“Young Nicolas Poussin, as yet unknown, visits the painter Porbus in his workshop. He is accompanied by the old master Frenhofer, who comments expertly on the large tableau that Porbus has just finished. The painting is of Mary of Egypt, and while Frenhofer sings her praises, he hints that the work seems unfinished. With some slight touches of the paintbrush, Frenhofer transforms Porbus’ painting such that Mary the Egyptian appears to come alive before their very eyes. Although Frenhofer has mastered his technique, he admits that he has been unable to find a suitable model for his own masterpiece, which depicts a beautiful courtesan called Catherine Lescault, known as La Belle noiseuse. He has been working on this future masterpiece that no one has yet seen for ten years. Poussin offers his own lover, Gillette, as a model. Gillette is so beautiful that Frenhofer is inspired to finish his project quickly. Poussin and Porbus come to admire the painting, but all they can see is part of a foot that has been lost in a swirl of colors. Their disappointment drives Frenhofer to madness, and he destroys the painting and dies that night.”
Source: Wikipedia ad vocem Honoré de Balzac, Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (1831)
The notion of “masterpiece” has an unmistakably idealistic matrix. Idealistic is the way of conceiving the work of art as an exceptional, isolated product, the result of the sublime intuition of a genius. And also idealistic is the presumption of the existence of a relationship of “continuity” between the so-called masterpiece and the epoch to which it belongs, of which it would represent an unequalled “peak”.
In reality, if we still want to use this category, which is in other ways quite outdated, we must recognize in the masterpiece, on the one hand, its full involvement in the productive vicissitudes of its author, and therefore not at all an isolated manifestation, an exceptional and unrepeatable (and even less random) unicum, but something that is in a necessary and very strong relationship with all its precedents, which, although limited, imperfect, often even aborted, nevertheless constitute its fundamental premises; and, on the other hand, a truly extraordinary capacity to break with its own time, to put in crisis the previous order and to establish a new one in its place. From this point of view, the masterpiece has to do with the epoch in the precise sense that it makes epoch, that is, it causes a halt in the course of time (epoché, suspension). But in “making epoch” the masterpiece shows its own revolutionary attitude, certainly not the opposite tendency to occupy with sovereign tranquillity a central position within a framework that it would end up leaving substantially unchanged.
Marco Biraghi is full professor of history of contemporary architecture at the School of Architecture Urban Planning Construction Engineering of the Politecnico di Milano. He has published (among the others) Storia dell’architettura contemporanea 1750-2008 (Einaudi, Torino 2008), Project of Crisis. Manfredo Tafuri and Contemporary Architecture (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2013), Storia dell’architettura italiana 1985-2015 (with Silvia Micheli, Einaudi, Torino 2013), L’architetto come intellettuale (Einaudi, Torino 2019), Questa è architettura (Einaudi, Torino 2021).