Sunday, September 26, 2004

Representative works that are not representative

Many critics would identify two novels, "The Nephew of Rameau" and "Jacques le Fataliste," as the masterworks of Denis Diderot, the French enlightenment thinker. Yet Diderot seems to have regarded these creations as mere bagatelles, not bothering to publish them during his lifetime. It is fortunate that the manuscripts even survived. Perhaps Diderot did not have a good understanding of his own contribution, taken as a whole. But can we be certain that we have a better understanding than the author himself did?

With the painter Francisco Goya the case may be even worse. For some time, the "black paintings" have been viewed as his most quintessential works. Yet a Spanish scholar who has examined the matter thoroughly holds that the black paintings are not by Goya, and were created after his death.

A clue may come from Rabelais. Many, from Diderot to Le Corbusier, quote from his "Fifth Book." Yet most scholars view this last book as of doubtful authenticity. It may be that the forger understood Rabelais well enough to create a work that was even more "Rabelaisian" than the master's own handiwork.

Van Meegeren got away with his forged Vermeer "masterwork" for a time because critics viewed is as superbly Vermeerian. Conclusion--long live the pastiche!