Thursday, August 25, 2016

Go See "Unfinished" Before It Finishes!

Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas
Italian, 1570s
Kromeriz Castle (Czech Republic)
Archepiscopal Palace Picture Gallery
All summer I have been planning to say something about the inaugural exhibition at the Met Breuer, the Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue that was formerly the home of the Whitney Museum.  However, I have had difficulty organizing my thoughts about it, so I've been putting it off.  Now, with just two weeks remaining to the show, I feel I must say something or "forever hold my peace".  And what I have to say is this "GO SEE IT!"  The exhibition closes on Sunday, September 4.

One reason why I have had such difficulty in setting down my thoughts on the show is that it is, in a certain way, completely overwhelming.  First of all, stepping off the elevator on the third floor, at the beginning of the exhibition, one is immediately confronted with Titian's huge late work, The Flaying of Marsyas (the half man/half goat satyr who lost his foolish challenge to Apollo, who is shown fiddling on the left side of the picture), on loan from the Czech castle of Kromeriz.  That alone announces the quality of the exhibition.  The Met has contrived to blend works from its own enormous collection with major works from other museums and galleries around the world and has even succeeded in persuading numerous families and private collectors to share their riches.  The results are stunning.

Jan van Eyck, St. Barbara
Flemish, 1437
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

The premise of the exhibition is a meditation on the meaning of an unfinished work of art and how this meaning has changed over time.  The exhibition begins with works of the Renaissance period and ends with very contemporary works.  Some works were left incomplete because of circumstances:  the patron objected, the artist became ill, the subject refused to sit, the artist died.  Other works are records of the process by which an artist arrived at the final form for his or her thought, leaving unfinished sketches and drawings as his or her thoughts evolved.  Still others were left partially incomplete by artists who wanted to create texture in their works, especially important in an era that expected a high degree of finish for any painting.  This latter reason seems to be the reason for the inclusion of Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, which includes areas of high finish and areas of broad visible brushwork.

I think the exhibition’s greatest strength lies in the earlier works, which are on display on the third floor of the Breuer building.  Indeed, it is the works done before the middle of the nineteenth century that are the most interesting.  With the advent of Impressionism and the movements that came after it, the focus of the artist changed from the creation of a somewhat objective view of reality to one dominated by the subjective attitude of the artist, with the Impressionist artists in the position of having one foot in both camps.  Their works are, therefore, the dividing line between the two approaches to the question of when a work of art is "finished".

Albrecht Durer, Salvator Mundi
German, c.1505
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
That said, it was a revelation to discover that, even in periods when a high state of finish was common and expected, there was a range of options for when a work could be considered "finished".  The exhibition includes all of these, including a variety in which some areas of a work, be it painting or sculpture, could be left in an unfinished state deliberately, a condition called "non finito". 

The first and most obvious meaning to the term "unfinished" are those works that were abandoned, for whatever reason, by the artist before completion.  For example, in the second room of the exhibition, a painting of Saint Barbara, which is the oldest object in the exhibition, shows the incredibly detailed underdrawing that van Eyck used to achieve the enchanting reality of his paintings.   Other, later works similarly showing the abandonment of a work before completion are works by Albrecht Dürer, Perino del Vaga, Federico Barocci, El Greco, Gonzales Coques, Joshua Reynolds, Anton Raphael Mengs, Thomas Lawrence, Jean-Louis-Andre-Theodore Gericault and James Drummond.   Very often these works were prized and even collected because of the respect felt for the artists who made them. 
Perino del Vaga, Holy Family with St. John the Baptist
Italian, 1528-1530
London, Courtauld Gallery

Federico Barocci, Assumption of the Virgin
Italian, 1604-1605
Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche

El Greco, Vision of St. John
Greco-Spanish, c.1609-1614
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of a Young Man
English, ca. 1770
Houston, The Menil collection

Sir Thomas Lawrence, Emilia, Lady Cahir,
Later Countess of Glegall
English, c.1803-1805
Private Collection

Jean-Louis-Andre-Theodore Gericault, Horace Vernet
French, 1822-1823
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The works by Mengs and Drummond are rather eerie because they present highly polished representations of the clothing and surroundings of the figures, but these figures lack faces. Furthermore, the Mengs portrait also leaves an unpainted lapdog-shaped space, presumably for the lady's favorite pooch.
Anton Raphael Mengs, Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento,
Duquesa de Huescar
German, 1775
New York, Private Collection
James Drummond, The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edinburgh
Scottish, c.1870
New York, Private Collection

No doubt this is a reflection of the practice of the artist, to paint the figures first and then the faces.  On the other hand, the Portrait of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra shows the opposite side of the coin.  The face and hands are highly detailed, while the clothing and setting are unfinished.   

