The Unknown Masterpiece
Life is lived in moments, preserved in history and fantasized, fancied, depicted and/or presented in an aesthetic fashion in literary or art form. Last night’s few moments that I lived with my books, I came across a short story by Balzac, yes, Honoré de Balzac. The giant of a writer, Balzac has always fascinated me. Not only him, but those who have worked on him have too added to his marvel. I still remember the full-length human size statue of him carved by Rodin that I saw over a decade ago, and got mesmerized by the image Rodin had sculpted and I had written a commentary on it, which has been lost somewhere in the dust of time. Works, to be precise, by, on or about Balzac, have remained my passion, which was rekindled with his short story that I read last night.
The Unknown Masterpiece, originally Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (French), was first published in a newspaper named L’Artiste in 1831 under the title Maître Frenhofer. Later on, the same was published in Balzac’s Études philosophiques under the title Catherine Lescault, conte fantastique in 1837. Nonetheless, the story I read was shown to be published in 1845, the publisher not shown, as sometimes happens in the iPad selected books.
THE STORY begins with Nicolas Poussin, a young man, who awaits outside a workshop gate, awaiting to enter the premises, but since he is hesitant, stays out for quite a while until an old sweeper in response to his question as to availability of an artist Porbus informs him that the artist is inside, he enters the workshop. Once inside, he finds Porbus in his workshop busy in his painting. Meanwhile an old man Frenhofer appears in the room and a critical discussion starts.
Frenhofer dominates the scene. He commences his criticism on the painting of a Saint Porbus had finished. The old man does praise the painting from a number of angles, but is not shown to be satisfied with the painting in its entirety. He rather tells Porbus that his painting is only good at the centers, and in its outlines it is false, because the painting of the lady on the canvas just tells it is a painting of a woman but it is a woman who does not seem to have life breathing in it. It is rather a copy from nature than expression of nature. He keeps criticizing the painting and the environment gets charged. Nonetheless, the young Poussin listens to him carefully and feels the impact of the old man on such a famous artist Porbus, but remains silent.
A time comes when the old man asks as to who this young man is. Poussin tells him that he is a novice in the field of painting and art and has come to buy a painting. The old man offers him a brush and asks him to draw a few things on Porbus’ painting. At the young man’s artistic strokes that he applies on the canvas, the old man feels comfortable that he can talk well before the young man. The discussion continues amidst arguments, but the old master tells Porbus that his painting needs life, and for that the old man himself gets hold of a brush and palette and with a few strokes on the painting by Porbus brings considerable change in it, giving it masterly strokes wherein brightness emerges from the dark paint that Porbus had worked hard on.
However, the old man speaks of his own art in a fairly passionate manner. He tells about a painting that he has been working on for around ten years, and furthers his discussion on the painting by adding that the painting despite his hard work of ten years remains unfinished in his eyes as there needs to be something that would, after it is added, make the painting a masterpiece. He also says that since he does not have a model for his painting’s finesse, he is unable to give it a final touch, and is confident that the painting will overpower all the paintings of the times once that final touch comes in its desired state.
Poussin leaves the workshop and meets his mistress Gillete. The painting he had bought from Porbus in his hand, exchange of love through words with his mistress, he is lost in his thoughts of asking the mistress to pose for the old man, so that the old man’s masterpiece is completed. Anyway, he requests her for the same. She is hesitant because she has to pose nude before the painter in order for him to paint on the canvas. She, who is deeply in love with this young aspiring artist, accedes to his request finally.
At the old man’s workshop, Porbus tries to convince the old Frenhofer that the young Poussin has talked to his mistress for helping him out in finishing his painting. The old man is not agreed initially but later on while they argue, Poussin along with Gillete enters the workshop. The old man watches her and is convinced to take her for the painting as a model.
