Body and Chaos
La belle noiseuse and painting of sensation
A. Writing about the unknown masterpiece
This paper begins by addressing a somewhat special topic, though, as many others, it uses a work of art as
its starting point for its reflections in the field of art theory. But the work of art in question – and this makes a
crucial difference – does not exist and never did. La belle noiseuse is a fictional painting that figures
prominently in Balzac’s short story “Le chef-d’œuvre inconnu.” Nevertheless I will focus on this painting –
the painting itself – and try to avoid ending up with an interpretation of Balzac’s short story. For its material,
my discussion will draw on the description of the painting and the painter Frenhofer’s own words about his
artistic aims, the goals he tries to accomplish with La belle noiseuse.
I am in fact quite excited by the idea of basing my essay on an imaginary artwork. This certainly involves a
risk of my becoming imprecise, and it will be necessary to introduce other pictures from time to time to
illustrate some of my thoughts. However, I see a considerable potential for extensive reflection on art in the
procedure indicated, given that La belle noiseuse poses a problem rather than providing an answer – a
problem, which has been formulated and reformulated and “solved” in so many different ways since the time
Balzac wrote his story of the unknown masterpiece. My procedure supplies a space for philosophically-
oriented research, rather than restricting me to an interpretation of a single artwork, a space in which I can
position my own artistic research, exploring the representability of the body and the gap between illusion
and materiality – between surface and depth. So if I come back in the end to my own video installation,
titled la belle noiseuse (red marble-machine), which happens to be my latest work, it should be understood
not as an illustration or interpretation of the Balzac story, but as independent part of this broader research.
B. La belle noiseuse and abstractionism
It is easy to view La belle noiseuse as an anticipation of modernist abstractionism. The fruit of Frenhofer’s
ten years of work is in fact an abstract painting, a canvas on which you cannot see anything but a “wall of
painting.”1 At some place in the picture, at its bottom, a concrete detail can be discerned, recognizable as a
foot, but it is only after looking at the painting and examining it for a while that the viewers in the story
discover this foot. It seems that the foot, standing there alone, has no more right to exist, it is more or less
taken over by the masses of color and its pictorial solitude contributes to revealing the fact that it is made of
paint. Also, to our biased ears, some of Frenhofer’s reflections about art sound quite similar to the
modernists’ rejections of the representative quality of painting and their emphasis on the immanent qualities
of colors and paint. Frenhofer’s friend Porbus reports about him:
He has deeply meditated about colors and the absolute line of truth [...] In moments of despair he claims
that there is no drawing and that with lines one can only represent geometrical forms.2
But interpreting (as is often done) Balzac’s short story as nothing but a critique of the representational
character of art is, in my opinion, a very restricted view of the text and – which is even worse – not a very
interesting one. In fact criticism of mimetic art is very old; it has its origins already in the antique
characterizations of the arts, and so it is not surprising to come upon it in a nineteenth-century work of
literature. Rather, in order to fathom Balzac’s originality, it would be necessary to analyze the text in
question as a critique
of the literature of Balzac’s time and of its tendencies toward realism, a critique that is
suggested by many of Frenhofer’s statements about the poetry of art. But this cannot be my task; as I have
already said, I do not want to end up in a discussion of literature and literary history.
For my purposes, which are connected to my own research and artistic work, I find it useful to take
Frenhofer’s failing seriously, instead of rehabilitating him “posthumously”. (And I think we have to proceed in
this manner, since no existing artwork can teach us otherwise.) This failing happens somewhere in the
process in which a sensation is actualized through material, undefined matter thus becoming expressive. In
Deleuze’s book Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, as well as in his and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?,
I have encountered a concept of aesthetics that precisely focuses on this, as they call it, “zone of
indiscernibility.” The inseparable relationship between material and expression is inherent in all kinds of art –
figurative as well as abstract – and, as Deleuze and Guattari show, even extends to music and literature. In
order to make the problem it deals with accessible, this paper will remain within the field of the visual arts
and focus on Frenhofer’s sujet: the body, which seems to play an important role in his process of failing.
C. Body and forces
By hunting for ”the first abstract painting,” one tends to forget that Frenhofer is actually trying to paint a
female nude. It is certainly no accident that Balzac chose such a classic sujet for the unknown masterpiece
and Frenhofer's experience of failing has to be understood as part of his aim: to paint a body. Balzac even
acquaints us with the historical model for “La belle noiseuse”, the courtesan Catherine Lescault. But never
does Frenhofer ascribe an historical or mythological signification to his painting, which would be typical of
the baroque, the period in which the story takes place. All he talks about is the movement of the muscles,
the living body, the breath, the flowing blood under the skin, the temperature of a young girl’s cheeks, the
intimacy and vulnerability of her nakedness.
