PRINT Summer 2001



FOR ANYONE INTO THE CREATIVE and/or obsessive process, The Unknown Masterpiece remains the ultimate nightmare. In Balzac’s 1831 allegory, newly translated by Richard Howard, the painter Frenhofer inhabits the gray area where inspiration and neurosis become indistinguishable. The traumatically unforgettable artiste is the demon of perfectionism who undoes the Work as quickly as it is inspired—and who haunts anyone afraid to start (or stop) working on something. Even Cézanne and Picasso (who illustrated a centenary edition of the novel and purchased the studio that is one of the story’s settings) were spooked by Frenhofer’s relentless, ultimately sterile quest for absolute truth: “Oh nature, nature! Who has ever plumbed your secrets?” he wails, “There is no escaping it; too much knowledge, like too much ignorance, leads to a negation. My work is . . . my doubt!”

In a Rod Serling–esque scenario set in 1612, two painters call on the secluded maestro. The quasi-mythical Frenhofer is the Artist Past; Porbus, the Artist Present about to go out of fashion as the flavor-of-the-minute; and the Artist Future is Nicolas Poussin (heard of him?), the “spring chicken” en français poised between Love and Glory, struggling to choose whether to pimp his girlfriend Gillette’s devotion at the altar of his newly emboldened art-star Ambition.

For years, the Master has guarded his work-in-progress jealously, with an uxorious devotion rivaling Dennis Hopper’s attachment to his blow-up-doll companion in River’s Edge. He considers the painting his soulmate:“my creation, my wife.” Concerned he’s gotten “several details wrong,” however, he needs to compare her to “various beauties in nature” to make sure she’s perfect. In the atelier equivalent of wife-swapping, Poussin visually offers Frenhofer his flawless mistress as a means to get a peek at the big guy’s lady—and his secrets. At long last set to expose his “painted lady,” Frenhofer “pants like a lovesick swain,” seeming “to enjoy in advance the victory his artificial virgin’s beauty would gain over that of a real girl.” When the master’s piece is revealed, though, it’s a Night Gallery moment: Frenhofer’s “woman” is a “wall of paint,” with a “living” foot sticking out of the blur. The Master has “corrected” his work into illegibility, “imagining he was perfecting his art.” Ouch.

In a frenzy, Frenhofer explicates: “My painting’s not a painting, my figure’s a feeling, a passion,” the thing itself, the je ne sais quoi beyond mere technique. “Where’s the art? Gone, vanished!” he crows. Indeed, his masterwork goes beyond Art into life—or crap. Like an acquaintance’s inexplicable crush, others can’t figure out what he sees in it. The guy’s gone off the deep end where virtuosity is not enough; only the Frankensteinian creation of life itself will suffice. “You draw a woman but you don’t see her!” he lectures his visitors. “That’s not the way to penetrate nature’s secrets.” His goal is not to copy nature—George Segal can do that—but to use “form as an intermediary for the communication of ideas and sensations, a vast poetry!”

Laura Mulvey herself couldn’t have asked for more. In this study of turbo-sublimation, looking and sex are the same. Frenhofer “poured his soul into” the work, and his erotic object demands his fidelity sexually, spiritually, and therefore visually: “expose my creation, my wife? . . . that would be a terrible prostitution! . . . What husband, what lover would be vile enough to put his own wife to such shame?” As Arthur C. Danto contextualizes in his intro: “The symbolic equivalence the story establishes between seeing a woman’s exposed body and seeing a work of art is an effort on the part of a Romantic writer to find something as valuable as art itself—something that money cannot buy, for a woman’s nakedness is without value if it is bought.” Equating the work with his beloved’s nude “virtue,” Frenhofer represents the Romantic disintegration between art and the marketplace. What perhaps makes him scariest—and most strange—to today’s marketing-mad sensibility is his profound resistance to showing, let alone selling, his stuff.

La Belle noiseuse (1991), the Jacques Rivette film based on The Unknown Masterpiece, develops the girlfriend’s pique that her soon-to-be ex Poussin has loaned her out as a kind of aesthetic Viagra to rouse the Master from retirement. Rivette stresses the old-guy-performance-anxiety angle. The updated Gillette figure’s quasi-resistant subjectivity is indicated by petulant chain-smoking. Rivette’s camera lingers over her pert breasts and the studio agon between the tortured perfectionist and his undraped woman/objet. You can practically hear the harmful voices in his head: First the chair isn’t right, then the table, then the pose ... Dispirited, he chicken scratches a sketch and frowns, until she busts him: “You give up too soon!” She’s peevish with cramps from the awkward poses, as well as the codger’s philosophical ravings that he’s “going to break her apart” to get at the absolute Form under her surface.

Today Frenhofer’s problemo comes across more as an allegory of bad living—filed under the “Ravages of Thought” in Balzac’s megaproject, The Human Comedy—than bad art. If every finished work is the death mask of its intention, Frenhofer tragically refuses to let his ideal “die” into existence, so it can appear to others. “Imprisoned in his ecstasy,” his compulsion to keep his painting “alive” and “perfect,” and unknown, renders him grotesque, and apparently nuts, like Norman Bates. Yet if art doesn’t aim for that elusive je ne sais quoi, you’re left with . . . what? Frenhofer haunts anyone aware that pushing a work to the limit always risks its ruin. Showing how his failure reflects this basic condition is Balzac’s genius. Ironically, his Frenhofer lives on. Somewhat.

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer based in New York.


Honoré de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece. Translated by Richard Howard. Introduction by Arthur C. Danto. New York: New York Review Books, 2001. 135 pages.