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When is a painting finished?

Unfinishing school

When is a work of art finished? A new exhibition explores the stories behind incomplete paintings. In doing so, it captures the essence of modernity

When is a work of art finished? A new exhibition explores the stories behind incomplete paintings. In doing so, it captures the essence of modernity

Tom Shone | March 23rd 2016

Sitting for the painter Alberto Giacometti was a time-consuming business. Starting at around 3pm, a session would continue until midnight, at which time Giacometti would break for dinner at a nearby brasserie before returning to put in another hour or so. An average portrait took 20 meetings. “Because I was able to go on sitting, he was able to go on painting,” wrote David Sylvester in “Looking at Giacometti”, in which he records the artist layering his canvas with impasto so thick, he would then have to scrape some off in order to proceed. “Cezanne never really finished anything,” said Giacometti. “That’s the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.” 

Painting, interrupted: Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas” (1575)

What were the reasons for his inability to finish? The 20th century is famous for its prolonged assault on the Renaissance notion of art as a finished artefact – the diligent end-product of a master craftsman. “A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned,” said W.H. Auden, in a nod to Paul Valéry. With “The Waste Land”, T.S. Eliot replaced classicism with an aesthetic of fracture; Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, which collapsed figurative painting, was left deliberately unfinished; Rodin made a fetish of Michelangelo’s incompleteness, which in turn became  the defining aesthetic of the 20th century, the messy, sometimes explosive exploration of process supplanting the fruits of that process: a polished, finished product. Ours is the era of the smudge and scuff, rip and blur – the artistic equivalent of pre-distressed jeans. 

As a result, walking around the Met Breuer’s inaugural exhibition, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible”, a collection of some 200 works from the Metropolitan’s own collection along with some stunning loans, is like going on a guided tour of modernity and its emergence. It gets off to a great start with Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas” (1575), one of Titian’s last paintings, some say his very last, which depicts the satyr Marsyas as he is hung upside down just seconds before his terrible death. It is signed, but the paintwork is uneven, the detailing hazy, the composition somewhere between draft and final copy – it may even have involved the work of later hands. Or did Titian’s impatience with gleam and polish reflect his suspicion that his time was nearly up? In which case the interrupted quality of the work mirrors the interrupted quality of the life. We all shuffle off this mortal coil in some senses unfinished. 

Alice Neel’s “James Hunter Black Draftee” (1965)

“Late works are the catastrophes,” wrote Theodor Adorno, “the irascible gesture by which [the artist] takes leave of the works themselves.” Certainly the most common reason for an incomplete painting, at least in the early stages of this exhibition, is death or its approach. Here is Vincent van Gogh’s “Street In Auvers-sur-Oise” (1890), its top third left unfinished when he took his own life, and Gustave Klimt’s “Portrait of Ria Munk III”,  the loose brushwork of which would never be filled in once Klimt died in 1918. A major find, too, is “James Hunter Black Draftee” (1965) by the American painter Alice Neel. Its subject’s head is lustrously rendered, but the rest of his body only sketched; having been drafted into the Vietnam war, he failed to turn up for a second sitting.

After death, the next-best reason not to hand in your homework is genius – or at least the notion of genius as handed down to us from the Romantics, who spent the 19th century atop mountain peaks grasping for the unattainable. Most of the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, genius’s poster-boys, comes to us in unfinished form. Even the “Mona Lisa” is a work-in-progress whose middle ground to the left and right of the figure is something of a fudge. “Let the sketching of compositions be quick with limbs not too finished,” wrote Leonardo, inspiring subsequent generations to similar non finito freedoms – whether Titian’s diaphanous brushwork, Bruegel’s swift washes, or Rembrandt’s almost-geological paint deposits.  

Leonardo’s “Head and Shoulders of a Woman”

The rest is history, inked here in great detail. I was fascinated to learn, for example, that a spate of famous deaths in the 1820s – Lord Byron’s and Théodore Géricault’s in 1824, Jacques-Louis David’s in 1825 – opened up their estates and in so doing vastly expanded our notion of what constitutes an artist’s oeuvre. “If only I had made five paintings, but I’ve done nothing absolutely nothing,” lamented Géricault on his death bed, having exhibited a mere three paintings at the salon. Yet his atelier sale included more than 213. Turner presents a similar case. “Imagination and Reality”, a landmark show put on by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966, made the case for Turner as a precursor of the Modernists by means of a series of canvases – “The Thames Above Waterloo Bridge” (1830-35), “Margate Harbour” (1835-40), “Sun Setting Over a Lake” (1840) – that the artist never intended to exhibit.  

The curators of “Unfinished”, Andrea Bayer, Kelly Baum and Jayne Wrightsman of the Met and Nicholas Cullinan of the National Portrait Gallery in London, are for the most part scrupulous in distinguishing between that which is genuinely non finito and that which is intentionally so. The most arresting canvases, to my eyes anyway, are examples of the former that most look like the latter – works of “accidental” modernism, so to speak, like the late Turners, whose abstraction seems just a hair off that of Mark Rothko or Cy Twombly, or David’s rarely seen “Death of Bara” (1794) (pictured above), in which the teenage revolutionary, cut down in battle, dies naked amid a field of ghostly squiggles, as if being beamed up by the Starship Enterprise. 

Andy Warhol’s “Do It Yourself (Violin)” 

Less satisfying  is the latter portion of the exhibition, when the non finito aesthetic meets the modern artists who most fully embraced it – in other words, when the exhibition catches up with itself. Here are Janine Antoni’s busts made of soap and chocolate (a visitor once bit the noses off three of the heads, a testament to their own impermanence) and Edward Ruscha’s portfolio of lithographs, variously titled “That is Right”, “Actual”, “Correct”, “Definite”, “Certain”, “Sure”, “Exact” and “Final” – in direct mockery of our completist urges. Also, Andy Warhol’s “Do It Yourself (Violin)” (1962), a facsimile of a paint-by-numbers kit with only the bottom half of the violin complete, the rest of its numbered blanks awaiting the bored housewife who is to be imagined dabbing at it while she waits for her husband to return from work. 

Turner’s “Rough Sea”

It’s not just the loftiness of the irony that is off-putting, but the fact that these monuments to the unfinished are painstakingly finished, inch by pedantic inch. It adds to one’s suspicions that post-modernism, for all its supposed playfulness, is one of the most dogmatic of artistic movements, its ambiguities pre-programmed, its blurs perfectly focussed. As I trawled the perfectly executed corners and clear-cut ironies of the exhibition’s latter stages, I grew hungry for the shade of genuine uncertainty that hangs over Ferdinand Hodler’s haunting 1915 watercolour, of his dead lover lying in bed, a rosary twisted in her pallid hands, with the rest of the composition only sketched in; or Van Dyck’s self-portrait, in which his head bobs in a sea of white, his gaze so piercing he scarcely has need of a body.

These works seem to enjoy special status, somewhere between the unfinished and the deliberately non finito, as if the artist had thought them unfinished only to return at a later date and find that – no, they were just right. 

Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible the Met Breuer, until September 4th

 

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Weisseharre - March 30th 2016

still/live