Unfinished? Or finished? I always struggle with this.
That was the debate in Saturday night’s New York Philharmonic program notes for Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. A stack of unfinished music, described by some as “torsos” or fragments, were found when Franz Schubert’s life was cut short by syphilis at age 31. Schubert sent this particular piece to a friend who kept it hidden in a drawer for 40 years.
Dubbed Unfinished by posterity, the artist’s own intentions are unclear. Originally called Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D.759, the two movements we heard certainly sounded finished – and beautiful – to me (judge for yourself), although it departed from the typical four movement format of Schubert’s era.
Was Schubert planning to come back to it and flesh it out into four movements? Or did Schubert consider this piece finished since he put the score down long before his death? Were other movements simply lost?
The road is littered with unfinished creative work, whether it’s music (Mozart Requiem), painting (Da Vinci’s sketchbooks) or architecture (Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia). As an artist who paints half-eaten food that are inherently unfinished, this is a subject that intrigues me: When is a painting finished? The simplest answer is when the artist says it’s finished. Only life isn’t always that simple, as was the case with Schubert.
This complex subject was tacked by the Metropolitan Museum in the Met Breur’s inaugural show Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. Although the show closed in September, it made a lasting impression on me – and on mostly everyone else who saw it, especially those close to the creative process.
I’ll cover a few of the highlight and issues, beginning with this hauntingly beautiful metal point, drawing and oil of Saint Barbara by Jan Van Eyck (1437) on the first floor of the show. Is this an exquisitely drawn preparation for an unfinished painting, or a finished drawing with a touch of color?
Leonardo Da Vinci painted this elegant Head and Shoulders of a Woman (1608-14) with beautifully disheveled hair (mine should look this good!) using oil, earth, with white lead pigments on poplar. Note how finely painted the delicate features of the face are relative to the sketchiness of the hair. Unfinished perfection?
This dramatic El Greco, The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608–14), is an unfinished painting that was heavily damaged and restored, and has been cut down from its original size. Yet the Met thought enough of it to purchase it for their permanent collection.
The concept of non finito (a theme in this show, literally Italian for unfinished) can be applied to this later Rembrandt van Rijn of his companion Hendrickje Stoffels (mid 1650s). Rembrandt was an artist who experimented with unfinished paintings, and came back to this one over a period of time. Perhaps he intended to leave this unfinished, or was content to leave the rough hands and drapery as is since it is an informal portrait.
It’s interesting to look at late Rembrandt, and late work of other artists for that matter (Turner is coming up), which tend towards less detail rather than more. Why, you might ask? Is it simply that elder artists suffer from declining vision and health? Perhaps artists feel they only need to capture the essence or spirit of the subject, having already established their technical skill over their distinguished careers. Or maybe they paint more for themselves at this point in their life cycle.
Contrast late Rembrandt with the exuberant mature style of another Dutch painter, Frans Hals, in The Smoker (ca 1625-27) with its free, sketchy style and magnificant brushwork. The immediacy and perceived realism of these paintings works best when seen from a distance. I personally find the rough style of late Hals exciting and am captivated by the loose brushwork.
This clearly unfinished self-portrait by George Romney, 18th century British painter, was admired by his friends and offspring for its spirit, yet questioned for its incomplete state. How I wish I could carry this off! Yet this was prized by several generations of Romeys.
And now we come to my favorite room of the entire show. A lovely room full of foggy, ethereal mood paintings typical of late William Mallard Turner, including Sun Setting Over a Lake (ca. 1840) and The Thames Above Waterloo Bridge.
These mature works, which were found in Turner’s studio after he died and donated to the Tate as part of the Turner Bequest, verge on being pure abstractions with their free brushstrokes not generally associated with painting of this period. They were admired for their non finito aesthetic, and foreshadow the Impressionists and the abstract art to come out of America (Helen Frankenthaler, for example).
On the second floor of the show, Picasso greets us on the second floor with a black and white painting of The Charnel House (1944-45), which he referred to as the massacre. While the specifics remain somewhat of a mystery today, this unfinished work with areas of canvas showing together with compositional changes, reminded me of Picasso’s Guernica – a MOMA favorite for so many years – in its subject and grey palette befitting the darkness of war. Picasso thought this was finished enough to donate to National Association of Veterans of the Resistance in 1936.
