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The Fable of Failure In Modern Art

ISSUE:  Summer 1997

We should not forget that 99 percent of all art-making attempts are failures.” Thus declares Phillip Lopate the essayist in his recent book, Portrait of My Body. Although the phrase “art-making attempts” offends one’s sense of prose style, Lopate’s statement seems reasonable enough, and we accede to its apparent truthfulness—even if we do not have the faintest notion how many works of art are in fact failures. We think of art and failure together, however, precisely because their conjunction is one of the deep themes in the history of modernism, one of its commanding plots, especially in the writings of artists themselves, authors of imaginative literature who anxiously but tellingly return time and time again to the theme of the failed artist. Born of the historical circumstances in which it is written, inevitably given form by them, fiction is true to these circumstances and thus helps to shape and define our understanding of history.

Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece,” a central fable in this larger story, is the tale of the aged, deluded, indeed quixotic, painter Frenhofer who labored for 10 years on a portrait of a courtesan which, when it was finally revealed, emerged as a confused mass of color and jumble of lines, a work the artist burned when he came to see that, in the end, it was “nothing.” Filled with “doubt,” as Balzac said, Frenhofer aspired to the absolute, to the realization of what was “unknown” to painters, to what was beyond their ability to achieve, an artistic perfection impossible to realize in the modern world. Associated by Balzac with both Satan and Prometheus, Frenhofer is no less a transgressor, himself a Faust among painters, seeking to fathom the very secrets of his art.

Balzac’s tale was rewritten by Emile Zola in his novel, The Masterpiece, the pathetic story of the rejected painter Claude Lantier who hanged himself in front of his modern “masterpiece.” Zola embellishes Balzac’s bitter theme, for whereas Frenhofer had destroyed his painting, along with his other works, Lantier destroys his own life. Zola’s painter was not only modeled on Balzac’s; he was also inspired in part by his boyhood friend Cézanne, who identified himself intensely and bitterly with Frenhofer, his much discussed “doubt” rooted in the latter’s anxiety. Picasso, who also saw himself as a type of Frenhofer, spoke of Cézanne’s “anxiety,” employing the very word adapted by Balzac to characterize his imaginary painter. Cézanne’s “anxiety,” Picasso observed, was his legacy to all artists.

The theme of the artist’s “doubt” and “anxiety” is nowhere more conspicuous than in the work of Henry James, which validates Oscar Wilde’s claim that Balzac invented the 19th century. Taking the French master’s lesson to heart, James rewrites Balzac (to cite just one example) in his short story “The Middle Years,” the tale of an aged, dying writer, Dencombe, who, having “done all he should ever do,” nevertheless did not “do what he wanted.” What the dying Dencombe dreaded was that “his reputation should stand on the unfinished,” adding, finally, “our doubt is our passion.” The purest form of James’s homage to Balzac, however, is “The Madonna of the Future,” the story of the quixotic, Frenhofer-like painter Theobald who worked for years on a picture of the Madonna, seen by no one. When it is finally revealed, the painting is even more radically unfinished than Frenhofer’s, for it is an empty canvas, the ultimate symbol of the failure of art. The unfinished canvas would come to be the very sign of art’s failure and would appear again later in Moravia’s novel The Empty Canvas, the existential story of an artist unable to fill the void in his life which was epitomized by the canvas, the very “void of unessential night,” empty, silent, indifferent.

Frenhofer’s “doubt” hovers over Russian literature as well. In a haunting tale, “The Portrait,” saturated with the Hoffmannesque fantasy of Balzac, Nikolai Gogol writes of a mad painter, Chartkov, possessed by the devil, who is driven to the ultimate, peculiarly modern question: “Did I ever really have any talent?” Before Frenhofer this is not a question we will find in the story of the artist from Apelles and Zeuxis to Raphael, Rubens, Poussin, and Rembrandt. When Gogol’s painter asks, “Didn’t I deceive myself?,” does he not come to Frenhofer’s ultimate understanding that, in the end, he has been a failure? His response to such self-knowledge opens up a new possibility of violence. Instead of annihilating his own works, Gogol’s painter, spending huge sums of money, buys up all the finest works of art he can find in order to destroy them. Bringing these rival works of art home, he tears them into little pieces and stamps on them as he laughs with fiendish glee—a sign of the ultimate, frenzied insanity that consumes him. Over a century later Robert Rauschenberg would famously erase a drawing by his friend Willem De Kooning. The devil’s work had become neo-Dada farce.

