What is the value of an unfinished work of art? This is a question which the Courtauld curators are trying to answer with this year’s summer showcase exhibition. Opening with an introduction that describes the historically perceived value of unfinished works – Pliny the Elder famously wrote that they were more precious because they allowed an insight into the mind of the artist – the exhibition also asks, what does it mean to call a painting unfinished? And how often is this even accurate?
From the Renaissance to Cezanne, Unfinished…Works From the Courtauld Gallery presents one room of works which have been given admittance into the collection in spite of, and perhaps because of, their unfinished status. Since the Renaissance unfinished works have been valued for their usefulness as teaching tools; but this prosaic advantage aside, they also have a certain aesthetic and poetry of their own, one of incompleteness and possibility not granted to a fully finished work. In a Virgin and Child by Parmigianino, his trademark elongated bodies look especially beautiful with just the shading and basic outlines of figures’; suddenly the unnaturistically sinuous bodies look convincingly mystical, almost spirit-like, in their very insubstantiality. A Holy Family with St John the Baptist from the same period, attributed to Perino del Vaga, gives a valuable insight into Renaissance painting techniques, but is also hauntingly beautiful, and somehow much more poignant than it would have been had it been completed. Only the babies are fully realised, with Mary’s face just sketched with a few quick brushstrokes, and Joseph’s effacing into the background almost entirely. The painting’s unfinished state causes it to become an unintentional allegory of the passing of generations, the sacrifice of parents to their children, as they fade away into old age and children grow strong and healthy, and, if your imagination want to go this far, a visual reminder of Jesus’ ascension to heaven and immortality to join God in heaven, leaving behind his earthly forebears.
A state of incompleteness can endow paintings with new narratives. Honore Daumier’s, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was one of Francis Bacon’s favourite paintings, and it’s not difficult to imagine that in it he identified the sense of something alien, otherworldly and almost nightmarish. The close landscape of a mountain path, through which they carve their way, seems to heave and shift around them because of the writhing lines they’re painted with, around the two rather lonely faceless figures, who seem to be subsumed by the natural world around them. It feels almost futuristic or post-apocalyptic, partially due to the brown palette which speaks of annihilation or death. It’s a far cry from the comic scenes one usually associates with the Don Quixote story. Manet’s Au Bal, an oil sketch or partial painting of a woman’s head and shoulders, is full of romance and mystery, an ephemeral aloofness and transience, because of its unfinished state: the barely perceptible male profile behind her shoulder, and indeed the woman’s face over looking back over her bare shoulder are both very vague, suggesting lovers passing like ships in the night, perhaps just missing each other, or having chance encounters.
As we move from Renaissance to Impressionism, we move to a question of artists’ intentions: Paul Durand-Ruel sold Degas’ Woman at a Window cheap to Walter Sickert because of its loose finish; however, Degas signed and stamped the work, possibly indicating that he felt it was finished, and indeed, as an astonishingly beautiful study of fleeting light, any further painting would have ruined it. (Sickert thought it was Degas’ best work, and I’m inclined to agree.) Works by Henri Matisse and Andre Derain, are included because contemporary critics lambasted their seaside scenes for being unfinished, with bare canvas still visible, and the whole thing formed of slapdash strokes of pure pigment. It was however, an entirely intentional new style of painting, and was what earned them their nickname the Fauves, the wild beasts. A Vase of Flowers by Monet, reworked over a period of 40 years, looks finished to the eye, but a letter from the artist suggests that he never finished it to his satisfaction, adding another element to the ‘unfinished’ debate. Degas’ famous Dancer sculptures were never intended to be finished works of art: made to sketch and study movement from for his paintings, they were cast in bronze after his death.
This is a jewel of an exhibition, in some ways perfect for the pure enjoyment it gives the viewer. A contemplative space highly concentrated with overlooked masterpieces by some of the greatest artists in the Western canon, it’s simultaneously a simple ode to beauty and the mystical properties of art, and a significant question mark in the practice of art classification, as well as debating the importance of artistic authorship and intentionality. It finishes on 20th September, and you’d be mad to miss it.