|Photo: Jeff Kubina|
The Unknown Masterpiece of Balzac’s title is a painting of a great whore, Catherine Lescault, “whom men called ‘La Belle Noiseuse.” And a young painter named Nicholas Poussin, who would become one of the great masters of the 17th century, is willing to whore his lover, Gillette in order to achieve the greatness that will come from seeing it. The painting is the work of one Frenhofer, a wealthy student of the great Mabuse who “had sacrificed the greater part of his fortune to enable Mabuse to indulge in riotous extravagance, and in return Mabuse bequeathed to him the secret of relief, the power of giving to his figures the wonderful life, the flower of Nature, the eternal despair of art…” Esthetic versions of the Faustian bargain are everyone in Balzac’s short story along with a dizzying dialectic concerning both the whoring of souls for genius and also art’s rendezvous with reality. “My painting is no painting,” says Frenhofer. “it is a sentiment, a passion. She was born in my studio; there she must dwell in maiden solitude…Have we Rafael’s model, Ariosto’s Angelica, Dante’s Beatrice? Nay, only their form and semblance. But this picture, locked away above in my studio, is an exception in our art. It’s not a canvas, it is a woman--a woman with whom I talk. I share her thoughts, her feelings, her laughter.” Finally, Frenhofer relents and Poussin is urged to live up to his end of the bargain. “The flower of love soon fades, but the flower of art is immortal,” he is advised. When they finally enter the studio to see the great masterpiece Frenhofer comments, ‘There is such depth in that canvas, the atmosphere is so true that you cannot distinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is art? Art has vanished, it is invisible.” Balzac’s story treats the search for greatness as a perversion, with art itself as a kind of paraphilia and the coup de grace is that the sacrifice, by the great and the obscure at the temple of art, is all an illusion. The Unknown Masterpiece, alas, is like the emperor’s new clothes. It doesn’t exist.