A second Picasso work on paper seems conceptually like a two-part art class assignment (color first, then black and white), but somehow works as a painting.
Next I enjoyed these two clearly unfinished works. The first is this charming Vincent Van Gogh of a Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, painted in 1890, a year before he died, perhaps explaining the bold blue strokes of the sky set against the raw canvas. The second is Gustav Klimt’s Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III, with bold patterns and colors swirling around the drawn figure – a definite crowd pleaser.
Then the exhibit shifted to more contemporary 20th century work, including Jackson Pollock’s Number 28, 1950. Pollock poured and threw paints in a seemingly haphazard manner onto canvases placed on the ground (rather than an easel), without a central subject. The paint literally runs off the edges of the canvas, implying a sense of infinite time and space without an ending.
We see Alberto Giacometti with Annette (1951) who almost made a career out of reworking and reworking paintings for years in a deliberately unfinished way, so that the creative process was evident to viewers. In fact, Giocometti never thought any of his works were finished!
I smiled when I saw the next juxtaposition of these two works that reminded me of all my paint-by-number kits that I enjoyed as a child. Andy Warhol’s Do-It-Yourself (Violin), 1962, and Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2009 (who currently has a major show at Met Breuer) brought back a lot of pleasant memories. Marshall follows the time-honored tradition of depicted an artist holding a palette while working on a painting – in this case, a paint-by-number painting. What a painting in a painting!
The theme of the show then shifted to decay and decline with works such as this seemingly disintegrating sculpture by Urs Fischer “2” (2014) in cast bronze, oil paint, palladium led, clay bole, child gesso and rabbit-skin glue. The process involved creating and destroying, suggesting decay and perhaps sexual violence.
Hans Hoffman went even further in painting with this creation and deconstruction pattern process in Woman, I (1950-52). Hoffman returned to this subject time and time again, scraping, wiping, blotting, with a disregard for the outline of the form (unlike Klimt) that resulted in a sort of visual chaos that was intentional.
Jean-Michel Basquiat builds on the notion of chaos and irreverence in Piscine Versus the Best Hotels (or Various Loin), 1982. The painting seems to be coming apart at the seams with its exposed stretcher bars, irregular joints, and rather quickly attached photocopies. Words and puzzling images that appear to crash into each other, reminding us of street art and graffiti.
Rodin’s elegant sculptures of hands greet us in the last large room in this show of various sculptures. Smooth delicate carvings of fragmentary hands are set again contrasting textures of rough hewn stone, harking back to Michelangelo’s Unbounded Slaves and Medici Madonna in the non finito spirit.
Menardo Ross further explores the notion of depicting body parts in a series of eerie marble heads lying on a dark stone platform. I spent a lot of time wandering around this room, which was particularly interesting aesthetically and conceptually within the context of this show.
This was a provocative exhibit that received less than enthusiasm reviews from the critics, hinting that this show wasn’t enough of a revolutionary breakthrough inaugural contemporary show. The critics seemed to fault the Met for drawing from its encyclopedic collection, although I do agree that the two floors felt like two separate exhibits. The New York Times review called it Thinking Inside the Box, hardly intended as a compliment. But for all of us interested in the exploration of the creative process, it was fascinating!
In the spirit of this exhibit, I proudly show you one of my incomplete paintings, which has been waiting patiently in my studio. Normally I wouldn’t have posted this one so early in the process, but I gave myself permission after spending a lot of time in Unfinished.
There are a number of unfinished paintings in my studio. Why? Obviously, I’m still alive, so that’s not the reason. And I’ll go on record saying some are in the concept stage, and nowhere near completed. Certainly there were plenty of distractions the last few months with many family trips and a daughter settling back in New York after living away for many years, perhaps contributing to a lack of focus and a painters (and blogging!) block.
Sometimes you really never know why a painting remains unfinished. Here’s one that sat around for a long time after a little visitor ate the subject! Fortunately I had taken a photo of this Oreo. True story.
My personal insight after seeing this show: I think I should be more tolerant of my own unfinished works. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. And it’s ok to stop before every i has been dotted and every t has been crossed. In fact, it’s an area I want to explore.
What I took away from Unfinished was that I am just carrying on an age-old tradition going back centuries. And a glorious one at that.