These are the aspects Frenhofer wants to make visible in his painting, by going far beyond a mere
representation of the body. Instead of creating a symbolical or narrative context in which the body would
find its definite expression and the painting its referential meaning he tries to catch the body in all the
complexity in which it can be perceived. The variety of sensations built by different sense perceptions, the
dynamics of the living body, its integration into the forces of life - nothing more and nothing less is the sujet
of his painting:
We have to grasp the spirit, the soul, the moving physiognomy of things and beings. Reality? That is only
the cover of life and not at all life itself.3
The title “La belle noiseuse,” rather than figuring as an historical reference, also evokes those
multisensational forces that belong to the body: “Noiseuse” means literally “noise-maker,” a woman making
noises. One thinks of the old discussion around the Laokoon group: Can a sculpture express a scream?
Can it convey such an intense expression of the body, which would need for its completeness sound and
duration? Painting is faced with the same problem: How can it integrate other sense perceptions and time
into its static and visual composition? In more recent times, some painters have tried to solve the problem
of painting a scream. In his Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze writes about Bacon’s
screaming Innocent X:
We must consider the special case of the scream. Why does Bacon think of the scream as one of the
highest objects of painting? “Paint the scream…” It is not at all a matter of giving color to a particularly
intense sound. Music, for its part, is faced with the same task, which is certainly not to render the scream
harmonious, but to establish a relationship between the sound of the scream and the forces that sustain it.
In the same manner, painting will establish a relationship between these forces and the visible scream (the
mouth that screams). But the forces that produce the scream, that convulse the body until they emerge at
the mouth as a scrubbed zone, must not be confused with the visible spectacle before which one screams,
nor even with the perceptible and sensible objects whose action decomposes and recomposes our pain. If
we scream, it is always as victims of invisible and insensible forces that scramble every spectacle, and that
even lie beyond pain and feeling. That is what Bacon means when he says he wanted “to paint the scream
more than the horror.”4
Deleuze points out here that the problem of painting a scream - or any sound – is not only derived from the
multisensational character of the scream and its duration. It is rather that the lasting scream, which is
invisible yet perceivable, is already an effect of insensible forces, operating inside our body or affecting it
from the outside. The perception of the scream must be reconnected to affects on, and the action of, the
nervous system, so that we may progress from the “spectacle” to the sensation:
Neither painter nor poet or sculptor should separate cause and effect, as the one is entwined with the
other, invincibly. Here is the true battlefield.5
This is an artistic approach that does not have to lead to abstraction, as the example of Bacon
demonstrates. But in order to render visible those operating forces, one has to find an equivalent in the
material of painting itself. Just as the forces in life must affect a body to become sensations, in painting
they need a material dimension to unfold their intensity and continue, rather than becoming arrested in one
single moment of representability:
Bacon creates the painting of the scream because he establishes a relationship between the visibility of the
scream (the open mouth as a shadowy abyss) and invisible forces, which are nothing other than the forces
of the future.6
D. Body and chaos
In the aim of painting the invisible forces by means of the immanent qualities of the material, one again
detects a similarity to the early examples of abstract art:
And this, first of all, is what makes painting abstract: summoning forces, populating the area of plain,
uniform color with the forces it bears, making the invisible forces visible in themselves, drawing up figures
with a geometrical appearance but that are no more than forces – the forces of gravity, heaviness, rotation,
the vortex, explosion, expansion, germination, and time […].7
Just as Frenhofer progresses from concern with the body to his “abstract painting,” some of the early
abstractionists developed their non-figurative œuvre through a long preoccupation with a figurative subject.
One example is Mondrian, who starts with landscape paintings, to develop his grid-paintings, in which only
the connecting and separating contour is left to arrange planes and expand them into the dimensions of
the surrounding space. But there is a crucial difference. While Mondrian and other abstractionists reduce to
the minimum the visual coordinates as well as the qualities offered by their material, Frenhofer complicates
these parameters, multiplying and interconnecting them, until the whole organization collapses. The
abstractionists banish the sujet in order to transfer the operating forces into a purely optical space. Thus
they court the danger of formalism by creating a new optical canon in which the forces of life are neutralized
and again represented in symbolical codes:
The code is inevitably cerebral and lacks sensation, the essential reality of the fall, that is, the direct action
upon the nervous system.8
In contrast, Frenhofer is trying to penetrate his sujet, the body. This is no mere matter of corporeal
dimensionality that has to be transferred onto a two-dimensional canvas – it is furthermore a matter of the
flesh: It is the old phantasm of the incarnate, which penetrates through the surface color to the red of the
blood and the blue of the veins shining through the translucent skin.
