Describing art as ‘finished’ nowadays may be construed as a snub – a thinly veiled suggestion that a painting has been overworked or that the artist adheres too strictly to conventions. By focusing its latest exhibition on the theme of ‘unfinished’ artwork, The Courtauld Gallery invites viewers to question what truly deems a work ‘finished’.
What makes this exhibition so compelling is that it presents an array of works which are all unfinished in their own way, each offering a new interpretation of the question of finality. Some works may simply be described as unfinished because the artist died before completion, but for others the line between finished and unfinished is far more complicated.
Take Cézanne, whose loose, free brush strokes can make it hard to tell if he had considered some works to be finished or not. The exhibition highlights the similarly complicated status of Manet’s oil painting Au Bal. The work was given it’s title shortly after the artist’s death, when it was sold along with the contents of his studio. The identity of his female subject remains unknown – could Manet have depicted her purely for his pleasure? In just a few strokes of thin paint the artist abandons typical standards of finish and captures the fine turn of a woman’s body in a fleeting moment.
The exhibition also touches on the battle artists have with the idea of ‘signing off’; pieces may seem ‘finished’ to an outsider’s eyes but do they meet the artist’s own vision? The exhibition features Vase of Flowers by Monet – an artist who famously rejected the rules of academic painting and whose critics reprimanded his lack of finish. Ironically, we learn that he struggled with this particular oil painting for decades and kept it in his studio for forty years before reworking it.
Similarly, Girl with Cherry Blossoms by Whistler was only discovered thanks to a patron managing to save one of its remaining sections (the original painting was of three young women but now we only see one). The artist was said to have been so unhappy with the piece that he reworked it for years, scraping off paint as he went along.
A standout of the exhibition is Renaissance artist Perino del Vaga’s Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist. While some areas have been depicted meticulously with paint, others have been rendered with rapid pen marks on bare canvas. Not only does this unfinished state lend the work a kind of haunting beauty, it also offers a unique insight into the early stages of the artistic process.
Another highlight is Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, one of the artist’s most ambitious paintings based on Cervantes’s fictional adventures of the Spanish knight Don Quixote and his servant Sancho Panza. Although never finished, the work was said to be among Francis Bacon’s all-time favourite paintings. Artists often seem to be attracted to the unfinished work of their fellow creatives – they tend to have a greater grasp of what was trying to be accomplished than the average art aficionado.
The exhibition doesn’t just limit itself to paintings – you’ll also find drawings, prints and sculptures from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century on display. All works come from the Courtauld’s outstanding permanent collection. The gallery holds a high number of ‘unfinished’ works due to its ties to higher-learning establishment the Courtauld Institute of Art. Such pieces are considered an unrivalled way to learn about the creative process. For the majority of visitors however, this exhibition’s greatest appeal is the unique insight into the mind of the artist that it offers. Thank goodness for the various collectors who have kept these ‘imperfect’ pieces. A fascinating exhibition.