A.S. Byatt – Art Work, The Matisse Stories, 1993

Le Silence habité des Maisons

Shona McRury sends a gallery postcard to Robin and Debbie jointly, saying that she really loved seeing the pictures, which have real integrity, and that things are very crowded and confused in the life of her gallery just now. Debbie knows that this means no, and suspects that the kindnesses are for her, Debbie’s, possible future usefullness, that is, A Womans Place’s possible future usefulness, to the Callisto Gallery. She does not say that to robin, whom she is beginning to treat like a backward and stupid child, which worries her, since that is not what he is. And when A Woman’s Place sends her off a month or two later to the Callisto Gallery with a photographer, a nice-enough on-the-make Liverpudlian called Tom Sprot, to illustrate an article on a new feminist installation, she goes in a friendly enough mood. She is a reasonable woman, she could not have expected more from Shona McRury, and knows it.

Tom Sprot has brilliantined blond hair and baggy tartan trousers. He is very laid back, very calm. When he gets inside the gallery, which is normally creamy and airy, he says, ‘Wow!’ and starts rushing about, peering through his lens, with alacrity. The whole space has been transformed into a kind of soft, even squashy, brilliantly coloured aladdin’s Cave. The walls are hung with what seem like huge tapestries, partly knitted, partly made like rugs, with shifting streams and islands of colour, which when looked at closely reveal little peering mad embroidered faces, green with blue eyes, black with red eyes, pink with silver eyes. Swaying crocheted cobwebs hang from the ceiling, inhabited by dusky spiders and swarms of sequined blue flies with gauzy wings. These things are brilliantly pretty, but not like a stage set, they are elegant and sinister, there is something horrid about the netted pockets with the heaped blue bodies. The spiders themselves are menaced by phalanxes of feather dusters, all kinds of feathers, a peacock fan, a fluffy nylon cyan-blue and shocking pink tube, a lime-green and orange palm tree on a golden staff, wound with lamé. The cavern has a crazy kind of resemblance to a lived-in room. Chest of drawers, made of orange boxes covered with patchworks of wallpaper, from vulgar silver roses to William Morris birds, from Regency plum stripes to Laura Ashley pink sprigs, reveal half-open treasure chests with mazy compartments containing crazy collections of things. White bone buttons. Glass stoppers. Chicken bones. Cufflinks, all single. Medicine bottles with lacquered labels, full of iridescent beads and codliver-oil capsules. Pearlised plastic poppet beads and sunflower seeds, dolls teaspoons and drifts of variegated tealeaves and dead rose-petals. Sugar mice, some half-chewed. String, bright green, waxed red, hairy brown, running from compartment to compartment.

There are pieces of furniture, or creatures standing about in all this. A large tump, or possibly a giant pouffe, layered in skirts of scarlet and orange, grass-green and emerald, dazzlingly juxtaposed, reveals, if the wools are parted, a circle of twenty or thirty little knitted pink breasts, and above that another of little chocolate-coloured satin ones, a kind of squat Diana of Ephesus without face or hands. A long bolster-like creature might be a thin woman or a kind of lizard or even a piece of the seashore. It is mostly knitted, in rich browns and greens, with scalloped fronds and trailing, weedy ‘limbs’ or ‘maybe’ tentacles – there are more, when it has been walked round, than four. From a distance it has a pleasing look of rock-pools crusted with limpets and anemones. Closer, it can be seen to be plated with a kind of armour of crocheted bosses, violet and saffron, some tufted with crimson, or trailing threads of blood-coloured embroidery-silks.

The centrepiece is a kind of dragon and chained lady, St George and the Princess Saba. Perseus and Andromeda. The dragon has a cubic blue body and a long concertina neck. It has a crest of mulberry taffeta plates, blanket stitched, something like the horrent scallops of the Stegosaurus. It is an odd dragon, recumbent amongst its own coils, a dragon related to a millipede, with hundreds of black shining wiry tentacular legs, which expose their scarlet linings and metal filaments. It is knitted yet solid, it raises a square jaw with a woollen beard, and some teeth dripping with matted hair and broken hairpins, multicoloured fluffy foam and cotton spittle. Its eyes are bland blue rounds with soft chenille lashes. It is a Hoover and a dragon, inert and suffocating.

And the lady is flesh-coloured and twisted, her body is broken and concertinaed, and she is draped flat on a large stone, her long limbs are pink nylon, her chains are twisted brassières and demented petticoats, pyjama cords and sinister strained tights. She has a cubist aspect, crossed with Diana of Ephesus again, her breasts are a string of detached and battered shoulder-pads, three above two, her public hair is shrunk angora bonnet. Her face is embroidered on petit-point canvas on a round embroidery-frame, it is half-done, a Botticelli Venus with a chalk outline, a few blonde tresses, cut-out eyeholes, stitched round with spiky black lashes. At first you think that the male figure is totally absent, and then you see him, them miniscule in the crannies of the rock, a plastic knight on a horse, once silver, now mud-green, a toy-soldier with a broken sword and a battered helmet, who have both obviously been through the wheel of the washing-machine, more than once.

There is someone in the window hanging a series of letters, gold on rich chocolate, on a kind of hi-tech washing line with tiny crimson pegs. It says,

                                         SHEBA BROWN     WORK IN VARIOUS MATERIALS

1975-1990

Underneath the line of letters a photograph goes up. Debbie goes out into the street to look at it, a photograph of Mrs Brown under a kind of wild crown of woven scarves, with her old carved look and an added look of sly amusement, in the corners of her mouth and eyes. Her skin has come out duskier than it ‘really’ is, her bones are sculpted, she resembles a cross between the Mona Lisa and a Benin Bronze.

A.S. Byatt. b.1936.  Art Work, The Matisse Stories, 1993

Published by Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1993

Copyright @ A.S.Byatt 1993

Image 1. Henri Matisse, 1869-1954. Le silence habité des maisons, 1947, oil on canvas, 21 5/8 x 18 1/8 inches. Private Collection

Image 2. Henri Matisse, 1869-1954. Le silence habité des maisons, 1947. Museum Bergruenn, Berlin. http://www.smb.museum

Matisse’s painting Le silence habité des maisons, translates as ‘The Inhabited Silence of Houses’. In A.S Byatt’s short story this suggests the ennui of failed ambition, the dull habitualness of domesticity and the life of bored and unfulfilled couples in the inner suburbs of Bohemia. Debbie Dennison is the successful editor of a A Woman’s Place magazine. Her husband, Robin Dennison, who as a young man was a progressive artist “a neo-realist before neo-realism” had become an introverted painter working from his home studio making sterile and repetitive work drained of energy: “He painted bright things in large expanses of grey and buff and beige”. Shona McRury is an ambitious art dealer who owns the Callisto Gallery. Mrs. Brown is the Dennison’s part-Guyanese, part-Irish home help who has a flamboyant sense of fashion and inventive artistic talent who has been privately making colourful textile ‘soft sculpture’ in the “lock-up room in the basement of her block of flats”. Shona McRury visits Robin Dennison’s studio but is dispirited by his work. Then to the surprise of the Dennison’s an exhibition of Mrs. Brown’s work is shown at the Callisto Gallery and is celebrated for presenting “feminist comments” and “shocking effects”. Sheba Brown leaves her job with the “artistic family” to pursue her career as an artist. The story ends with Debbie Dennison returns to being an artist, making illustrations and wood-engravings, while Robin Dennison begins to make a new form of painting featuring ‘Kali the Destroyer’.

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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