You are giving beautiful dresses of flesh to your women, beautiful ornaments of hair – but where is the
blood that reigns over peace and passion and which is indispensable for creating individual effects?9
Hence, the body cannot be viewed as a mere colored surface-form. It entertains a strange and ambiguous
realtionship between surface and depth, as the inner actions register as effects on the outside, while their
causes remain more or less invisible and hidden inside, in the body’s superimposed layers:
The visible would then resemble a measureless and prodigal topology of folds - a generalized, skinlike
exfoliation, in which the spaces in between would be the bearers of difference, the agents of meaning.10
It is also not enough to have a knowledge of the inner organization of the body and to apply that
knowledge to the outside form, as that organization is not static but affected by local intensities and
transitions registering as dynamic effects on the visible outside.
In Deleuze's philosophy, the body, thus understood, is called the body without organs – an expression that
he borrows from the writer Antonin Artaud:
Beyond the organism, but also at the limit of the lived body, there lies what Artaud discovered and named:
The body without organs. [...] The body without organs is opposed less to organs than to that organization
of organs we call an organism. It is an intense and intensive body. It is traversed by a wave that traces
levels or thresholds in the body according to the variations of its amplitude. Thus the body does not have
organs, but thresholds and levels. Sensation is not qualitative and qualified, but has only an intensive
reality, which no longer determines within itself representative elements, but allotropic variations. Sensation
This intensive body cannot be understood as a unity anymore; it is a continuous becoming, a going through
Frenhofer, not striving for an anatomically correct representation of the body, but trying to convey the
sensation of the body being alive and changing, loses the significant form of the body and ends up in a
simultaneity of variations that can no longer be differentiated from chaos.
The body falls apart into a changing multiplicity of variants and it also disintegrates into diverse fragments –
remember the foot that stands out from the wall of colors.
This movement from the whole to the detail is connected to another aspect of the flesh: its tactility, which in
this case has a clear erotic connotation. Frenhofer is talking of the “belle noiseuse” like of a beloved woman.
He hides her nakedness in his atelier, because he could not stand “if other eyes than mine would touch
her.”12 And really, when he talks of the skin of her back and her breasts (and it is remarkable that he sees
both at the same time in his painting – a hug with the eyes, as it were), it seems that he is actually touching
it with his eyes, rather than really seeing it. As opposed to the eye, which is an organ of distance and is
able to give us an impression of completeness of the perceived, the touch is a sense of nearness, which in
most cases perceives only parts of an object through contact.
Frenhofer asks the two viewers to come closer to the painting – “seen from a distance, she disappears.”13
That is the moment when Porbus and Poussin discover the leftover foot, which is for the normal eye the
only recognizable remainder – left over by this fetishizing regard, which wants to touch instead of seeing:
These almost blind marks attest to the intrusion of another world into the visual world of figuration. To a
certain extent, they remove the painting from the optical organization that was already reigning over it and
rendering it figurative in advance. The painter's hand intervenes in order to shake its own dependence and
break up the sovereign optical organization: one can no longer see anything, as if in a catastrophe, a
For Deleuze there exists a special tendency of painting towards chaos and this is so because painting is
the form of art nearest to the body. Like the flesh, it manifests the same ambiguity between surface and
depth, and the depth is not only an illusory one (the painting as window…), but also indicative of layers of
colors and material. In the first place the painting belongs to the material world of the body; its optical
organization and signification, the image we see, is only a retrospective act.
In their primal existence the colors are “bodies that have the ability to release this or that quality of the
maternal substance in order to compose paintings [...]. Hence, a painting is not only a topic, but a dynamic
and an energetics of the alive [...].”15 Painting is potency and presence of the operating forces inside the
material; it directly affects the nervous system. Figuration and abstraction are both ways of banishing this
chaos; they serve to insert an intermediate step of optical organization and signification, to subjugate the
forces, as well as the senses.
Painting of sensation – and I think that is how one should understand La belle noiseuse - is always on the
border of chaos:
It invests the eye through color and line. But it does not treat the eye as a fixed organ. It liberates lines and
colors from their representative function, but at the same time it also liberates the eye from its adherence to
the organism, from its character as a fixed and qualified organ: the eye becomes virtually the polyvalent
indeterminate organ that sees the body without organs (the figure) as a pure presence. Painting gives us
eyes all over: in the ear, in the stomach, in the lungs (the painting breathes...).16
E. Body and composition
If one wishes to compare Frenhofer's painting to abstract art, the only possible comparison is the one to
abstract expressionism. One could imagine that Frenhofer's “wall of painting” resembled an all-over painting
by Jackson Pollock. And in fact there is justification for such a comparison in the sense that abstract
expressionism voluntarily renounces what Frenhofer loses during his work. Abstract expressionism banishes
every optical organization of the painting. Form is abandoned in favor of the sheer manual line, which takes
over the whole canvas in an absolute simultaneity of its variations.
