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The Unknown Masterpiece / Gambara

par Honoré de Balzac

Autres auteurs: Voir la section autres auteur(e)s.

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A New York Review Books Original One of Honoré de Balzac's most celebrated tales, "The Unknown Masterpiece" is the story of a painter who, depending on one's perspective, is either an abject failure or a transcendental genius--or both. The story, which has served as an inspiration to artists as various as Cézanne, Henry James, Picasso, and New Wave director Jacques Rivette, is, in critic Dore Ashton's words, a "fable of modern art." Published here in a new translation by poet Richard Howard, "The Unknown Masterpiece" appears, as Balzac intended, with "Gambara," a grotesque and tragic novella about a musician undone by his dreams.… (plus d'informations)
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"The Unknown Masterpiece" was thought-provoking and pretty enjoyable. Could have done without what amounted to a flood of musical criticism, though, in "Gambara" (even if that latter disquisition has me wondering about the experience of music in pre-radio/pre-recording days). ( )
  KatrinkaV | Jul 25, 2021 |
Në këtë libër, Balzaku e dështon figurën për ikonën. E dështon, përshkrimin mbi fundin e kryeveprës, për ta lënë një kaligramë. Jo për atë çka ajo mbërriti të jetë, më shumë se për të lajmëruar atë që donte të ishte: të shkatërrojë realen për t’i zënë vendin. Për të shpëtuar copën, të pareduktueshmen, monadën, bukurinë. Për t’ia dhënë asaj që është e pashkatërrueshme e cilësinë e vet. Asaj që është …Imazh.
  BibliotekaFeniks | Nov 3, 2020 |
In his essay 'The Death of the Author,' William Gass fires off a machine gun at Roland Barthes, and Balzac, thanks to Barthes's "S/Z", is taken out as collateral damage. "Balzac relishes [bourgeois] stereotypes and pat phrases and vulgar elegancies; his taste is that of the turtle which has found itself in a robust soup; he, too, would flatter the reader, the public, the world which receives him until it receives him well and warmly; and Roland Barthes, for all his fripperies like like on a sleeve, for all his textual pleasures... is no better, accepting a pseudoradical role as if it were the last one left in the basket... Balzac is more moral the way more money is more money; his is the ultimate hosanna of utility; however hard his eye, his look will land light."

I thought that was harsh, but really, this is pretty mediocre stuff, saved by the fact that it's fun to think about. These are two stories ("Gambara" is the second) about artists who fail in their art because they try to make the art too theoretically sound, too philosophically reflective, too didactic.

That is, these are two philosophically reflective, didactic stories about how artists who are philosophically reflective and didactic ultimately fail as artists. Really, Honore? Well yes, really, because *if he had noticed that his stories insist that these particular stories must be garbage, he would have broken his own rules.* The only way to write stories is unconsciously, with genius, which means no caring about things like internal intellectual consistency, form, or craft. So although the stories themselves are intellectually incoherent, they are *also* intellectually coherent.

This is the kind of paradox that you only get from people like Balzac, whose greatness is due entirely to his being willing to write constantly, whether he has anything to say or not. Balzac is a drudge. These two stories are about geniuses who, through an excess of drudgery, have betrayed their genius.

Perhaps, in these stories, an excess of genius led Balzac to betray the drudgery that makes him great.

So, fun to talk about, but pretty dull reading, especially when the artists start talking about their art. I'll take James' stories about artists any day. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
Easily the best entry point into Balzac's impressive oeuvre, these two short novellas display the key features of this literary master's ability. The first feature is astounding, complex description, and the second is dramatic, intelligent dialogue. The latter is worthy of a grandiose stage play and the former is often as striking as a prose poem. Combining these approaches, Balzac allows the characters take on intense life during the simple dramatic context he constructs.

"The Unknown Masterpiece" provides the perfect setup for Balzac to discus (or show off) what he knows about artistic form and composition. At the same time, he displays these very architecturally sound qualities in his own writing. The characters are vivid in the extreme and the descriptions are superb. Balzac casually casts aphorisms and pithy pronouncements into intricate tapestries of sentences until it takes effort and concentration to grasp the far-reaching concepts he's simultaneously lassoing in amid the interplay of ideas. Though he argues there is often an unbridgeable gap between conception and execution, he proves the exception to the rule by expressing with utter perfection lucid concepts and splendid thematic irony. Many artists have few affinity with the historical figures from the 17th century depicted in this story including Picasso and Cézanne.

This edition includes an excellent, if not essential, introduction providing additional historical context.

"Gambara" is the second, longer novella. Its focus pertains to music, though many of the pronouncements made by the eccentric characters echo those of the first piece. Taken together, they are both complementary and contrasting. With playful humor, the author contrives basic scenes to give his disproportionately ingenious characters a soapbox, and it is a joy to read their sinuous arguments and philosophical rants. Balzac is a consummate stylist, who with grand gestures and crystal clarity deepens verisimilitude. In this quick read, the expression of intelligence is everywhere in evidence. ( )
  LSPopovich | Apr 8, 2020 |


Artist and His Model (1926) - by Pablo Picasso

This New York Review Books edition is indeed a classic since it includes not only two highly philosophical works by French master Honoré de Balzac on the nature of art and music but also an illuminating introductory essay by philosopher of art/art critic Arthur C. Danto. For the purposes of my review I will focus the author's tour de force, The Unknown Masterpiece.

