20 August 2007

Honore de Balzac - The Unknown Masterpiece

This short story by Balzac is very famous and influential, and was adapted into a film by Jacques Rivette (La Belle Noiseuse) It concerns an old painter, a fictional mentor to two historical painters, Pourbus and Poussin. He has spent 10 years trying to complete a painting, originally of a mistress, but he hasn't had a suitable model to complete it. Poussin's mistress, of uncommon beauty, is offered as a model on the condition that the other artists can see this painting, perpetually locked away in the painter's study.

The argument over the display of the mistress and the painting is a commentary on the transience of corporeal beauty against the permanence of art, and the possessiveness of each man to their 'mistress' upon the value of art. The final revelation of the painting provides a further twist, and anticipates arguments about art which would be held a century later.

The companion story in this collection, Gambara, is similarly about the nature of creativity, although in this case about a composer and instrument maker. I found this less successful, and the long explanations of an opera composed by the title character tedious and hard to follow.

In both stories Balzac describes the obsessiveness of the creative act, and the delusions that artists express in support of their works. There are also parallels between the first story and Sarrasine, with direct allusions to Pygmalion in both stories - both are about an artist trying to replicate his ideal of beauty, but in Sarrasine he is deceived by the object, and in The Unknown Masterpiece by the replication.


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