Making the world

Christopher Prendergast

  • Gillette, or The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Anthony Rudolf
    Menard Press, 64 pp, £5.95, December 1988, ISBN 0 903400 99 5

In his Souvenirs sur Paul Cézanne, Emile Bernard records a conversation in which he raised with Cézanne the topic of Balzac’s Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu – the story of the fictional painter Frenhofer, who spends ten years trying to create the perfect picture of a woman but ends up painting what, in the story itself (which mixes fiction with 17th-century fact), the young Nicolas Poussin describes as ‘nothing [ ... ] but confused masses of colour contained by a multitude of strange lines, forming a high wall of paint’. Cézanne, who, Gasquet informs us, had a copy of the book tout fripé, sâli et décousu almost permanently by his bedside, said not a word but rose to his feet, pointing agitatedly, and tearfully, at himself: il se leva de table, se dressa devant moi, et frappant sa poitrine avec son index, il s’accusa, sans un mot, mais par son geste multiplié, le personnage du roman. Il en était si ému que des larmes emplissaient ses yeux. More eloquent testimony to the enduring power and relevance of Balzac’s story could scarcely be imagined. In the essay Anthony Rudolf appends to his new translation, this anecdote figures as exemplary, and serves to buttress the case for Balzac’s story as exemplary anticipation of the adventure of modern painting.

It is unlikely – to use that normally absurd conditional perfect which, however, here both raises and begs interesting questions about the significance of the story – that Balzac himself would have approved of this alignment with Modernism. In the preface to another work he described Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu as a cautionary tale designed to illustrate ‘the laws which produce the suicide of art’. This is emphatically not a case of Frenhofer, c’est moi, but rather the robustly commonsensical approach of a writer who, despite the famous exotic accoutrements of work (monk’s habit, nocturnal regime and endless cups of black coffee), nevertheless construed work itself on the model of the industrious bourgeois; who perceived himself as less the Frenhofer (or even the Napoleon) than the Birotteau of art, for whom getting the job done was the task to hand and the main danger, not derailment by demonic possession, but exhaustion from overwork. But, if that image has encouraged an interpretation of Frenhofer as the embodiment of an ‘error’ and a ‘failure’ (notably in that brand of justemilieu criticism for which the new is always an overrated fiction and any form of passionate ‘excess’ the sign of a lack of intellectual and social good manners), this edits out all manner of ambiguity and complexity. For instance, whatever we think has happened on the canvas which the two other painters in the story find unintelligible (a reaction that precipitates Frenhofer’s death and the destruction of his whole oeuvre), there is nevertheless a substantial oeuvre; Frenhofer’s studio seems as packed with canvases as the Comédie Humaine with novels, and according to the two other painters, they all – apart from the final picture – seem to be masterpieces. Whatever Frenhofer’s ‘problem’, it doesn’t appear to be his work rate or the quality of his output.

Anthony Rudolf happily votes against the urbanely cautious party and adds his enthusiastic voice to the growing body of opinion (since 1980, there have been no fewer than four major books devoted to re-interpreting this relatively short work) that there is more to it than meets the sceptical eye. Certainly, for readers to whom The Unknown Masterpiece still remains an unknown masterpiece, that lamentable condition should be rectified without delay, if not by way of the original, then with the help of this admirable new translation. Not only is it the first to appear in eighty years (barring a recent, and execrable, American publication), it is also carried off with a brio and inventiveness worthy of the original. An example: coup de pinceau is, of course, a painterly term normally translated as ‘brush stroke’. But in a story where sexual feeling and fantasy everywhere inform the activity of painting, it is itself something of a stroke of translator’s genius to have respected the syntax of the original in the following sentence from one of Frenhofer’s wilder discourses about the subject of his painting: ‘Has she not smiled at me with every stroke of the brush I have given her?’

This sort of translator’s move is of a piece with Rudolf’s eagerness to match the drama of Frenhofer’s brush strokes with later art and notions of art. It evokes, for example, Picasso’s erotic drawings (Picasso was also obsessed with Frenhofer, and did the illustrations for the Vollard edition of the story). More generally, anachronistic reading – though in reverse direction – is legitimised by the text itself. Although the topics it rehearses were not alien to 17th-century discourse on painting (Balzac was almost certainly acquainted with Félibien’s Entretiens), the historical setting serves primarily as a narrative distancing device for a reference which is clearly contemporary: that version of the early 19th-century quarrel of the ancients and moderns we know as the neoclassical v. romantic controversy about the respective merits of line and colour. Frenhofer is unambiguously of the colour party, and, in this respect, a reflection of what Balzac would have learnt from Delacroix, Boulanger, Gautier and the Hugo cénacle (it was Hugo who was to call for an artist willing to put ‘chaos in his brushes’). On the other hand, an after-effect of Balzac’s own use of backwards anachronism is that later readers have felt entirely at ease with running the anachronism forwards and seeing the text as prophetic anticipation of the terms of the struggles and achievements of 20th-century painting – what Rilke called Balzac’s ‘unbelievable visions of future evolutions’ (a fine study of identifications by 20th-century artists with Frenhofer is Dore Ashton’s A Fable of Modern Art). Rudolf adds to this by bringing the forwards reference further forwards to Abstract Expressionism, to Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning (noting de Kooning’s claim that Balzac’s story was a pre-imagining of Cubism).

However, Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu is not just a book about and for painters, and about the question of anachronistic painterly reference: there is a wider historical and cultural context in which it needs to be placed. In its original 1831 version (it was later substantially revised), the story was commissioned by the periodical L’Artiste as a fictional illustration of the new conception of the artist proclaimed by the periodical’s title: artiste as a noun became established usage only in the later 18th century, and when Jules Janin wrote être artiste as the editorial mot d’ordre of the first issue of L’Artiste, the phrase could well have been ambiguous between the senses of being artistic, being an artist and artistic being. The ambiguity captures nicely both the emphasis on the relatively new idea of ‘art’ as highly specialised activity within the cultural division of labour, and the related emergence of what may be called the ‘aesthetic attitude’. By this I do not mean simply the notion of art for art’s sake or its later incarnation as Fin-de-Siècle aestheticism. I mean rather a broader late 18th and 19th-century stress on the primacy of making, arising not just from conceptions of art but from the Kantian philosophical revolution whereby knowledge was not simply given to the mind but humanly created by virtue of dynamic cognitive schemas in the mind: man as ‘artist’, in this context, refers not only to painters, poets and composers but more generally to man as maker of his own beliefs, values, history. This became one of the great themes of 19th-century intellectual life. Thus, the famous adage that ‘men make their own history’ implies a view of man as a kind of artist, and it is no accident that the long list of prestigious admirers of Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu also includes Marx. Frenhofer’s prodigious creative energy and flamboyant freedom from ‘rules’ struck Marx as the very image of man-as-producer, as incarnation of Faustian energey bent on the making and remaking of the world.

On the other hand, Marx’s qualification that, if men make their own history, they do not do so ‘just as they please’ implies a practical and rational constraint on human creative power. The corresponding downside of the Faustian-Promethean romantic conception of man-as-artist was that his constructions were permanently shadowed by the fear of impotence and arbitrariness. If man makes the world and its representations, what grounds and guarantees the cognitive or ethical validity of any particular human making? How to distinguish between project and delusion, the authentically new and the merely fanciful, the imaginatively transforming and the wildly delirious? Or – in the terms of Balzac’s reflection of this – how to decide between the respective reactions of the three painters before Frenhofer’s last canvas: illegible mass of forms and colours or revolutionary remaking of the pictorial vocabulary? Perhaps the question – along with the question formed in Porbus’s mind by Frenhofer’s bold aesthetic speculations (‘Was Frenhofer sane or mad?’) – is strictly undecidable. Rudolf, while acknowledging that the story is centrally concerned with doubt and self-doubt, nevertheless feels he has to take sides, and accordingly dismisses the judgment of Porbus and Poussin; where they see nothing (‘there is nothing on his canvas’), he sees avant la lettre the shapes and textures of Giacometti and de Kooning.

This judgment, however, is effected at a price, a price moreover which reminds us that Balzac’s text is not only a document for intellectual and art history but also a story, a narrative performance which needs to be described and evaluated in appropriately literary critical terms. Harold Rosenberg tells us in The Anxious Object that de Kooning’s interest in the tale arose against a background of anxiety over the painting of ‘The Woman’. ‘The Woman’ (or, in Jacques Lacan’s self-erasing formulation, The Woman) is what Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu, as both narrative and art theory, is about. But in order to see Frenhofer’s canvas as announcing the non-figural shapes of Abstract Expressionism, Rudolf has to disregard, and invite the reader to disregard, what all three painters in the story look for – namely, the woman in the painting; on this view, to see Frenhofer’s canvas ‘properly’ (that is, as ‘a perfect artefact of the 20th century’), we must forget that it has anything to with cherchez la femme. This, however, is not only to close one’s eyes to the facts of the story, but also implicitly to sever the connection between the drama of the painting and the narrative in which it unfolds. As narrative, Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu turns on a withholding of secrets and their partial disclosure in an act of exchange (in this respect it resembles the structure of Sarrasine analysed by Roland Barthes). The secrets are in part trade secrets, and thus elements of an initiation story emphasising the theme of the new ‘autonomy’ of the artist (for Poussin, Frenhofer represents ‘art with its secrets, its passions, its reveries’). But the secrets in question revolve around a very particular artistic problem – how to paint the female nude – and the ‘reveries’ are visibly erotic ones. Frenhofer treats the woman in his picture as if she were a clandestine mistress, and his reluctance to show the painting to Poussin and Porbus is overcome only in return for the ‘loan’ of Gillette, herself both model and mistress to Poussin, in the effort to finish his picture. Poussin in turn agrees to the exchange, but against both the wishes of Gillette and his own judgment (or rather his fears: Poussin’s fear is that Gillette’s naked body will be defiled by exposure to the gaze of another artist).