The story revolves around three painters - Porbus, Poussin and Frenhofer. Porbus can be seen as the Flemish painter Frans Pourbus, Poussin, the master Nicolas Poussin in his youth and Frenhofer, the true genius in the story, is a creation of Balzac’s imagination. After reading and falling in loving with this short work, many are the artists who have linked themselves to Frenhofer, including Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne.

Rather than simply recapping events within the story, I will turn to a number of provocative philosophical questions raised by Balzac’s tale. Firstly, there is the matter of art as a form of magic. In his essay on The Unknown Masterpiece included in this NYRB edition, Danto states: "From the perspective of magic, every image has the possibility of coming to life, and perhaps the first images every drawn, however crudely executed, were viewed with an awe that still remains a disposition of the most primitive regions of the human brain. This is why images have been forbidden in so many of the great religions of the world, and why they have been destroyed in the name of iconoclasm. It is why Plato was afraid of art, and drove artists from his Republic."

At one point Frenhofer judges a portrait painted by Probus: “You can see she’s pasted on the canvas – you could never walk around her.” To paint in such a way that the viewer can mentally walk around a woman, man, animal, plant or other object painted on canvas requires rendering a two dimensional plane into three dimensions, technical expertise developed in the Western artistic tradition over centuries, reaching staggering heights beginning in the period of the renaissance. Yet to really vitalize a painting, an added ingredient is needed. What shall we call it? Genius, perhaps? If any image can come to life, even those first images created in the dawn of humanity as Danto notes, how powerful and magical is a painting infused by highly polished technique coupled with the spark of genius? Now institutions and champions of the status quo who fear the power of the image really have something to worry about.


Frans Pourbus the Younger - Portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia, around 1600-1615


Nicolas Poussin - detail from Eliezer and Rebecca at the Well, l648

For the artists in the tale, as for nearly all artists, is it any accident hot-blooded passionate love for another person is so much a part of their lives and has such an influence on their art? There’s something both inspiring and intoxicating about love, most especially erotic love, and how eroticism mixed in with the mystery of artistic creation is nothing less than explosive. Frenhofer exclaims, “Oh! I would give all I possess if just once, for a single moment, I could gaze upon that complete, that divine nature; if I could meet that ideal heavenly beauty, I would search for her in limbo itself!”

And the female nude? Oh, yes, as Balzac details in his story, the keg of dynamite that is erotic love becomes supercharged even further when an artist takes a woman’s nudity as the subject. Again, Frenhofer: “Poetry and women show themselves naked only to their lovers!” And the female who poses nude for Frenhofer? The beautiful Gillette, the loving mistress of Poussin. You will have to read for yourself to find out exactly how Balzac’s story unfolds.

Shifting our focus to a slightly different topic, does the sense of place participate in this creative and artistic magic? In the spirit of his realistic prose, Balzac notes the exact locations of the artist’s studios – Rue des Grands-Augustins, Pont Saint-Michel, Rue de la Harpe. Ah, Paris! Such a magnet for artists. So inspired was Pablo Picasso by Balzac's story, he moved his studio to Nº 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins.

Lastly, at the very end of the story, along with Porbus and Poussin we encounter the masterpiece Frenhofer has spent the last ten years of his life painting. From Balzac’s description, can you see what the artist wishes you to see? And what does it mean to know a masterpiece? Taking Picasso’s Artist and His Model pictured above, what would it mean to come to know this work of art? Or maybe a better question would be: Could we ever completely know such art? Does a measure of power derive from its mystery? And there’s that foot! Echoes of Frenhofer and Balzac? ( )
1 voter Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
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Nom de l'auteur(e)RôleType d'auteurŒuvre ?Statut
Balzac, Honoré deAuteurauteur(e) principal(e)toutes les éditionsconfirmé
Danto, Arthur C.Introductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Howard, RichardTraducteurauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
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TO A LORD

1845. (The Unknown Masterpiece)
TO THE MARQUIS OF BELLOY (Gambara)
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"The events of human life, be they public or private," Balzac wrote, "are so intimately bound up with architecture, that the majority of observers can reconstruct nations or individuals in the full reality of their behavior, from the remnants of their public monuments or the examination of their domestic remains." (Introduction)
On a cold December morning of the year 1612, a young man whose clothes looked threadbare was walking back and forth in front of a house in the rue des Grands-Augustins, in Paris. (The Unknown Masterpiece)
New Year's Day of the year one thousand eight hundred and thirty-one was emptying its packet of holiday sugarplums: four o'clock had struck, restaurants were beginning to fill, and there was a crows in the Palais Royal. (Gambara)
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This NYRB edition includes "The Unknown Masterpiece" and "Gambara". Please do not combine it with other editions that are either stand-alone editions of "The Unknown Masterpiece" or collections that combine it with other stories.
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A New York Review Books Original One of Honoré de Balzac's most celebrated tales, "The Unknown Masterpiece" is the story of a painter who, depending on one's perspective, is either an abject failure or a transcendental genius--or both. The story, which has served as an inspiration to artists as various as Cézanne, Henry James, Picasso, and New Wave director Jacques Rivette, is, in critic Dore Ashton's words, a "fable of modern art." Published here in a new translation by poet Richard Howard, "The Unknown Masterpiece" appears, as Balzac intended, with "Gambara," a grotesque and tragic novella about a musician undone by his dreams.

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