“Silence? Can’t you hear the forest? The sound, the murmuring… all the time. It’s like the sea. Just like the sea. It’s the fossil sound of the universe. It’s the sound of the origins. The forest and the sea mixed together. That’s what painting is. Don’t you think?” (1)
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 Doré Ashton’s words, a “fable of modern art”.
There is a famous passage in Émile Bernard’s recorded conversations with Cézanne, in which the aging master explicitly identifies with Balzac’s painter:
“One evening when I was speaking to him about “The Unknown Masterpiece” and of Frenhofer, the hero of Balzac’s drama, he got up from the table, planted himself before me, and, striking his chest with his index finger, designating himself—without a word, but through this repeated gesture—as the very person in the story. He was so moved that tears filled his eyes.” (2)
In this installation, the silence of the artist’s studio contrasts with the nagging drone of the outside world, which is so inescapable it insinuates itself even through the closed door. Like a clock ticking it measures the time, it measures especially the long fruitless hours. The persistent sound dogs thought, it is thought, it undermines action, questions everything. 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 lamp… the blank and waiting canvas. The sound piece is composed mainly of insect sounds: crickets, cicadas, katydids (evening sounds, chirpings, buzzings, night sounds, a hum, “the roar on the other side of silence”), and takes its inspiration from Rivette’s film La Belle Noiseuse. A door is heard closing, with a latch, and the sound from the outside is muffled. At first there is an apparent silence (such as follows after loud noise – a slam, a gunshot), then the insect sounds build steadily, surely, incessantly. Suddenly the door opens, briefly, but the clamor is intense, the door closes again and then the silence returns…repeat.
Jen Mazza, 2011
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2. from introduction from the NY Review edition of “The Unknown Masterpiece”