The ignored masterpiece

Michael Ayrton. Greek Landscape I, 1960–1


Commentary on the book by Honoré de Balzac


Of all the writers that make up the so-called canon of Western literature, none has a work as extensive as Honoré de Balzac. Your Human Comedy exceeds 10 volumes (there are a total of 17 in the renowned Globo edition), reaching approximately more than 8 thousand pages. He undoubtedly expressed through the plot and the historicity of the themes that he dealt with, constitutive aspects of the post-feudal world era and society.

It is not fortuitous that the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn states that after the French Revolution (the most important of the bourgeois revolutions) we entered the world of Honoré de Balzac. The naive dreams and desires of Luciano Rubempré, the superhuman ambition of Goriot's daughters, the calculating and monetary essence of Grandet are moments that shaped the spirituality of a society governed by the cold and soulless realism of money – of capital. (

Karl Marx was a passionate reader of the author of The Lost Illusions; and Friedrich Engels said that he revealed more about the French society of his time than all the sociologists, political thinkers and historians in the world. Therefore, Honoré de Balzac's great works are known to the literate (Brazilian) public; its meanings in the context of the historical novel about human existence at the dawn of a time in which everything solid melts into thin air, have been recorded over the years by various literary critics, essayists, philosophers, cultural sociologists and literary researchers. .

However, part of the great Human Comedy is yet to be unearthed by scholars. To the unveiling of the social relations of the post-1789 world in all their variations – in scenes of private life, in scenes of provincial life, in scenes of political life, in scenes of Parisian life, in scenes of rural life and in scenes of military –, Honoré de Balzac incorporated small texts (also fictional) that were concerned with issues involving artistic practice, the tensions of experience that artists (and writers) go through in the face of the need for survival and the question about the absolute place or not, on the contrary sometimes, of original and creative talent in the arts.

Em Philosophical Studies, volume 15 of Human Comedy, we find the short essay-story, anecdote-art criticism or even a brief treatise on aesthetics-historical prose (the text is difficult to classify), The ignored masterpiece. Like this; The question is: what is the work (and its meaning) The ignored masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac? In what follows I propose a brief approach, in order to interpret this tale with a view to arguing that it prefigures The ignored masterpiece the founding traits and aspects of modern (avant-garde) art.


In the question what is the work of The ignored masterpiece it is possible to ask a series of other questions; as well as erecting formulations and configuring working hypotheses. We are interested in at least three considerations, although we will not address two of them directly in this essay. Which are: first, it is important to note that it is a text that operates on the border between art and literature, here it is important to say that it is always complex to approach these two spheres of aesthetics in an articulated way, in interaction, the text itself is about arts plastics (painting).

But Balzac as such is a writer, and one of the great novelists in the history of literature, as we highlighted just now, and from time to time he distinguishes The ignored masterpiece art as painting and poetics (understood) as a literary procedure; The second consideration articulated in two moments (one in the context of literature and the other regarding modern art) derives from this peculiarity.

The short story is suggestive for us to problematize some observations made by one of the most influential literary critics of the 20th century, George Lukács, insofar as he takes Balzac's work as one of the representatives of the historical-realist novel, and this, in contrast to modern novels , particularly the novels of James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust, three of the main authors of the formal innovations of literary modernism.

The ignored masterpiece is not a literary realistic and historical text, because the plot itself constructed by Balzac – the meaning of art for Frenhofer – is, in a certain way, far from being qualified based on those two characteristics (historical and realistic), it is, therefore, to say, more closely, the character, of an aesthete self-explaining modernist art (and literature), in the terms expressed by Giulio Carlo Argan (1987); the third Balzacian formulation is contained in the immanence of the question I presented here, in a strong sense – which work, its meaning, its poeticity, its form, is the work present in The ignored masterpiece? Let's see.

