History is full of stories of esteemed artists whose final wish — hoarsely uttered from their deathbed — was for their unfinished works to be destroyed.
And yet there is something tantalising about the unfinished; a glimpse of something the artist did not want anyone to see, a masterpiece mid-formation. In painting, particularly, early marks seem to lay bare the struggle of the artistic process — the paint scratched out and tentatively reapplied. In nowhere but the unfinished work is the graft behind the glitter more visible.
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The same is not always true of contemporary art, where, in many cases, process has been elevated over the finished product. But when it comes to older works — and Old Masters in particular — incomplete pieces offer the viewer an enticing sense of mystery.
Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, an intriguing exhibition at New York’s Met Breuer, brings together paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints from the Renaissance to the early 20th century — all of which have been described, rightly or wrongly, as ‘unfinished’. The exhibition follows the popular Untitled at London’s Courtauld Gallery, which posed the same question.
We asked Dr Karen Serres, Schroder Foundation Curator of Paintings at London’s Courtauld Institute, to elaborate on the value of such works and how the criteria for ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ works have changed.
What can we learn from the unfinished?
Perino del Vaga (1501-1547), Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist, 1528-37. Oil on panel. Courtesy the Courtauld Gallery
Usually the initial drawing is invisible once the work has been painted, varnished and beautifully finished. In Perino del Vaga’s Holy Family with St John the Baptist, 1528-37, there is such a great contrast between where only the drawing is visible and where paint has been applied. There is a tendency to assume everything in the painting is built up to the same level at the same time. But artists sometimes keep one figure completely blank while finishing another, leaving a fascinating ghostly presence in their work.
So the unfinished gives us an insight into the artist’s process?
Del Vaga’s work was considered the perfect teaching tool for Renaissance painting, and was the first purchased addition to Samuel Courtauld’s collection. When you look closely, it has everything: there’s a graphic outline in pen and ink, and the thinness of the paint means there are visible brushstrokes on the head of the figure, and pricking marks. There is a clear build-up of glaze as well as touches of highlight. In terms of explaining technique, it has it all. To the left of the main figure you can just make out an arrangement of small figures — probably a rendition of the Massacre of the Innocents before del Vaga decided to add St Joseph instead. It’s fascinating to see the artist working things out directly on the canvas.
Were unfinished works specifically collected and coveted?
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669), Artist Drawing from the Model (unfinished). Courtesy the Courtauld Gallery
Del Vaga was in the orbit of Michelangelo and Raphael. Even if these artists didn’t finish a work, it was often kept as a memento of their genius.
Another work featured in the show is a print etching by Rembrandt, Artist Drawing from the Model, which is thought to be an allegory for the arts. The contrast between the laboriously worked background — where you can see every single line — and the loosely sketched, unfinished foreground, is stark. Since the printing process was so lengthy, the reason why Rembrandt agreed to produce the work remains a mystery. It may have been that he wanted to finish one section before the other. Others have speculated that the work was produced as a challenge for fine art students, who might have been asked to fill in the foreground in a way that complemented Rembrandt’s background. It may have been something of a novelty for students and collectors.
There are some works in the exhibition that appear to be finished…
Claude Monet, Vase of Flowers, 1881-2, Oil on canvas. Courtesy the Courtauld Gallery
Not many people realise Monet’s Vase of Flowers is unfinished. But in his correspondence, he writes of his inability to express the light falling on the flowers and the leaves to his satisfaction. In some places he has scraped paint off, while in others he has painted over dried paint. Every so often he must have returned to this painting and added a few brushstrokes in an attempt to improve it.
This work leant against a wall in his studio for more than 40 years. It was only in the 1920s that he finally decided to add his signature. But, we wonder, after struggling with it for so long, how did he finally decide it was finished? Was he truly satisfied with it? We tend to assume the Impressionists recorded everything they saw quickly, easily and fluidly. Monet knew the impression of light and likeness he wanted to give. But it is sometimes very difficult for an artist to translate what they see into paint.
Has the notion of what constitutes a ‘finished’ work changed?