Sometimes writers project the anxieties of the modern artist, of his sense of failure, into the past. In his monumental The Death of Virgil, Hermann Broch embellishes the historical account of how the Roman poet wished to have his great epic destroyed if he did not return from a journey. Only now, in Broch’s pages this story is turned into an “imaginary conversation” between Virgil and Augustus, in which the poet inveighs against the inadequacies of his poem, insisting that its “imperfections” go deeper than anyone can imagine. Caesar’s response is to indict Virgil, as if the writer were an ancient Frenhofer.”The doubts that every artist harbors about the success of his work, in your case,” Augustus tells Virgil, “have degenerated into a mania.” In a large historical irony, Virgil, whose work gives definition to the very idea of the canonical “masterpiece,” is now seen in the modern period as himself afflicted with the malaise of modernism, overwhelmed by artistic inadequacy, ironically unable to achieve the very epic work that shapes our concept of what a masterpiece is or, should we say, was.

The sense of artistic failure echoes through the chambers of modernist fiction. In a famous passage of his great novel, Proust has the fictional novelist Bergotte ponder his entire oeuvre with a negative judgment on himself when he looks at Vermeer’s View of Delft.” That is how I ought to have written. . .last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.” As in Balzac and James, the painter’s art is the mirror in which the writer sees the reflection of his own flawed work. The painter clarifies the writer’s self-doubt, his sense of imperfection, his inability to create a masterpiece.

It does not surprise us that Frenhofer, who haunts modern fiction as he informs the consciousness of modern artists, is still very much with us. Witness the recent film of Jacques Rivette, “La Belle Noiseuse,” which freely reworks Balzac’s story, giving to Frenhofer a distinctly and not inappropriately Picassoid persona. Picasso’s own anxious identification with Frenhofer has recently resurfaced in the pages of the New Yorker where the critic Adam Gopnik describes Picasso as “the great master who never was.” Unwittingly echoing Balzac and Picasso’s own intense identification with Balzac’s character, the critic says of modern painting in general that what makes it “interesting is its inability to offer polished meanings, secure achievements, and neat Old Masterish careers.” In Gopnik’s indictment, Frenhofer’s failure casts its shadow over our age, the age of artistic anxiety, as Auden might well have said.

Much of the modern reflection of Frenhofer’s anxiety is painfully serious, but such pathos should not obscure our sense of the way in which modern writers play with the theme. By using the word “play” I allude to the fact that such literature mirrors the play of modern art itself, filled with irony, jests, and parody—a play evident, for example, in the blague of Manet’s Olympia, a travesty of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, in the “caricature” that is Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, a “hoax,” as Matisse justly observed, in the subversive, spirited pranks of Duchamp and in the paler japes of his followers. Even a vein of such humor is evident in James’s otherwise deeply painful “The Madonna of the Future.” Before the revelation of Theobald’s blank canvas, the author drolly has a character say, “I fancy myself that if one were to get into his studio, one would find something very like the picture in that tale of Balzac’s, a mere mass of incoherent scratches and daubs, a jumble of dead paint.” The suggestion wryly misleads the reader, for whereas Frenhofer’s picture was filled with incoherent marks, Theobald’s is totally empty. Herein lies a deeper irony, however, for by making his painter’s canvas blank, James is faithful in a sense to Balzac’s symbolic description of Frenhofer’s painting as ultimately “nothing.”

