The Unknown Masterpiece, The Hidden Masterpiece (Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu)
A Fable of Modern Art
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford
© 1991 The Regents of the University of California
Preferred Citation: Ashton, Dore. A Fable of Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991 1991. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft8779p1x3/
In 1927, Picasso's dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned the artist to illustrate a special re-edition of Balzac's 1837 short story, "The Unknown Masterpiece".
Balzac's story is set in the Seventeenth century at a studio in the rue des Grandes-Augustins in Paris. It unfolds around an aging artist called Frenhofer, who is the greatest painter of his day. Frenhofer reveals to two of his ardent admirers, Pourbus and Poussin, that he has been working on a secret painting which has for years consumed all his creative powers. Pourbus and Poussin then scheme to get Frenhofer to show them the painting by procuring a beautiful young model for its completion. When they finally see the Unknown Masterpiece it appears to be nothing but a mess of lines and layers of paint which they immediately interpret as being the work of a raving madman.
Picasso identified with Frenhofer and was fascinated by Balzac's eerie story. In the 1930's, as if by a strange twist of fate, he rented Nº 7 rue des Grandes-Augustin, which he and others believed to be the the house in which the story begins. It was at this address in 1937, exactly one hundred years after Balzac's final version, that Picasso painted his most famous masterpiece - Guernica.
Picasso later claimed to have been haunted by Balzac; and there seem to be strange parallels between Frenhofer's Unknown Masterpiece and the 1934 drawing. As with Frenhofer's painting, the drawing seems to be the product of an extraordinary creative process. Its existence also appears to have been kept a closely guarded secret. Similarly, at first encounter, the drawing appears to be a mess of lines and smudged inks, yet what it contains is probably the most complete convergence of themes in the entire range of Picasso's work. For these reasons, it seems that the drawing was probably intended to be Picasso's version of the Unknown Masterpiece.
© Mark Harris 1996