Thursday, June 10, 2010

NYRB Challenge #32 - When Art Becomes An Obsession. . .

The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac is probably one of his most famous short stories (although I hadn't previously read it). It's paired here in this NYRB edition with "Gambara" and both are translated by Richard Howard. In the first story, two painters become obsessed with seeing the work of a third - the unfinished painting of a beautiful woman supposedly so lifelike that the work of art outshines the model. But Frenhofer, the master artist in love with his creation - quite literally - refuses to show his masterpiece to anyone until enticed by an offer from one of the other painters to lend him his beautiful mistress as a nude model. What the two painters eventually see on the canvas is perhaps as shocking (but different) as the revelation in Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray.

"Gambara" also deals with artistic obsession, but in this case the art form is music. A wealthy Italian noble encounters a beautiful woman on a Parisian street and tries to integrate himself into her life. He becomes intrigued by her impoverished husband Gambara, who is convinced he has written a magnificent opera on the life of Mohammed. Throw in a mad cook - also devoted to his art - and this is a rich and troubled stew of passions and complexes.

In these two short works Balzac's character portraits explore in multi-layers, not only the artistic temperament, but also how the life and personality of the artist can be just as emotionally and aesthetically admired as the art that is created. He also examines notions of beauty and the inevitable connections between art and love. The informative introduction by Arthur C. Danto puts "The Unknown Masterpiece" into historical and artistic context. I'm now keen to see the movie adaption, La Belle Noiseuse, by the acclaimed French director Jacques Rivette.

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