Danele da Volterra, Michelangelo Buonarroti
Italian, c.1544
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Perhaps the most interesting example of finished/unfinished in portraiture is the picture of a man and boy attributed to Gonzales Coques, in which faces and surroundings are highly finished, but the bodies are merely indicated, presumably to be completed at a later date, which never came.
Attributed to Gonzales Coques
Portrait of a man, full-length, handing a letter to a boy,
in an interior (The Young Messenger)
Belgian, c. 1640s
Private Collection

But, what happens if the figural subject refuses to sit for the artist? The exhibition includes an example that has a definite historical interest for Americans.  This is the unfinished group portrait of the American representatives to the Paris peace talks that ended the American Revolution.  Apparently, the American envoys all showed up for their portrait sittings, but the British representatives failed to come. Presumably this was by way of being a snub to the Americans and to West, the transplanted American painter.  Whatever the reason, West was never able to complete the picture.
Benjamin West, The American Commissioners of the Prelimnary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain
American, 1783 (begun)
Winterthur,DE, Winterthur Museum

Other objects in the exhibition represent the stages by which an artist plans for the finished work.  There are, therefore, drawings by both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, as well as sketches by Tintoretto and David. 
Leonardo da Vinci, Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata)
Italian, 1500-1505
Parma. Galleria Nazionale di Parma

Michelangelo. Studies for the Libyan Sibyl
Italian, c.1510-1511
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tintoretto, Doge Alvise Mocenigo Presented to the Redeemer
Italian, 1577
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Barat
French, 1794
Avignon, Musee Calvet

There are also roughly finished works, showing a loose handling of paint, part sketch, part finished work.  These are represented by works of Frans Hals, Nicolas Poussin, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Jacques-Louis David.  Similar effects in sculpture can be seen in the work of Auguste Rodin. 
Frans Hals, The Smoker
Dutch, c.1623-1625
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Rembrandt, Hendrickje Stoffels
Dutch, mid-1650s
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nicolas Poussin, Midas Washing at the Source of the Pactolus
French, c.1627
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Diego Velazquez. Peasant Girl
Spanish, c.1649-1650
Private Collection

Jacques-Louis David, Mme de Pastoret and Her Son
French, 1791-1792
Chicago, Art Institute
Auguste Rodin, Madame X (Countess Anna-Elizabeth de Noailles)
French, c.1907
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition also includes a painting that has a fascinating history, which shows what could have happened to many of the unfinished paintings of the Old Masters.  It is a portrait of a woman and her daughter by Titian.  It is thought that the figures may be members of Titian's own family.
Titian, Portrait of a Lady and Her Daughter
Italian, c.1550
Private Collection
Overpaint of Titian painting
Tobias and the Archangel Raphael
Removed during restoration.

 Left unfinished at Titian’s death, the almost finished painting was overpainted by someone else and became a painting of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael, presumably so that it would be easier to sell.  The painting led a peripatetic life, ending up in a bombed out garage in the Bayswater section of London at the end of the Second World War.  It was x-rayed in 1948, which uncovered the original painting underneath.  Restoration to remove the overpainting took over 20 years.1    

J.M.W. Turner, Sunset from the Top of the Rigi
English, c.1844
c 2016 Tate, London
The exhibition also includes a room filled with prints, demonstrating the process of printmaking and the various levels of “finish” that can be produced by artists working in print media.  And there is a room filled with partially finished works of Joseph Mallard William Turner, on which I have commented previously.2 These paintings represent an early stage in Turner’s creation of the final work, which only ended at “varnishing day” at the Royal Academy gallery, when he would put his final touches on his work.  These are the atmospheric backgrounds, all fog and color, which were later transformed by the addition of shapes representing the narrative he had in mind.  Hence, they were for him part of the process, while for us they can stand alone as works of great beauty.

Gustav Klimt. Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk #3
Austrian, 1917-1918
Private Collection

As artists adopted the aims and techniques of Impressionism and later of Abstraction in its many forms the idea of the “finished” work of art as the goal of the artist became less and less accurate.  The process became more important than the final product and a work was to be considered finished when the artist said it was finished or ready for presentation.  Still, even in this later world, some works can still be defined as “unfinished”.

One such is the Posthumous Portrait of Maria Munk III by Gustav Klimt.  This was the third posthumous portrait of the young woman that Klimt did.  The first two had been rejected by her family, who had commissioned the portrait after her suicide.  Alas, this third portrait was never completed either, since Klimt died while still working on it.  However, it does reveal the way in which he went about planning some of his best known works, such as the famous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (The Woman in Gold) of 1907.
Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Austrian, 1907
New York, Neue Galerie

The later portions of the exhibition, from the Impressionists (on the third floor) to the most contemporary works on the fourth floor held less interest, I thought.  Once the principal of process over product, with completion at the caprice of the artist and lacking an objective definition of what is “finished” the work can be anything from a few lines on paper to a massive installation.  Such works are well represented, as are several that play with the concept of finishing itself.  One such is a pile of wrapped hard candies, which passersby are invited to dip into, thus changing the work of art endlessly as the candies are removed and replenished (Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 1991).  For this reason, this work can (theoretically at least) never be "finished".
Janine Antoni, Lick and Lather
American, 1993-1994
Private Collection

 Another example is composed of two self-portrait busts by the artist Janine Antoni, called Lick and Lather (1993-1994).  One bust is made of chocolate, the other of soap.  After completing them, Ms. Antoni licked the chocolate one and bathed using the soap one, thus eroding their “finish”.  Also, due to their organic nature both will continue to decay, even without licking or lathering, as opposed to being “finished” and “set in stone” like the traditional marble or bronze bust.

All in all, the “Unfinished” exhibition is at once spectacular, interesting and thought provoking.  It is definitely worth the trip to 75th Street and Madison Avenue.  So, GO!

© M. Duffy, 2016

1. More information can be found at the following links:
2. “A Summer of Turner in New York” at

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