Friday, September 29, 2017

Artist's Toil Described by Balzac

Art making is a labor of love — it is often lonely and physically and emotionally demanding and the toil of artists are often heroic and Sisyphean.

This was austerely observed by the great French novelist and social commentary, Honoré de Balzac in his masterpiece Cousin Bette (La Cousine Bette) set in mid-19th century's Paris.

One of the major characters was a gifted yet undisciplined Polish sculptor Wenceslas Steinbock. Though the depiction of his struggle, success and failure, Balzac shed acute insight of what contributed to the artistic and financial success or failure of an artist in mid-19th century Paris, or any time in any place.

In early part of the book, a young woman Hortense was her father if she might marry an artist:
'Listen, darling Papa, would you forbid me to marry a great artist?'
'No, child. A great artist nowadays is an untitled prince; he has fame and fortune, the two highest social advantages ... after virtue,' he added, a little sanctimoniously.

'Of course,' answered Hortense. 'And what do you think of sculpture?'

'It's a very unrewarding profession,' said Hulot, shaking his head. 'One needs powerful patrons, as well as great talent, for the Government is the only purchaser. It's an art without a market nowadays, when there are no longer people who live splendidly; and there are no great fortunes now, no hereditary mansions, nor entailed estates. We have only house-room for small pictures, small statues; and smallness, the petty, is a menace to the arts.'

'But suppose he were a great artist who could find a market?' persisted Hortense.

'That would solve the problem.'
Yet, later we learned that the problem was not easily solved, even if the artist could find a market. The long analysis below demonstrated what was needed beside talent and access to a market:

"In two and a half years Steinbock produced a statue and a child. The child was of exquisite beauty; the statue execrable.

The Prince's clock and the statue paid the young couple's debts. Steinbock had by that time formed the habit of going into society, to the theatre, to the Italian Opera. He could talk admirably about art. He maintained his reputation as a great artist, in the eyes of the social world, by his conversation, his critical disquisitions. There are talented men in Paris who spend their lives talking their life-work, and are satisfied with a kind of drawing-room fame. Steinbock, following the usual course of such charming eunuchs, developed an aversion to work that grew from day to day. In the very moment of feeling the impulse to begin his work, he became conscious of all the difficulties of the task, and was so discouraged that his will to tackle them collapsed. Inspiration, the frenzy that leads to intellectual procreation, took flight with a flip of her wings at sight of this sick lover.

Sculpture is like Drama; at once more difficult and easier than all the other arts. One can copy a model and the work is done; but to impart a soul to it, in the representing of a man or a woman to create a type, is to snatch fire from heaven like Prometheus. Sculptors who have succeeded in this are rare and glorious landmarks in human history, like poets. Michelangelo, Michel Colomb, Jean Goujon, Phidias, Praxiteles, Polyclitus, Puget, Canova, Albrecht Dürer, are brothers of Milton, VIrgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Tasso, Homer, and Molière. Their work is so impressive that one statue is enough to make a man immortal, just as it took only Figaro, Lovelace, and Manon Lescaut to immortalize Beaumarchais, Richardson, and the Abbé Prévost.  

Superficial minds (and there are too many of them among sculptors) have said that sculpture of the nude is the only viable sculpture, that the art died with the Greeks, and is made impossible by modern dress. But, for one thing, there were sublime statues fully draped in the ancient world, the Polybymnia, the Julia, for example; and not more than one tenth of the sculpture of antiquity survives today to furnish examples. True lovers of art, besides, need only go to see Michelangelo's Thinker in Florence, and, in Mainz Cathedral, to see Albrecht Dürer's ebony Virgin, a living woman in her triple robes, with rippling hair as airy in texture and vital as ever maid combed. Let the ignorant go at once to see them, and they will all acknowledge that genius may inform drapery, amour, a gown, with thought and feeling about the substance of a body, just as convincingly as a man impresses his nature and the habits of his life upon his envelope. Sculpture is the constant creation of reality in a way that, in painting, was achieved once and uniquely by Raphael!

The solution of the sculptor's tremendous problem is only to be found in untiring unremitting labour, for the material difficulties must be so completely mastered, the hand must be so disciplined, so ready and obedient, as to enable the sculptor to struggle, in a combat of spirit with spirit, with that inapprehensible moral element that he must transfigure and embody. If Paganini, who made the strings of his violin tell his whole soul, had let three days pass without practising, he would have lost, together with his power of expression, what he called the register of his instrument, by which he meant the close union existing between the wood, bow, strings, and himself. If this accord were broken, he would at once become no more than an ordinary violinist. Constant labour is the law of art as well as the law of life, for art is the creative activity of the mind. And so great artists, true poets, do not wait for either commissions or clients; they create today, tomorrow, ceaselessly. And there results a habit of toil, a perpetual consciousness of the difficulties, that keeps them in a state of marriage with the Muse, and her creative forces. Canova lived in his studio, and Voltaire in his study. Homer and Phidias must have so lived, too.

Wenceslas Steinbock had had his feet set on the hard road trodden by those great men, leading to the heights, when Lisbeth [Cousin Bette] had kept him on the chain in his garret. Happiness, in the person of Hortense, had delivered the poet over to idleness, a state quite natural to all artists, for their kind of idleness is an occupation in itself. They enjoy the pleasure of the pasha in his seraglio: they toy with ideas, intoxicating themselves at the fountains of the mind. Certain gifted artists who, like Steinbock, have wasted themselves in reverie, have been rightly termed dreamers. Such opium-eaters all fall into penury, although if they had been driven by harsh necessity they would have risen to greatness. These demi-artists are, or the most part, charming people. The world delights in them, and turns their heads with adulation. They appear superior to real artists, who are taxed with aloofness, unsociability, rebellion against the conventions and civilized living; because great men belong to their creations. The entire detachment from all worldly concerns of true artists, and their devotion to their work, stamp them as egoists in the eyes of fools, who think that such men ought to go dressed like men about town performing the gyration that they call 'their social duties'. People would like to see the lions of Atlas combed and scented like a marchioness's lapdogs. Such men, who have few peers and rarely meet them, grow accustomed to shutting out the world, in their habit of solitude. They become incomprehensible to the majority, which, as we know, is composed of blockheads, the envious, ignoramuses, and skaters upon the surface of life.
To be a successful artist, talent is the basic requisite; incredible luck to find a market is essential for commercial success and legacy; and to bridge these two, dedication and hard labor are the indispensable nourishment for artistic growth. Nothing was easy and no shortcuts to take.

I hope the publisher and translator Marion Ayton Crawford would not mind my citing those paragraphs above; my paraphrasing and summarizing surely would pale comparing to Balzac's original.

Merci beaucoup!

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

My Featured Painting - Wafting

Despite some success of my 2015 painting Waft, which was recently published by Pomona Valley Review (Volume 11, Summer 2017), I clearly saw rooms for improvement, and recently I made a new version of the painting, titled Wafting — much darker and more dramatic, with additional whimsicality and humor, lent by the black flakes, resembling playful butterflies, darting above the little girl, who was, as in the 2015 version, running away from the viewer, holding strings tied to floating human balloons, all in the shape of young women dressed in pure white, against much darker and more ominous background, as if in the process of awakening or drowning. I believe that the latter effort was psychologically more penetrating and indeed a big improvement.

 Wafting / 飄 / Wandernd  
Oil on Canvas
30" x 24"
Completed in 2017

Originally posted on

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