â€œSilence?Â Canâ€™t you hear the forest?Â The sound, the murmuringâ€¦ all the time.Â Itâ€™s like the sea.Â Just like the sea.Â Itâ€™s the fossil sound of the universe.Â Itâ€™s the sound of the origins.Â The forest and the sea mixed together.Â Thatâ€™s what painting is.Â Donâ€™t you think?â€Â (1)
One of HonorÃ© 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 geniusâ€”or both. The story, which has served as an inspiration to artists as various as CÃ©zanne, Henry James, Picasso, and New Wave director Jacques Rivette, is, in critic DorÃ© Ashton’s words, a “fable of modern art”.
There is a famous passage in Ã‰mile Bernardâ€™s recorded conversations with CÃ©zanne, in which the aging master explicitly identifies with Balzacâ€™s painter:
â€œOne evening when I was speaking to him about â€œThe Unknown Masterpieceâ€ and of Frenhofer, the hero of Balzacâ€™s drama, he got up from the table, planted himself before me, and, striking his chest with his index finger, designating himselfâ€”without a word, but through this repeated gestureâ€”as the very person in the story.Â He was so moved that tears filled his eyes.â€ (2)
In this installation, the silence of the artistâ€™s studio contrasts with the nagging drone of the outside world, which is so inescapable it insinuates itself even through the closed door.Â Like a clock ticking it measures the time, it measures especially the long fruitless hours.Â The persistent sound dogs thought, it is thought, it undermines action, questions everything.Â It is everything: time, life, struggle, critique, doubt, it is both from within the artist and from without, he is paralyzed by his own insignificance.
The installation pairs sound with the rudiments of a studio: a chair, an easel, a lampâ€¦ the blank and waiting canvas.Â The sound piece is composed mainly of insect sounds: crickets, cicadas, katydids (evening sounds, chirpings, buzzings, night sounds, a hum, â€œthe roar on the other side of silenceâ€), and takes its inspiration from Rivetteâ€™s film La Belle Noiseuse.Â A door is heard closing, with a latch, and the sound from the outside is muffled.Â At first there is an apparent silence (such as follows after loud noise â€“ a slam, a gunshot), then the insect sounds build steadily, surely, incessantly.Â Suddenly the door opens, briefly, but the clamor is intense, the door closes again and then the silence returnsâ€¦repeat.
Jen Mazza, 2011
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2.Â from introduction from the NY Review edition of “The Unknown Masterpiece”