The playful variations on Balzac’s tale are countless. In his Imaginary Lives, the French Symbolist Marcel Schwob portrays the Florentine painter, Paolo Uccello, obsessed by perspective, as a Renaissance Frenhofer, In fact, he rewrites the biography of Uccello through Balzac’s story, introjecting the fable of artistic failure back into the past, much as Broch did in his fiction about Virgil. In the end, Uccello’s work is a failure, a jumble of lines. If he is a touching character in Schwob’s hands, he is also amusingly bizarre, whimsically odd, not nearly so pathetic as Theobald or Frenhofer.

Uccello is like Ferdinand-Octave Bruard, the writer from the book Bizarre Deaths by Schwob’s contemporary, Jean Richepin. Whereas Uccello is a personage from the distant past, Bruard is a distinctly contemporary figure. Although he is without talent, he awakens one day with the bright idea that he is going to write a “masterpiece” of “modernity.” Setting out to write a modernist sonnet, “Bonjour, Monsieur,” he never publishes the poem, because he is persuaded to flesh this work out into a drama of the same name. Working on his play over the next five years, he sees that his “masterpiece” is inadequate and, dedicating the next ten years to its amplification (shades of Frenhofer), he transforms the drama into a gigantic novel of 27 volumes, a work of truly Balzacian proportions that suggests La Comédie Humaine, not to mention Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart in its very proportions.

This does not conclude Bruard’s heroic labors a la Frenhofer. Realizing finally that he must “condense” his work if he is to transform it into a “paragon of modernity,” he spends the next ten years toiling to reduce the 27 volumes to their pith, “mon chefd’oeuvre,” as he says: a sonnet entitled “Bonjour, Monsieur.” We now find the aged, obsessive Bruard, come full circle, on his deathbed; his friends eagerly await a reading of his poem, seeking the key to the mystery of his art in a single word, as Bruard, murmuring “Bonjour, Monsieur,” expires. In Richepin’s parody of Balzac, the ultimately empty title of Bruard’s Frenhoferesque labor is the equivalence of Frenhofer’s canvas, which is effectively “nothing,” eradication in the extreme. Carrying Balzac’s theme to the pitch of farce, Richepin makes his quixotic poet into a caricature of Frenhofer, no less fanciful and capricious than Schwob’s amusingly innocent Uccello, lost in the jumble of his perspectival fantasies.

One of the more amusing tales illustrating our theme is found a short time later in a book with the Paterian title, Appreciations, by Leo Stein, critic and collector, overshadowed by the larger presence of his redoubtable sister Gertrude.The painter Degas, Stein writes, was “proverbial” for his lasting dissatisfaction with his works, “the feeling that after all, even when most finished, they were not so.” The collector Henri Rouart, Stein continues, owned one of Degas’ finest pictures, which the painter wanted to retouch. Now for the best part. To prevent Degas from touching the picture Rouart had it held to the wall with a padlock. When Stein asked Rouart about this detail he was told that the story of the padlock was a “fiction.” The collector nevertheless continued to keep his eye on Degas when the painter left Rouard’s house each week after their customary dinner on Thursday, despite the fact that the painting in question was too big to be hidden under the artist’s cape.Or so the story goes.

True to the theme of the artist’s “anxiety,” to his sense of not achieving a masterpiece, Stein’s amusing anecdote places Degas in the line of Frenhofer and, as Stein suggests, of an even deeper tradition. Discussing the artist’s “dissatisfaction with his work,” Stein invokes a Renaissance example, telling the story of Titian who had many pictures in his studio that he regarded with a “hostile eye.” This tale is based on the fact that Titian’s final works were painted in such an abbreviated manner that they seemed unfinished. Titian might well have said, “Frenhofer c’est moi,” that is, if history were written backwards, which in effect it is.

