What makes a masterpiece?

Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” is the greatest story ever written about the perils of artistic creation. The seventeenth-century painter Frenhofer—an invention of Balzac’s, who conceived of Frenhofer as the consummate artist’s artist, a legend in his own time—has been laboring in secrecy on a portrait of a beautiful woman. But when Frenhofer finally allows his artist friends into his studio to take a look, all they can see is a chaotic mess, with an exquisitely realized foot emerging from a mass of slapdash colors and crisscrossing lines. There is an element of the potboiler about this grandly romantic tale, composed in the 1830s. Frenhofer’s friends leave him in a state of despair. He dies that very night, after burning his canvases. The fascination of this story—which was admired by Cézanne, Picasso, and de Kooning—has everything to do with Balzac’s vision of the confounding mismatch between the artist’s ambitions and the artist’s achievements. But Balzac is also suggesting that a gulf of misconception and misunderstanding forever stands between the creator’s vision and the viewer’s perception, even when the viewers are the artist’s most sophisticated friends. Frenhofer has set out to paint the ultimate painting. He wants to unite two great traditions in European art—one focusing on coloristic effects, the other on linear effects—but in the end he is left with what his friends regard as a “chaos of colors, shapes, and vague shadings, a kind of incoherent mist.”

I have been reminded of Balzac’s story in the past few days, after reading a fascinating new book by Susan F. Lake, Willem de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials, and a disconcerting feature in The Wall Street Journal by Isaac Arnsdorf, who reports that many museums are now surreptitiously studying the reactions of museumgoers. Lake brings a scrupulous intelligence to her account of the mysteries of de Kooning’s studio practice. When she catalogues the plaster of Paris and bits of ground glass and quartz that can be found mixed into his paint, she makes the unknown feel a little more knowable, she brings us a bit closer to the artist at work. But from what Arnsdorf reports about developments at the Detroit Institute of Arts—where a “director of evaluation” heads efforts to determine “which galleries are popular”—few museumgoers nowadays stand in one place long enough to read the name of the painter on a wall label, much less consider how the painter actually paints. The researchers at the Detroit Institute of Arts apparently spent some time in a gallery dominated by Rubens’s The Meeting of David and Abigail, and what they learned was that a male in his thirties spent .09 minutes in that gallery, while a group of three women in their fifties (if I understand the chart correctly) spent 5:31 minutes.

I wonder how that information would strike Susan Lake, who based much of her work on the superb group of de Kooning’s paintings in the Hirshhorn Museum, where she is the Chief Conservator. Lake may believe that some excellent wall labels, explaining the subtleties of de Kooning’s technique, will hold a museumgoer’s attention. She may be right. Then again, if museumgoers are as restless as The Wall Street Journal report suggests, will they really care to be told, as Lake explains in her book, that the whites in de Kooning’s black-and-white paintings of the late 1940s are not pure white, but in fact contain small amounts of red and yellow pigment, which de Kooning no doubt felt gave the paintings a gritty, anti-purist power?

What do people want to know about a work of art? And what is it ever possible to know about a work of art? Both questions deserve an answer—or at least an attempt at an answer. But museum administrators should not use their preoccupation with the more limited question as an excuse to turn away from the larger question. Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who knows more than anybody else alive about shaping the museumgoing experience, recently commented that “danger always lurks when a museum is regarded first and foremost as an instrument of social engineering.” The phenomenon that The Wall Street Journal is reporting certainly suggests social engineering, and nobody contemplating the bottom line can entirely dismiss efforts to study visitor behavior and rethink signage and even presentation. But a masterpiece is always in some sense unknown and unknowable, and if you smooth over that fantastic conundrum by developing a new circulation system for visitors, you may find in the end that you are engineering the museum right out of existence. Rubens’s voluptuous vision is no longer the height of fashion, but as de Kooning once remarked, perhaps in a spirit of wry understatement: “Rubens is still better than most new painters.”

“The Unknown Masterpiece” is a story of artistic hopes run amok, of a vision so grandiose that it proves to be a kind of blindness, or so Frenhofer’s friends and, finally, Frenhofer himself, believe. The unfathomableness of Frenhofer’s final painting has come, in the nearly two centuries since Balzac wrote his story, to suggest the unfathomableness of all works of art. Perhaps we can come a little closer to understanding what we are seeing by employing some new analytical tools, whether Susan Lake’s elegant dissection of de Kooning’s paint surfaces or the Detroit Institute of Arts’s rather crude sociological appraisal of the habits of museumgoers. But empirical evidence has only so much to tell us about the experience of a work of art. On the basis of her precise and plainspoken book I imagine that Susan Lake would agree. Frenhofer’s friends yearned to see the painting he had been working on in solitude, and when they gained access to his studio, we can be sure that they struggled mightily to understand what they were seeing. For readers who came to the story generations after “The Unknown Masterpiece” was written, Balzac’s description of Frenhofer’s final work could not help but suggest the achievements of the Impressionists, the Cubists, and the Abstract Expressionists. The resemblance between Balzac’s imaginary painting and certain Cézannes and Picassos and Pollocks can be uncanny, and raises the question of whether it was not Frenhofer but his friends who had misunderstood what they were seeing. Balzac did not mean the story to carry quite the metaphysical weight that it does today. But perhaps everybody who works in a museum should be required to read “The Unknown Masterpiece” once a year. There is a risk in rationalizing museumgoing overly much. Remove all the unknowns, and you may ultimately remove the reason for going to a museum in the first place.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. 

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