Painting finished, the young Poussin and Porbus visit the old man’s chamber to watch his hidden masterpiece he had been working on for ten years. They observe that the painting does not have anything but patches of different colors. The young artist finds nothing in the painting except rough outlines and rough spread of colors. The senior painter Porbus, however, tells him that there’s some destroyed town wherefrom a beautiful lady seems to emerge. They talk on it, but come up with the conclusion that the painting does not have much grandeur as the old man had spoken of; it was rather a waste of time. The old man listens to them and gets furious at their remarks and asks them to get out of the workshop.
The next day Porbus visits the old man’s workshop only to find that the old man had burnt all his paintings before killing himself. THE STORY ENDS.
The short story, whom some of critics have termed a novella, is predominantly an idea poured into the pot of fiction. This idea is in a way universal and has left its indelible marks on the world literature. A number of other literary works have borrowed from Balzac’s idea. I can find some of the resemblance of one of its scenes and the dialogues with a novel by Agha Saleem, Oondaahi Dharti, Roshan Hath (The dark earth; the bright hand) that I am translating into English from Sindhi. The scene I am referring to is the one wherein Poussin enters Porbus’ chamber and feels his heartbeats throbbing as it happens when a novice meets a master of his field; so says Balzac in his commentary within the story; even the old man’s criticism on Porbus’ painting reminds me of the scene in Agha’s novel wherein the old sculptor, who is going to be the mentor of the novel’s protagonist, criticizes his work almost the identical way as does Frenhofer; but I am not at all saying that Agha seems to have copied that stuff; the idea is universal and has its own individual dimensions. In addition to this, there is La Belle Noiseuse, a 1991 movie inspired mainly from this short story directed by Jacques Rivette. Pablo Picasso illustrated this story in 1921 and identified with Frenhofer. He was so inspired by the story and the old man’s character that eventually he chose to live in rue des Grands-Augustins in the same studio, which was thought to be the same place where the story’s character, old man, was shown to be living. His Guernica got its birth in this very studio.
The story has its own dimensions as the criticism goes on from time to time. There are three different painters: one novice (Poussin), the other mature (Porbus), and the extraordinary (Frenhofer). They have different attitudes towards art of painting. While the three discuss on Porbus’ painting, all have different ideas and points for their respective arguments. Same happens when the three talk on the Unknown Masterpiece of the old man, which he had kept hidden. During this important discussion, it becomes clear that the novice sees nothing in the painting except some patches of colors and rough outlines, while the mature Porbus finds some destroyed town and a pretty woman emerging; however, it is the old man who feels there’s the most beautiful woman on earth that lives in the painting, which these two painters, as the old man thinks, cannot see.
Besides, paradoxically, Poussin has his mistress, who is the most beautiful woman worthy of being the model for the old man’s painting, while the old man has remained thirsty of finding such an appealing lady with so perfect beauty and figure. The one (Frenhofer) who needs the object (Gillete) does not have it; while the one (Poussin) who has it, does not think of it (her) the way the old man thinks.
An idea of Perfectionism can be thought of as an element behind the old man’s waiting for so long as the critics have been arguing over decades. Being a perfectionist, perhaps, he believes his painting cannot be given a final touch unless it achieves what he desires for it. He is skilled enough to quickly reform the shape of Porbus’ painting the very same moments they discuss on art of painting, but again, when it comes to his own awaited painting, which has taken ten complete years, he is not quite sure as to its finesse.
But in addition to this perfectionism, critics argue there can be added an element of satisfaction/dissatisfaction. The moment Gillete comes in old man’s life, and the moment he takes her as his model, and the moment his painting gets finished, the very next day he burns each of his paintings and kills himself. It can be argued here, in favor or against, that the moment he got satisfied, he found no reason for the painting to exist, and perhaps, he wanted this perfect piece to remain hidden from people, so he burnt it. It may be a naïve idea though. However, one more element can be added to this. Disgust or Failure. He may have thought that the piece of art he adored like a goddess was criticized even by mediocre artists and thus could be of no value at all, and then why had he been wasting his time on an imperfect piece of art; a total wastage, a total failure, fiasco. He could also think of the incapacity of the world to appreciate his unique art. His death in the story really sparks several ideas; thus it remains dynamic.
The story is worth reading, not only for artist, but also for laypersons.