in art, (in particular, in the art of Matisse), and this young woman’s life and career. It is a difficult conversation, but very interesting and thought-provoking.
A.S. Byatt is an amazing artist herself, her descriptions like brushstrokes and her stories capturing the essence of the person(s) observed. This is a book worth reading, especially if you enjoy thinking about art. I read this book as part of Sarah’s Art History Challenge, which is such an enjoyable challenge this year!