Diana Secker Tesdell ranges as far back as Honoré de Balzac and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but includes contemporary fiction, too.
“Stories of Art and Artists”
edited by Diana Secker Tesdell
Everyman’s Pocket Classics, 400 pp., $16
Writers understandably find visual artists fascinating: The latter seem to evoke reality, even transcend it, without needing to rely on the kludgy medium of words.
Some tales selected by Diana Secker Tesdell for her excellent new anthology, “Stories of Art and Artists,” depict artists as magically powerful. In Marguerite Yourcenar’s fable, “How Wang-Fo Was Saved,” an old painter makes art so vivid that reality pales next to it, infuriating the emperor, who plans to put the painter to death. Of course the painter and his devoted acolyte find a way out through art itself.
Tesdell ranges as far back as Honoré de Balzac and Nathaniel Hawthorne, while also including contemporary fiction as recent as Rebecca Lee’s 2013 collection, “Bobcat.” Unsurprisingly, 14 of the 20 stories feature painters, painting and closely related arts. Edgar Allan Poe’s spooky short “The Oval Portrait” depicts a painting that draws life literally from its subject. In Guy de Maupassant’s “A Portrait,” the painting of his mother solves the mystery of what makes a graying Don Juan so attractive.
A few stories address the hothouse intimacy that can develop between a painter and model, though in unexpected ways. In Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Red-Haired Girl,” a young painter becomes preoccupied with the redheaded servant who poses for him but refuses him any access to her emotions. In the collection’s oddest story, Henry James’ “The Real Thing,” a gentleman and lady of declining resources desperately want to model for book illustrations — but the art depicting them keeps turning out lifeless and unacceptable.
Tesdell includes stories by John Berger and A.S. Byatt, two writers strongly associated with aesthetics. In Berger’s “A Brush,” the gift of a brush leads to unexpected friendship between an artist and a Khmer refugee in Paris. Byatt’s “A Lamia in the Cévennes” pits a blocked painter against a possessive talking demon in the form of a snake.
While no photographers or video artists found their way into this collection, Tesdell does include the greatest story ever written about a performance or conceptual artist, Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist.” He plies his art for years, relegated to the fringes of the circus, until he is all but forgotten. “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” the hunger artist says, delivering one of 20th-century literature’s most devastating lines.
With “The Color Master,” Aimee Bender offers a prequel to the fairy tale “Donkeyskin.” It’s one of this collection’s most detailed stories about artists at work, depicting how this group makes and colors dresses to the king’s daughter’s ridiculous specifications: a dress the color of the sky, a dress the color of the moon.
In “Jonas, or The Artist at Work,” Albert Camus offers both a fable and a satire about a happy-go-lucky artist whose problems grow as he becomes successful. Wanting only to follow his star, he pulls himself up into a high loft where, in a move that prefigures a famous Yoko Ono stunt, he paints a single, tiny, hard-to-read word on a canvas.
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If you, like me, enjoy stories of artists behaving badly, Tesdell does not disappoint. In Bernard Malamud’s “Rembrandt’s Hat,” a taciturn sculptor and an art historian engage in a draining, passive-aggressive struggle after one makes a remark about the other’s chapeau. Rebecca Lee’s “Fialta,” set in southwestern Wisconsin, depicts the cult around an architect a la Frank Lloyd Wright, with an apprentice and the Master hungry for the love of the same woman.