Surely adopting the manual line differs from Frenhofer's obsessive aim to paint the tactile body. In abstract
expressionism, the line is only a material trace of the painting and moving body and it wants to be nothing
more than that, affect us as such without providing any analogy:
This time sensation is indeed attained, but it remains in an irremediably confused state.17
But we have to step back again to understand Frenhofer's failure: How could he have succeeded and
managed to “make the sensation clear and precise. To emerge from the catastrophe...”18 The border on
which he trembles is no longer that between figuration and abstraction. In such a view, the proponents of
both can be arranged on a scale with these modified endpoints: the purely optical and the purely manual
approach in painting. In its extreme, pure opticality leads to symbolical representation, be it abstract or
figurative, while the pure manual approach leaves us in the chaos of undefined matter. Frenhofer clearly
escapes the first danger, but he does not succeed in his aim to “express nature”19, to secure an expression
from his material: “Nothing, I created nothing!”20
As we saw, the chaos of undefined matter that Frenhofer reverts to corresponds to his sujet, the body. The
flesh, like the colors, is pure potency of a multiplicity of sensations; a second element is needed to extract a
clear and durable sensation from chaos – to progress from potency to presence:
Perhaps it would be interference or chaos, were there not a second element to make the flesh hold fast.
Flesh is only the thermometer of a becoming. The flesh is too tender. The second element is not so much
bone or skeletal structure as house or framework. The body blossoms in the house (or an equivalent, a
spring, a grove). Now, what defines the house are “sections,” that is to say, the pieces of differently oriented
planes that provide flesh with its framework – foreground and background, horizontal and vertical sections,
left and right, straight and oblique, rectilinear or curved. These sections are walls but also floors, doors,
windows, French windows, and mirrors, which give sensation the power to stand on its own within
autonomous frames. They are sides of the bloc of sensation.21
This house or framework is not painting’s illusory space, produced by means of perspective, but it is, more
generally, its composition “that exchanges and adjusts” the forces of the material and “makes them whirl
around like winds.”22
Through a connection and junction of planes the composition defines the space and the time in which the
forces are operating – the inner rythm of the painting and its connection to the outside space.
Once again: composition should not be confused with a purely optical organization, for the material, with all
its different qualities, is part of it – the material is the direct “developer which disappears in what it develops:
the compound of sensation.”23 So if this sensation still resembles something, it is not through a primal visual
or a codified resemblance – not through representation or symbolization – but through an analogy
produced by totally different means, by color and composition:
It is not resemblance, although there is resemblance. But it is only a produced resemblance. Rather,
becoming is an extreme contiguity within a coupling of two sensations without resemblance or, on the
contrary, in the distance of a light that captures both of them in a single reflection.24
Coda : Notes on la belle noiseuse (red marble-machine)
Parts of my video installation la belle noiseuse (red marble-machine) can be understood as a quite direct
translation of Frenhofer's painting into a video piece, while other aspects are not so obviously connected to
Balzac's short story and rather derived from my own previous work.
One of the latter aspects is the integration of the installation into an architectural environment, with the
video, projected onto the wall, appearing as a marble trompe l'œuil. In the history of its use in art, marble
suggests the same strange ambiguity between surface and depth that the body does. In baroque
architecture, marble is used as a polished decorative surface; the colorful structure becomes an ornament
(therefore it can be faked by painting it on a wall), while it is in fact the visible outside effect of an inside
layered and folded material. In this sense marble is often evoked in connection with the body in my
drawings and video installations.
In la belle noiseuse (red marble-machine), the appearance as a marble surface also involves compositional
elements not based on the model of Frenhofer's painting. As a result, there are triggered two movements of
perception by the video piece, which are limiting each other.
One corresponds to the movement of Frenhofer's picture: the destruction of form by layering multiple
variations. Sometimes one glimpses a leftover detail, a face or a body fragment, which in the same moment
is submerged again by digital masses of colors and lines – it falls back into chaos.
