Monday, August 29, 2016

Peacock & Vine: on William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, by A.S. Byatt. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

‘Peacock & Vine’ is a long essay in which the author compares and contrasts Morris and Fortuny and their art. Both men were polymaths who were designers and artists who worked in several media. Fortuny is best known today for his ingeniously permanently pleated dresses that were totally different from the fashions of his day; Morris is known as a pre-Raphaelite who set about to bring beauty to the homes of everyone with beautiful rugs, wallpaper, and fabrics. Both also painted and had amazing energy. The never interacted; they lived a generation apart and in different countries, but they shared a work ethic and love for beauty.

This work does not go deep enough to be a duel biography; it’s more about how the work of these men affected Byatt. She admits that their art made her think deeply about making an artistic mark upon the world.

This is a little jewel box of a book; the front of the dust jacket is a Morris tapestry (with peacock) in warm umbers and golds while the back is a painting of Fortuny’s studio. A huge number of photographs illuminate the text. And, as always, Byatt’s writing is lush and beautiful.

There is one odd spot; in the section “Pomegranate” (a motif used by both Morris and Fortuny quite a lot) she states that Morris’s first attempt at painting pomegranates didn’t turn out well; they look more like lemons. The piece in question actually *does* have pomegranates, in the upper right hand corner; below that are, indeed, lemons-you can tell not just by the shape & color but by the thorns on the branch; in the lower left are peaches, and in the upper left are oranges. I find it odd that the author didn’t catch that. 

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1 comment:

  1. Oh boy! I really like Byatt's writing and Morris is a favorite designer while I know less about Fortnuy. I really enjoy biographies - or stories - about artists and this sounds great.