Gillette (Gillette was one of the titles given to the story by Balzac) thus functions as the object of a troubled transaction in which art and sex become inextricably entangled: Poussin looks at Frenhofer looking at Gillette, ‘and a thousand scruples tortured his heart when he saw the old man’s rejuvenated eye undress, so to speak – as painters do – the young girl and guess the secrets of her curves and shapes.’ The secrets, then, are secrets of sexuality, and in that magnificently equivocal sentence, the narration’s own manner of speaking (‘so to speak’) moulds itself to the hesitancies and ambiguities which surround the painting in the story.

Representing female form in paint is not just a matter of creating an image based on what Frenhofer calls ‘the laws of anatomy’. It is also the enterprise which Frenhofer grandly calls the painter’s attempt to ‘steal’ nothing less than ‘God’s secret’, to master a sexuality posed as radically other, as a mysterious essence and metaphysical ground of being; or, to return to the terms of Lacan’s ‘God and the Jouissance of The Woman’, Balzac’s painter is in thrall to the ‘mystery’ of sexual difference; God’s secret is that ‘face of the Other’, the ‘Godface as supported by feminine jouissance’, around which male fantasy hopelessly turns in pursuit of an ever-elusive knowledge (it will be recalled that one of Lacan’s illustrative examples in the essay is a work of art, Bernini’s sculpture of St Teresa). Closer to home, this may also remind us of Baudelaire’s confession of artistic ‘impotence’ in the poem ‘Un Fantôme’:

Je suis comme un peintre qu’un Dieu moqueur
Condamne à peindre, hélas! sur les ténèbres.

Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu is thus a story in which artistic and erotic interests converge in a scopic regime of desire, knowledge and representation. The relation of the male artist to the female nude is not just one of sexually-interested looking (wanting what he paints), but also of looking at sexuality (wanting a knowledge he can get into paint). The desired secret is not the desire of the female body as such but the action of the male gaze on the desire of the female body, wanting to know the flesh of woman as it reacts to being looked at by the male. No wonder it is also a story of possessiveness, jealousy and rivalry, and that it ends in all-round disaster: the death of one of the artists and (as Barthes would have put it) the ‘castration’ of the other. It also, as narrative, has an appropriately emasculating effect on its readers. Its high point is – as so often in Balzac – a moment of low melodrama: the absurd ‘keyhole’ situation where Poussin and Porbus wait outside Frenhofer’s studio, both listening intently, Poussin dagger in hand, while Frenhofer paints Gillette: ‘The two men, as they stood in the shadow, resembled two conspirators awaiting the hour to strike a tyrant down.’ But what they wait to see, they never see, and nor do we, the readers of the tale. In a superb narrative ellipsis (the next sentence is ‘ “Come in, come in,” said the old man to them, glowing with delight’), the story withholds what we want to ‘know’, or, alternatively, implies – in a perspective of parodic demystification – that there is nothing to know.

‘Nothing’, however, is itself an ambiguous term; of the ‘missing’ element in Porbus’s painting of Marie l’Egyptienne, Frenhofer says ‘that nothing is everything’. No-thing is of course another figure in the representation of feminine sexuality, torment to the artist by virtue of being a visual zero. Here, then, is a book about a crisis of representation, but where the essential attempted move by the artist is not in fact beyond the figure towards abstraction, but rather deep into the figure and its ‘secret’ life, from the surface forms of ‘anatomy’ to the inside of flesh, to the pulse and rhythms of blood. ‘You give your woman beautiful robes of flesh,’ says Frenhofer, again of Porbus’s picture, ‘but where is the blood?’ Red is indeed the colour that dominates the text, as both artist’s pigment and bodily symptom (the characters blush a lot in the story). It is also the colour of seeing exhausted or agitated by its efforts to seize the object, the colour of bloodshot eyes, marker of the desperate carnality of vision itself (a fact Georges Didi-Huberman makes much of, in a quite brilliant account of the story in La Peinture Incarnée). This takes us back once more to Cézanne’s example – not, however, to the pathos of his mute identification with Frenhofer, but to the report of a more disturbing experience, starting with bloodshot eyes and veering towards delirium and madness:

Et les yeux, n’est-ce pas? ma femme me le dit, me sortent de la tête, sont injectés de sang ... je ne puis les arracher ... Ils sont tellement collés au point que je regarde qu’il semble qu’ils vont saigner. Une espèce d’ivresse, d’extase me fait chanceler comme dans un brouillard, lorsque je me lève de ma toile ... Dites, est-ce que je ne suis pas un peu fou? ... L’ idée fixe de la peinture ... Frenhofer.