The ignored masterpiece it was published in the first version in 1831. A new version appeared in 1837, in which Balzac made various changes, especially in the description of Porbus's studio (Lagos, 2014). Three characters make up the narrative; They are Porbus the master painter, Poussin the novice who wants to learn painting techniques to become a great artist and finally the exotic Frenhofer – this is supposedly the artist ultimate.

Well, it is in this mythical figure of Human Comedy that Balzac will represent the meanings of creation (Rivero, 2004); Frenhofer expressed the aesthetic virtues of imagination in art (Barolsky, 2004). Indeed – Frenhofer bursts into the opening scene of The ignored masterpiece in this way: “an old man climbed the stairs” (Balzac, 2003 [1831], p. 15). Balzac represents the elderly in a historically accurate style, in the detailed characterization of the XNUMXth century novel, in the balanced distribution between the external place of the action that is latent and the romantic physiognomy.

The character Frenhofer already gives problematic progress in the Balzacian plot about the core of artistic creation, as he is seen with strange “attire”; “devilish” (profane) face; impressionistic eye color of an unusual “green”; original head carved with arabesques; “fantastic” scintillations coming from the stairs present this old mystic – it was as if it were a (parody) of “a painting by Rembrandt” (Ibidem, p. 16). The fable ensues; they are there – Poussin and Frenhofer – in Porbus’s studio; It is there that matter acquires the form of art. It is in this interval of existence where the authentic is founded; the young Poussin experiences the amazement of “born painters upon seeing [the] first” (Ibidem) room in which the dimension of art is shared in all places, moments and spiritual dispositions.

The dialogue begins. Mary of Egypt it is the painting that incites conversation; made for the Medicis' (utility) game, it became an object of exchange in the family's time of difficulty: Maria Médicis sold her homonymous pictorial “when she found herself in poverty” (Balzac, 2003 [1831], p.18) and since then the painting was reproduced. It is the meaning of art, however, that is being debated.

Asked whether or not he liked the Mary of Egypt from Poussin, Frenhofer is categorical, the saint was not “badly done” (Ibidem); it turns out that the painting (the original and the reproduction) has no life – “your saint […] has no life” (Ibidem) –, drawing a perfect face, correctly imitating the rules of “anatomy” (Ibidem) is not the way -of-art. Following the rules of good painting, Frenhofer maintains, is not enough to create poetic language in a painting. It is, rather, subjectivity – heroic passion (Barolsky, 2004) to create art.

From delirium for making today aesthetic, Frenhofer wants “creative frenzy” (Rivero, 2004). For him, it is not to originate well-constructed, geometrically reasoned artificialisms, since the old man's objective, if there is any, is equidistant from “good perspective […], [of expressing] the colors of the sky correctly” (Balzac, 2003 [ 1831], p. 19); Was he a precursor of impressionism? Poussin's master's master is merciless towards Mary of Egypt; in fact Frenhofer's lesson on art is given, indirectly, to the correct and ethical Porbus.

With a marbled personality – smooth, sculpted to perfection, white – he did not understand old Frenhofer's position. Now, he wishes that life, that the character opposite to destiny (Benjamin, 2011) would breathe into the soul of the painting – and consequently of Porbus and the young Poussin. For him, without the painter, the poet, the musician transposing their own authentic world into matter in all its completeness, they will be far from delivering a masterpiece to humanity.

Naive, the “young man barely contained the desire to attack” (Balzac, 2003 [1831], p. 19) Frenhofer for despising the rigorous mirroring of a human face made with the rational and conscious brush of his master. His moderate nonconformity made him question how an individual with that appearance could be so irascible in the face of Mary of Egypt and of its creator (or owner): a man who respects the fundamental nature of things, an obedient follower of bourgeois customs that is Porbus (Falkemback, 2012) could not be faced with such vilification.

After a closer examination of Porbus's work, always in the nonconformist presence of Poussin, Frenhofer sketches what would be a serious work of art (Adorno, 1985). In the dialogue woven by Balzac, the position of the pupil-master (pupil of the old man and master of the young painter) reflects a social mistake; true art is that which imitates nature with precision, with respect to external design and with parsimony of spirit. Porbus says he studies “a lot […] [the] lap on the nude models [he paints]” (Balzac, 2003 [1831], p. 21).

