“We should not forget that 99 percent of all art-making attempts are failures.”
-Phillip Lopate, Portrait of My Body
My favorite story of artistic failure happens to be among the first such story. Honore de Balzac wrote the long short story Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (”The Unknown Masterpiece”) in 1831. It was first published in the newspaper L’Artiste with the title “Maître Frenhofer” and tells the quintessential story of an artist driven insane by the failed pursuit of his art.
Plot summary: Balzac’s story takes place nearly two centuries before, in the early 17th century, when the young and still unknown artist Nicolas Poussin, visits another painter, named Porbus, in his studio. With him is the famous old master Frenhofer (who, unlike Poussin and Porbus, is fictional), who comments that a painting by Porbus seems unfinished. Frenhofer picks up a brush, makes some slight touches on it, and transforms the figure in Porbus’s painting so she appears to come to life.
The two marvel at the mastery Frenhofer has over his technique, but the old painter has to admit that he is frustrated in his own work. He has been unable, for the past ten years, to complete his one great masterpiece, which he calls La Belle noiseuse (”The Beautiful Troublemaker”). To help the old master, Poussin offers his own lover, Gilette, as a potential model, and Gilette’s beauty is so great that it inspires Frenhofer to finish his project quickly. However, when Poussin and Porbus visit Frenhofer’s studio some time later to view the painting, they see instead a mass and swirl of crazed brushstrokes and mishmashed colors. In fact, despite Frenhofer’s belief in the great beauty of the painting, all the two young and bemused artists can make out in the work is part of a foot. In the end, their disappointment in the painting drives Frenhofer over the edge into madness, and he destroys the painting and kills himself.
What I like most about this story is its absolute truthfulness and keen perception in examining certain key features of the artistic drive. While Poussin and Porbin are the rare workmanlike and analytical artists, especially when it comes to their own work, Frenhofer is stifled by an absolute desire for greatness, the hubris of wanting to create a true and historic masterpiece (importanitis). He is blinded by his creative urges to his own failings and the (lack of) quality of his output, though not of others (artistic delusion; artists are their own worst enemies). He is so driven by some his internal artistic urges and his conviction of their greatness, that he is unaware what his work is unappealing, inept, and a complete mess.
Like many such blind, proud, and deluded artists, when he realizes the depths of his failed vision for himself and his work, when he learns that all his burning efforts to create the great masterpiece he is sure he is capable of are in vain, Frenhofer is devastated, driven to insanity, and he can no longer live.
Does this sound like any artists we know? (Hint: To some degree or another, every artist that CAFA has profiled is, in his or her own way, a modern Frenhofer; indeed, it’s quite likely that 99-percent of all artists are.)