On the other hand this chaos can be seen as a marble surface. The original film images, used as layered
material, are continually destroyed – but they become something again, when they are projected into actual
space. However, the illusion is not perfect. The film images keep some of their sovereignty as they move
and make sounds. The gaze comes apart again and again, trying to grasp the appearing and disappearing
remains of the vanishing images.
The installation’s evocation of marble is a produced one, produced by a material with totally different
qualities. Presumably, the video suggests marble more through its layering than through superficial,
representational components. The sensation I wanted to generate is not purely visual, but should contain a
compound of tactile elements including the material used and its vehicle.
In the same moment the video suggests marble, it shall draw attention to the architectural surrounding, the
stone of the wall, on which it is projected, to become its colored surface and the reflections of light on it.
The video’s noises become estranged even more through the acoustics of the space and the layers of
moving images showing female bodies convulse into the flesh of “La belle noiseuse.”
- Honoré de Balzac: “Das ungekannte Meisterwerk.” Erzählungen. Diogenes, Zürich, 1998. 131-32:
“Ich sehe da nichts als Farben, die in wirrem Durcheinander massiert sind und von einer Fülle bizarrer
Linien zusammengehalten werden – eine Mauer von Malerei [my emphasis] stellt das dar!”
- My translation of Balzac: “Das ungekannte Meisterwerk.” 117: “Er hat tief über die Farben und über
die absolute Linie der Wahrheit meditiert […] In den Augenblicken seiner Verzweiflung behauptet er,
es gäbe keine Zeichnung, und man könne mit Strichen nur geometrische Gebilde wiedergeben. ”
- My translation of Balzac: “Das ungekannte Meisterwerk.” 103: “Wir haben den Geist, die Seele, die
bewegte Physiognomie der Dinge und der Wesen zu packen. Wirklichkeit? Sie ist nur die Hülle des
Lebens und keineswegs das Leben selbst.”
- Gilles Deleuze: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Transl. Daniel W. Smith. University of
Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2003. 51.
- My translation of Balzac: “Das ungekannte Meisterwerk.” 103: “Weder Maler noch Dichter noch
Bildhauer dürfen Wirkung und Ursache trennen, denn unbesiegbar ist eines in das andere
verschachtelt. Hier ist das wahre Schlachtfeld. ”
- Deleuze: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. 51.
- Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: What is Philosophy? Transl. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell.
Columbia University Press, New York, 1994. 181.
- Deleuze: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. 88.
- My translation of Balzac: “Das ungekannte Meisterwerk.” 104: “Ihr gebt Euren Frauen schöne Kleider
aus Fleisch, schöne Schmuckwerke aus Haar – aber wo ist das Blut, das über Ruhe und
Leidenschaft waltet, und das die einzelnen Effekte erst erzeugt?”
- My translation of Georges Didi-Huberman: Die leibhaftige Malerei. Transl. Michael Wetzel. Fink,
München, 2002. 36: “Das Sichtbare gliche einer maßlosen und verschwenderischen Topologie von
Faltungen – einer generalisierten, hautartigen Blättrigkeit, in der der Zwischenraum gewissermaßen
Träger der Differenz, des Sinns wäre.”
- Deleuze: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. 39.
- Balzac: “Das ungekannte Meisterwerk.” 124: “Sie würde erröten, wenn andere Augen als meine sie
betasteten [my emphasis]. ”
- Balzac: “Das ungekannte Meisterwerk.” 133: “Nähert Euch doch – so werdet Ihr besser diese Arbeit
sehen! Von fern betrachtet, verschwindet sie [my emphasis].“
- Deleuze: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. 82.
- Didi-Huberman: Die leibhaftige Malerei. 38: “Die Musik gebraucht ebenso wie die Malerei Körper,
welche die Fähigkeit haben, diese oder jene Eigenschaft der mütterlichen Substanz freizusetzen, um
daraus Gemälde zu komponieren [...]. Das Gemälde ist also nicht allein Topik, sondern eine Dynamik
und eine Energetik des Lebenden “ (emphasis mine; emphasized part translated by me in the text).
- Deleuze: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. 45.
- Deleuze: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. 89.
- Deleuze: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. 89.
- Balzac: “Das ungekannte Meisterwerk.” 102: “Als ob es die Aufgabe der Kunst wäre, die Natur
abzuschreiben! Sie soll die Natur ausdrücken [my emphasis]!”
- My translation of Balzac: “Das ungekannte Meisterwerk.” 134: “Nichts, nichts habe ich geschaffen!”
- Deleuze and Guattari: What is Philosophy? 179.
- Deleuze and Guattari: What is Philosophy? 183.
- Deleuze and Guattari: What is Philosophy? 183.
- Deleuze and Guattari: What is Philosophy? 173.