His complaint, for Frenhofer, imagining the old man's complacency, is to say about nature that it hides the “true effects” (Ibidem) – hence the difficulty and failure of painters at times. Irritated by such an accommodating stance, typical of post-restoration bourgeois salons and the artists who frequented them, the antimaster, like a voracious tiger baring its fangs, thunders that “the mission of art is not to copy nature, but to express it! You are not a vile copyist, but a poet!” (Ibidem, p. 21). (An avant-garde inventing something new…).

Whoever intends to forge the work of art, the masterpiece, should not be satisfied with just taking an austere and rigorous attitude with the externality apprehended. (There are “painters [who] instinctively triumph without knowing [the] themes [that they want rationalized] of art” (Ibidem, p. 22) – Porbus is astonished.) So; What does art mean? Frenhofer answers: it is the form (attributed) to matter. It is transforming “nothing [into] everything” (Ibidem, p. 24). This is what “Titian and Raphael” did (Ibidem) – not so did the miserable utilitarian Pierre Grassou, a “mediocre, methodical spirit […], bourgeois” (Lago, 2014, p. 101).

Being a poet, a painter, requires the willingness to experience the madness of abundance and to accept the temptation to embrace the circumstances of life in their full extent; It is the inclination to intervene in the practical representations of existence that gives rise to a work of art. Frenhofer ardent with the passion of art and she snatches the “palette and [the] brushes” (Balzac, 2003 [1831], p. 25); taken with “heroic aspiration” (Barolsky, 2004, p. 51) the main character of the volume Philosophical studies da Human comedy wants to convince this still-unambitious Rubempré of painting to deny the “cold reason [of] the bourgeoisie” (Balzac, 2003 [1831], p. 35) – he wants to convince Poussin, not Porbus, to live the antithesis of the “lack of seriousness of art […] [which expresses the poverty of bourgeois taste” (Barolsky, 2004, p. 50).

“You are worthy of a lesson, and [still] capable of understanding, I will show you how little […] [it] takes to [realize] […] [the work] of art” (Balzac, 2003 [1831] p. 25): you will understand that “big things are simple”. The young Nicolas Poussin, wanting to prove himself as an honest screen eraser – “I am a stranger, but a born screen eraser who has just arrived in this city” (Ibidem) – after the harsh question from Porbus who wanted to know who he was, copied the face of Mary of Egypt; the incandescent Frenhofer is a demon; he acts quickly, his spirit is impatient, his ecstatic hands gesture with luminous lines, his “fertile imagination” (Ibidem, p. 26) pours singularity onto the canvas.

Small touches of color are accompanied by disruptive brushstrokes, these forge, together with those, subjective lights of their own thickness, giving a passionate and genuine form to the experience: Frenhofer's genius created “a new painting” (Ibidem, p. 27).

This brief essay could be continued to exhaustion. But having on the horizon the objectives required to write this work – I return to the question to which I organized the argumentative assertions of the text that I present to you; What is the work of the ignored Masterpiece? And its meaning? Within the scope of Balzac's narrative it is undecidable, as well as with regard to the historical-literary reference. It is Frenhofer himself in the plot of the novel (or short story) who, suggestively, answers our method-question; stylizing the resolution he says that in the “masterpiece” (Ibidem, p. 25), of The ignored masterpiece, “only initiates [and young beginners] in the most intimate arcana of the art can discover […]” what it is; it is what we can call, in the wake of avant-garde aesthetic theories, art: in opposition and negativity to the Porbus, the Pierres Grassous and every modality of art that proliferates as “comfort” (Barolsky, 2004, p. 51) in Balzac’s own world. And which he explained in an unparalleled way throughout the Human comedy.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).


Honore de Balzac. The ignored masterpiece. Translation: Teixeira Coelho. São Paulo, Iluminuras, 2000, 112 pages. []


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