The comedy in the history of modern art and literature, shaped by writers of fiction, is particularly acute in Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames,” a story in his collection of tales, Seven Men.The fin de siécle author of a work called Negations and of a poem entitled “Fungoid,” Soames is transparently modeled on Oscar Wilde. Anxious as to whether his work is a success and, thus, whether a failure, Soames makes a pact with the devil in order to travel 100 years into the future to discover how posterity regards his achievement. Beerbohm is here sending up the entire tradition of the damned, modern artist’s associations with the devil, from Frenhofer to Dr. Faustus, even before Thomas Mann enters the story. When Soames arrives in the future, 1997 in fact, he discovers that he is written up in a biographical dictionary as a mediocre, imaginary writer invented by Max Beerbohm. Alas! Here, in the play of the “real” and the “imaginary,” we have Beerbohm turning himself into a fictional character—but a fictional character true to life, for he reflects on the modern artist’s failure to achieve a masterpiece. Beerbohm’s imaginative self-metamorphosis, by the way, reminds us of what the imaginary poet Charles Wychwood once said: “Reality is the invention of unimaginative people.”

Sometimes the comedy of modern art emerges in the strangest places. In a recent mystery story, The Burnt Orange Heresy, Charles Willeford creates an amusingly Duchamp-like painter, Jacques Debierue, the author of a famous work, which is an ornate, empty frame—the ultimate “unknown masterpiece.” When the narrator of the novel, an ambitious critic, gains access to the reclusive artist’s new studio, after the latter’s move to the United States, he suggestively finds only unused tubes of paint and empty canvases. He has discovered that Debierue was a fraud, who posed as a painter but produced “Nothing”—the ultimate caricature of Frenhofer. The “finished, varnished, luminous” masterpiece glowing on the museum wall existed only in Debierue’s “febrile mind.” Afraid to risk failure, he had never “painted a picture of any kind in his entire life.” Setting fire to Debierue’s studio, the critic destroys the evidence that the artist, in fact, never painted. The ruthless, ambitious critic forges, however, a single painting by the artist, the basis for the criticism he writes of the painter that ironically determines his and Debierue’s success. For he writes an entry on the painter in an encyclopedia of art longer than those on such greats as Goya and Michelangelo. Debierue, in the end, fared far better than Enoch Soames, even if he produced nothing, or perhaps, because he never painted, was indeed a fraud.

Debierue the impostor and his forger critic throw into relief Frenhofer’s implicit “forgery” of a “masterpiece.” Whereas Debierue’s critic knowingly burns all the artist’s canvases to conceal such failure, Frenhofer burns his work only after discovering his own failure. The critic who contributes to the fraud magnifies a major theme in the modern history of art, that of fraudulence or inauthenticity, a corollary of the very idea of failure. No wonder the forger becomes a central character in modern fiction, whether it is Wyatt Gwyon the copier of Flemish pictures in William Gaddis’s, monumental, Joycean The Recognitions or Francis Cornish the “picture faker” in Robertson Davies more popular What’s Bred in the Bone.Sometimes the forger comes forward to speak of his duplicity. In his charming, wittily entitled memoirs, Drawn to Trouble, the forger Eric Hebborn tells many splendid stories of how he faked works by the masters that fooled the experts. Given the fact that Hebborn is a faker, we don’t know exactly when to believe him, exactly what to believe. The artist as forger, in fact and fiction, in the modern period is crystallized in Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, an “impostor,” a confidence man described by the author as both “artist” and blagueur.Though not a painter as such, Krull epitomizes the inauthenticity of art in the modern period when the “masterpiece,” authenticity itself, is no longer possible.

Nowhere does the ongoing mockery of the idea of the “masterpiece” appear in more pithy form than in Julian Barnes’s novel The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.An entire chapter is dedicated to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, a work monumental in scale, ambition, and heroic achievement, a true masterpiece that epitomizes the grand tradition from Michelangelo to Caravaggio to David. The result of immense study and labor, Géricault’s picture illustrates a horrendous subject, filled with pain, suffering, and despair, worthy of Dante. Delacroix, Barnes tells us, was so overwhelmed by Géricault’s work that he left the painter’s studio and ran like a madman all the way back to where he lived on the rue de la Planche at the far end of the faubourg Saint-Germain. This vivid account sets the stage for Barnes’s report of what Géricault said about the painting on his deathbed: “Bah, une vignette.” I do not know if Géricault actually spoke these words—I doubt it—but even if he did, Barnes exploits them ironically to undercut the very idea of the “masterpiece.” For Géricault was here seemingly dismissing his work, a vignette, as nothing really, a mere bagatelle if you will.

