On Matisse, Medusa and fat ankles


On Matisse, Medusa and fat ankles

JOAN HAMBIDGE tells how colour and words convey emotions (and excuse me, what is ekphrasis?).



The ekphrastic poem is a verse that comments on a well-known painting. The notional ekphrasis, on the other hand, is a story based on a fictional artwork. Actual ekphrasis is a story that places a famous painting in the narrative, thus symbolically charging the story.

The Matisse Stories (Vintage, 1994) by AS Byatt — winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for Possession — is an example of actual ekphrasis. Three stories, two of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, infuse the tales with a deeper meaning or implication. In the first, Medusa’s Ankles, we read:

She remembered, not as a girl, as a young woman under all that chestnut fall, looking at her skin, and wondering how it could grow into the crepe, the sag, the opulent soft bags. This was her face, she had thought then. And this, too, now, she wanted to accept for her face, trained in a respect for precisions, and she could not. What had left this greying skin, these flakes, these fragile stretches with no elasticity, was her, was her life, was herself.

The artwork “La chevelure" (1931-32) is used here. Susannah is a middle-aged translator. She chooses Lucian's hair salon after glimpsing a Matisse artwork through the window. In conversations with her hairdresser and her own inner thoughts, she reflects on her age and her relationship with her husband. We witness how Susannah experiences the hairdresser, a man who has a mistress and is extremely negative about his wife's thick ankles. This is traumatic for Susannah as an ageing woman. As a linguist, she can conjugate the verb “love" in different languages.

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The phenomenon of hairdresser as psychologist is examined here. She entrusts Lucian with her own disintegration. She tells him to read Lawrence Gowing on Matisse and where to find extramural classes to improve his life. At a subsequent visit, he is once again interested in archaeology.

The hair salon is depicted in precise detail. Every change and upgrade is observed. She is an adept storyteller; we learn that he tells his life story “in bumps and jerks"; he is a weak storyteller, according to Susannah.

The turning point is when she tells him she has won a translation award and has to make a speech. Her hair must therefore look good. Unfortunately, she is not satisfied with the attempt. She looks at the mirror and remembers the Japanese legend that demons from another world can enter ours through a mirror.

In a fit of anger, she destroys the salon. She offers to pay, but he remains calm and replies laconically that the insurance will cover it. Moreover, he believes she did him a favour with this destruction. The colours weren't right.

In a resounding ending, she comes home and her husband sees the new hairstyle. He likes it. It makes her look 20 years younger, he says.


Matisse (1869-1954) is an exponent of Fauvism (fauve in French: wild beast). His bright colours evoke strong emotions. The subdued stories work against the backdrop of the highly expressive paintings in Byatt's  actual ekphrasis.

In the second story, Art Work, Byatt uses the artwork from 1937: “L'Artiste et le modèle reflétés dans le miroir". Here we read about Mrs Brown, the housekeeper, and her influence on the woman, Debbie, a decor editor, who has a troubled relationship with her husband:

She hated Robin because he never once mentioned the unmade wood-engravings. It is possible to feel love and hate quite quietly, side by side, if one is a self-contained person. Debbie continued to love Robin, whilst hating him because of the woodcuts, because of the extent of his absences of interest in how she managed the house, the children, the money, her profession, his needs and wants, and because of his resolute attempts to unsettle, humiliate, or drive away Mrs Brown, without whom all Debbie’s balancing acts would clatter and fall in wounding disarray.

It appears Mrs Brown has artistic aspirations, and the silent housekeeper appears on TV as a subverter of bourgeois order.

In the brilliant final story, The Chinese Lobster, Dr Gerda Himmelblau, the female dean, meets a colleague, Perry Diss, in a Chinese restaurant to investigate a complaint of improper conduct against him. This includes allegations that Matisse distorts the female body. And half-statements from the student about Matisse that are misunderstood. However, everything is complicated due to their different positions. The dean, whose name is activated by Matisse's colours, and the man, who is unwilling to admit to the student's poor art.

The encounter shatters Himmelblau's academic certainties, and she gazes at the fish tank with the lobster and the mussels. In the restaurant, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' ironically plays.

“Nymphe et faune" (1931-2) frames the last story.

All the artworks can be viewed here.


Each story is framed by a painting. The stories provide insightful commentary on every aspect of womanhood: the woman as an academic, the woman as a mother, the woman as an observer, the woman with agency.

Matisse believed colours convey emotions. Art as expression. And Byatt expresses this precisely.


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