The 20th century opens up a number of issues: as artistic styles changed, it became up to the artist to tell you when a work was finished. In the 19th century, salon critics took the liberty of determining what was good enough to be considered finished. The Impressionists were criticised for being sketchy and their works incomplete; there was a very strong notion about the right and wrong ways to paint.
More recently, artists have tended to return to works and tinker with them. Picasso once said, ‘To finish a work is to kill it.’ In the 19th century, at the Royal Academy’s vernissage (traditionally the day for varnishing), artists such as Turner were still making additions.
Before then, artists had approached work rather differently. During the Renaissance pieces were often commissioned, so the artist would have a patron breathing down their neck. Most artists just got on with it, with a few notable exceptions — for Michelangelo, for example, every work was a labour of pain and love.
Did some artists ignore ideas of what constituted a finished work?
Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, 1869-1872. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the Courtauld Gallery
There is a work by Degas in the exhibition, Woman at a Window painted in 1871–72, which by all conventional standards would have been considered unfinished. Degas is economical with the brushstrokes to create the sense of largeness of his model’s skirt and the chair upon which she sits. There is still a lot to resolve.
Degas was very experimental. He had said everything he needed to say about how to create the impression of light through the strong silhouette of the figure. He had rendered what truly interested him and so, for him, it was finished. He was happy to add his signature and sell it on. Interestingly, this work of Degas was purchased by Sir Walter Sickert; another unfinished work in the exhibition by Daumier was one of Francis Bacon’s favourite works. Perhaps it takes an artist to fully appreciate the unfinished.
So sometimes the ‘unfinished’ is an experiment that pushes boundaries?
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Turning Road (Route Tournante), circa 1905. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the Courtauld Gallery
We have a late Cézanne (1839-1906) in the show, Turning Road (Route Tournante) painted circa 1905. Some think the canvas left bare means it is unfinished, and put the blame on his poor eyesight. But Cézanne painted about a dozen of these works from 1903-06 and this is his usual canvas size.
You can make out the steeple and houses in the background, so for various reasons I can’t imagine he unintentionally left this canvas as we see it now. Like Degas, Cézanne was very experimental. Leaving the white makes you more aware of the brushstrokes, which have a flattening effect, while the tones and colours create depth. The areas of flatness make the painted areas shimmer. You can’t tell what time of day it is in this work. As well as trying to capture the light, I think he wanted to depict a timeless, grounded landscape.
Did Cézanne’s ‘unfinished’ canvases inspire other artists?
Artists such as Picasso and the Fauves greatly admired Cézanne’s late work. The latter moved from what Cézanne was doing and purposefully used bare canvas to represent the ground. The Derain featured in the exhibition leaves no question about the artist’s intentions. Although his canvas remains visible, Derain believed the work to be finished. From the early 20th century there was far less certainty about what painting should be.
Are there some works left inexplicably unfinished?
We do have Manet’s Au Bal — Marguerite de Conflans en Toilette de Bal in the exhibition, which we think he executed as an exercise. In just two lines he shows his incredible draughtsmanship, rendering a sense of the model’s shoulder, the curve of her bosom and waistline, and the fall of light. In terms of technique however, it’s strange — as far as we know, this was not how Manet generally began a work. Although it is loosely done, the addition of touches give the sense of light falling on the dress of the figure. It is unfinished but it’s highly unlikely Manet ever intended to finish it. He may have done it just for pleasure. A quality we wanted to show in this exhibition is that the answer to why a work was left unfinished is not always straightforward.
If you could have added works from outside this exhibition, contemporary or otherwise, what would you have chosen?
There is a type of ‘unfinished’ works not represented in this show, which are those that were purposefully worked loosely to show how comfortable the artists were with paint. Both Jacopo Bassano and Michelangelo painted in that manner.
Contemporary additions would have been fascinating because the emphasis lies in the artist’s intentions. Who are we to say when something is finished? But artists such as Leon Kossoff do ask others whether they think the work is finished. It can sometimes be difficult even for the artists themselves to determine.
Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible runs until 4 September 2016 at Met Breuer, New York
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