And this brings to an end our little story of the modern artist’s obsessive, at times quixotic or faustian, quest to achieve a “masterpiece,” a goal seemingly no longer possible to attain. For if Frenhofer, Lantier, Theobald, Dencombe, Chartkov, Uccello, Bruard, Bergotte, Degas, Enoch Soames, and Jacques Debierue never achieved the perfection to which they aspired in the fables of modern art, now Barnes is telling us, not even the traditional, pre-Balzacian “masterpiece” is a masterpiece—only a vignette, something rather smaller than we had believed. Hermann Broch had already seriously broached this point when he had Virgil expatiate on the defects of his masterpiece manque. Now, however, as if in the mocking spirit of Debierue’s Duchampian, fake masterpiece, the historical masterpiece is erased, history itself effaced, as if the masterpiece had never existed. We have come a long way from the heroic aspirations of the romantic Frenhofer to Barnes’s auto-ironic and self-dismissive artist, but we must recall that if Frenhofer’s pathetic gesture was truly grand, his achievement was in a sense even less than that of Barnes’s painter, for as Frenhofer came to see, his picture, his “masterpiece,” his very achievement, was not even a coherent vignette, it was “nothing”—rien!

This story is truly dreadful, but it cannot be ignored, for it is told over and over and over again—by Balzac, Zola, James, Gogol, Schwob, Richepin, Proust, Beerbohm, Leo Stein, Broch, Moravia, Willeford, and Barnes, in fables English, French, Russian, German, Italian, and American, in stories that are a significant part of the global history of modern art and literature, of modernism, as it is called. Many of these writers are minor figures, some have been forgotten, others can be dismissed, but it does not escape notice that among our writers, Balzac, Proust, James, and Broch, we encounter figures who are themselves central participants in the story of modernism that they help to define. Their achievement is part of the very irony of modernism, an art that aspires to great heights but that is ultimately doomed, like that of Kafka’s “hunger artist,” whose grotesque self-deprivation is the acme of artistic abjection, abnegation, annihilation. This story can be expanded seemingly ad infinitumby countless other recent examples: Peter Ackroyd’s The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde in which the protagonist pathetically proclaims his ultimate failure, concluding “I have betrayed my own gifts,” Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, in which a pianist named Wertheimer, unable to achieve the excellence of his fellow-student Glenn Gould, abandons his art by committing suicide, or Antonio Tabucchi’s fable of Ovid in his Dreams of Dreams, a fantasy of the ancient poet who dreams he has become a gigantic butterfly, with consequences horrendous and pathetic. Reciting his poetry to Augustus, Ovid emits the incomprehensible sounds of an insect, only to be brutally rejected by the emperor—as if in a monstrous inversion of Broch’s story of Virgil’s relations to Augustus. As Kafka had rewritten Ovid in his metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa into an insect, Tabucchi rewrites Kafka. For whereas Samsa still had the power of speech, Ovid the butterfly cannot speak at all. Like many of Ovid’s own most poignant characters, Tabucchi’s Ovid has lost the gift of language: the ultimate privation of the poet, his very medium, the word.”Don’t you hear my poetry, Ovid cried,. . .but his voice was a faint whistle.” More than a dream, Ovid’s dream in Tabucchi is a nightmare, a nightmare of the artist’s ultimate failure—a nightmare from which the story of modernism, despite the irony, jests, parody, drollery and blagues of James and Proust, Picasso and Duchamp, Richepin and Barnes, has not yet awakened.


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