ABSTRACT

In 1947 Matisse painted 'Le Silence Habité des Maisons.' It is reproduced in Sir Lawrence Gowing's 'Matisse,' only very small, and in black and white. Two people sit at the corner of a table. The mother, it may be, has a reflective chin propped on a hand propped on a table. The child, it may be, turns the page of a huge white book, whose arch of paper makes an integral curve with his/her lower arm. In front, a vase of flowers. Behind, six huge panes of window; behind them, a mass of trees and perhaps sunlight. The people's faces are perfect blank ovals, featureless. Above them, to the left, is a chalked outline, done as it might be by a child, of a round on a stalk, above bricks. It is a pity not to have the colors here, but it is possible, tempting, to imagine them, sumptuous as they were in what Gowing says was 'the reconciliation that is only within the reach of great painters in old age.' The late pictures, Gowing says, have extraordinary virility: 'At last Matisse is wholly at ease with the fierce impulse.' It is a dark little image on the page: charcoal gray, slate gray, soft pale pencil-gray — subdued, demure. We may imagine it flaming, in carmine or vermillion, or swaying in indigo darkness, or perhaps — beyond the window — gold and green. We may imagine it. The darkness of the child may be blue on black, or black on blue, or blue on some sort of red. The book is white. Who is the watching totem under the ceiling? (from A.S. Byatt, "Art Work," The New Yorker, May 20, 1991, pp. 36-51.)

A.S. Byatt's haunting ekphrasis explores the intertextual space between a "demure" little photographic reproduction on the page of a book and the extraordinarily bold painting by Matisse that it i l - lustrates. Byatt's short story is not illustrated, of course; the reader is expected to be able to call forth such an art-book illustration in the mind's eye, and to imagine the diminutive, diagrammatic, offsetprinted photograph as a self-sustained topos as well as the trace of a primary referent — a painting which may or may not exist somehow, somewhere, complete, coherent, virile, and gorgeous in its own aura. In "Art Work," photography is to the real painting much as the short story genre is to life: selective, cropped, abbreviated, printed in a book in black and white — provocative in its own fictional terms and as a stimulus to think about the "real thing." Byatt begins her story with this excercise of the descriptive imagination, as if to say that this is the way we presently live: the surrogate image asks us questions, provides us with "clues," and stirs the imagination. We live and daydream among constellations of variously enriched or impoverished representations of representations.