Portraits seem the opposite of fiction, fixed in time and space, not running with the curve of a story or a life. Yet since the birth of the novel, writers have been fascinated by portraits as icons, as motifs, as images of character and evocations of past time. A. S. Byatt delves into the complex relations between portraits and characters, and between portraits and novels as whole works of art. Her authors range from Henry James to Iris Murdoch, her artists from Holbein to Botticelli, Manet to the present day. She looks at the way writers use portraits to conjure up the past, as in Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen and Virginia Woolf's Orlando. She explores their erotic use, the idea of painting as a sexual act, full of danger. And she examines the creation of fictional portrait painters by writers like Balzac and Zola, whose writing was closely linked, in different ways to the art of Cezanne. A portrait can defy the process of age but its very stillness can also seem like death. Art can be a murderer. And sometimes, as in Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, a portrait can itself become the victim of Gothic rage.
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(197mm x 130mm x 10mm)
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
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UK Kirkus Review »
In this essay, based on her Heywood Hill Annual Lecture given at the National Portrait Gallery, A S Byatt explores literature's fascination for the painted portrait in a sharp and inspirational critical essay that examines the complex relationship between these two art forms. She asserts that the painted portrait is the opposite of the literary portrait. Working with colour and light the artist paints an immediate record of a physical presence whereas the writer constructs an internalized image of character that can be played out at length, suffused with invisible abstractions of thought and emotion. Byatt looks closely at how these opposites attract, an allure that extends across literature from Balzac to Salman Rushdie. The painted portrait can convey powerful symbolism, becoming an icon or a motif underlying the nature of a character or the meaning of an entire novel. It is an ideal tool with which to evoke the past and also explore the paradox that this representation of life is essentially a dead thing, a frozen moment from a different time that can inspire, haunt or destroy a character. Writers have been adept at discovering the potential darkness in portraits. There is the destructive eroticism between the artist and his created image, perhaps best explored in Zola's L'Oeuvre, and the vampiric portraits that drain the life from the viewer such as in Wilde's Dorian Grey. Artists themselves exercise a fascination on writers, as Byatt illustrates when she discusses the fictional portrait painters created by Balzac and Zola. Balzac's deranged genius, Frenhofer, and his secret painting of intense abstraction provided inspiration to the emerging Impressionists while Zola used his close relationship with Cezanne too closely for the painter's liking when he created Claude Lantier. It is a rich subject that Byatt mines with great flair and critical skill. Illustrated with coloured plates of the relevant portraits, this is an eloquent gem of a book. (Kirkus UK)
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Author Biography - A. S. Byatt
A.S. Byatt is a novelist, short-story writer and critic of international renown. Her novels include Possession (winner of the Booker Prize in 1990), and the Frederica Quartet; The Children's Book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. She was appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in 1999 and is the recipient of the Erasmus Prize 2016 for her 'inspiring contribution to life writing'.