Oct 26th 2023

Portrait of a Fictional Experimental Master

by David W. Galenson

Dr. David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009). David W. Galenson, picture aboce. Derek Walcott, picture in the text.

 

In 1904, Emile Bernard visited Paul Cezanne in Aix.  He wrote of a conversation at dinner:

One evening I spoke to him of Le Chef d'oeuvre inconnu and of Frenhofer, the hero of Balzac's tragedy.  He got up from the table, stood before me, and striking his chest with his index finger, he admitted wordlessly by this repeated gesture that he was the very character in the novel.  He was so moved by this feeling that tears filled his eyes. Someone who had lived earlier, but whose soul was prophetical, had understood him.

The most influential fictional portrait of an experimental painter was created by Honore de Balzac in his novella The Unknown Masterpiece, published in 1837.  The aged master Frenhofer had spent years pursuing an evasive artistic ideal of beauty: "Form's a Proteus much more elusive and resourceful than the one in myth -  only after a long struggle can you compel it to reveal its true aspect."   He was frustrated by the inadequacy of traditional artistic means for his goal of capturing reality: "Line is the means by which man accounts for the effect of light on objects, but in nature there are no lines - in nature everything is continuous and whole... Hence I would never fix an outline; I spread a cloud of warm blond halftones over the contours."  He had persisted in a decade-long effort to produce a single perfect painting: "It's ten years now, young man, that I've been struggling with this problem.  But what are ten short years when you're contending with nature?"  Another painter, Porbus, recognized Frenhofer's predicament: "Frenhofer's a man in love with our art, a man who sees higher and farther than other painters.  He's meditated on the nature of color, on the absolute truth of line, but by dint of so much research, he has come to doubt the very object of his investigations."  Although sympathetic to Frenhofer's uncertainty, Porbus warned a young painter to avoid it: "practice and observation are everything to a painter; so that if reasoning and poetry argue with our brushes, we wind up in doubt, like our old man here... Don't do that to yourself!  Work while you can!  A painter should philosophize only with a brush in his hand."  Frenhofer himself was beyond help.  His unyielding pursuit of the impossible could only lead to failure and despair, and the final sentence of the story revealed that he had died after burning all his canvases.

Balzac believed that extended study and reflection would unavoidably lead to doubt, and he considered doubt necessary for the achievement of a real masterpiece.  Yet he also believed that excessive study could be debilitating, making creators slaves to their unattainable goals, which would eventually devour them.  Thus Frenhofer's obsession with capturing nature whole led him to ever greater doubt of his means, and with his growing awareness of the impossibility of his goal, the only possible outcome was despair at his failure, and his destruction.  His character became a paradigmatic example of the vicious spiral that many experimental artists would fear, in which the experimentation that yielded greater knowledge would lead addictively to the need for more experimentation.  The growth of wisdom might be tied inextricably to greater uncertainty and doubt, with destructive consequences.

Balzac also embodied in Frenhofer the apparently paradoxical combination that has appeared in Cezanne and other great experimental innovators - sincere dissatisfaction and frustration at the inadequacy of their own achievements coupled with a firm belief in the superiority of their own work to that of their peers.  For these artists, there is no inconsistency between these convictions.  Like Frenhofer, they believe that it is precisely their greater will and sophistication that allows them to recognize more fully the difficulty of their discipline, and consequently to see that their own progress toward their ambitious goals is greater than that of their less talented peers even as they are frustrated at their own slow progress.  Thus a year before his death Cezanne wrote despairingly that "My age and health will never allow me to realize my dream of art that I have been pursuing all my life."  Yet he believed that he would influence future generations, writing just a week before his death that "the young painters are much more intelligent than the others, the old ones see in me only a disastrous rival."  And he found consolation in his fictional predecessor: one of the books he always kept by his bedside was The Unknown Masterpiece, and he told a young friend that all painters should reread it at least once a year.

 

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