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Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu by Honoré de Balzac

Updated: Jul 26, 2019

Attention every art student or anyone who has ever had difficulty expressing an idea artistically. Read this short story. I bought it at the Chef-d'œvre! exhibit at the Picasso Museum the other day (Nov 2018). The label on an exhibited work referred to Balzac's story so I immediately headed to the gift shop to see if they had a copy. They did, of course they did, and it's excellent.

The main character, Frenhofer, is a painter in search of the Absolute. More concerned with the God-like nature of creation than the practical, human side, he is confronted with the insolvable conflict between the intellectual aspect of art and its consolidation through hard work and the use of technique. The title itself, Le Chef-d’œuvre Inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), expresses the war the artist must wage of idea versus technique, the imaginary versus the concrete, the masterpiece you think is in your head versus the one turned into a form comprehensible to others. Or, as stated in the introduction by Marc Eigeldinger and Max Milner, « La poésie des idées n’est convertie en œuvre que par le truchement d’une forme appropriée. » The poetry of ideas only becomes a work of art through transformation into the appropriate form. Frenhofer's lack of ability to make this transformation leads to disaster.

The painter Paul Cézanne identified with Frenhofer, as described by his contemporary Emile Bernard: "Un soir que je lui parlais du Chef-d’œuvre inconnu et de Frenhofer…il se leva de table, se dressa devant moi, et, frappant sa poitrine avec son index, il s’accusa, sans un mot...le personnage même du roman. Il était si ému que des larmes emplissaient ses yeux. Quelqu’un par qui il était devancé dans la vie, mais dont l’âme était prophétique, l’avait deviné. One evening while I was speaking to him about The Unknown Masterpiece and Frenhofer,…he got up from the table, planted himself in front of me and, striking his chest with his index finger, designated himself, without a word ... as Frenhofer. He was so moved that tears filled his eyes. Someone with the soul of a prophet, who had come before him, had understood him.

Souvenirs sur Paul Cezanne, H. Larens, s.d., p. 44.

Balzac also wrote the short stories Gambara and Massimilla Doni, which deal with similar challenges in musical composition and execution. I haven’t read them yet.

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