Defining the Unfinished – Works from The Courtauld Gallery

Venus in a Landscape, c. 1520, Palma Vecchio, Oil on canvas © The Courtauld Gallery

Unfinished…Works from The Courtauld Gallery
Summer Showcase Special Display
18th June-20th September 2015

Unfinished masterpieces tend only to come to light upon the artist’s death, though they may have a long and influential afterlife. Gilbert Stuart’s original Portrait of George Washington, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi, and even Michelangelo’s The Entombment, all exhibited posthumously, are great examples of the unfinished and incomplete work, a genre celebrated this summer in The Courtauld Gallery’s extraordinary exhibition.

It may seem unorthodox, or possibly innovative, to have one of the most prestigious fine art galleries in the UK display something as imperfect as ‘unfinished’ work. The Courtauld Gallery seems to intrigue the public with its interesting take on artistry and what it means for a piece of art to be considered complete. Alternatively, perhaps it plays on a novelty of incomplete art as means of simple entertainment for public consumption.

This special display focuses on the theme of the ‘unfinished’, bringing together paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century that have all been described by either critics or the artist themselves as incomplete.

The exhibit allows the viewer to explore what it means for a work to be considered complete by the artist and the audience. The “Unfinished” exhibit aims to give an insight into artistic process and reception, as well as to question why these incomplete (or, some may say, imperfect) works have been collected and, now, displayed. Dr Karen Serres, Curator of Paintings at the Courtauld Gallery, comments that “Such works were considered an unparalleled way to learn about the artistic process and question academic conversations.”

Some of the most notable pieces in the exhibition include Monet’s Vase of Flowers and Palma il Vecchio’s Reclining Woman in a Landscape. Monet worked on his canvas for over 40 years, creating layer upon layer of texture with his stabbing brush strokes. However, though signed, the artist felt it unsatisfactory to brand it “complete”. Similarly, Palma il Vecchio, whilst pleased with some aspects of his subject’s hair and contours of her body, left this painting unsigned. A later forged signature once visible on a rolled scroll on a tree stump, attests to the later attempt to pass this as a finished work, but creates a disparity between the artist’s intentions and those of a later dealer or collector.

Particularly striking and provocative are Edgar Degas’ sculptures Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot and the accompanying Dancer Ready to Dance, Right Foot Forward. Degas kept these two figures among hundreds of others in his studio until his death where they were assembled by art collectors and cast in bronze, as they can be seen today in the Courtauld gallery. The two sculptures are held down by staples, demonstrating the unstable condition the artist had left them in. The viewer has the sense that their preservation in bronze subverts the natural energy, freedom and dynamism these figures were intended to convey. Degas originally moulded these sculptures out of wax or clay, its malleable properties allowing him to work and re-work the forms as he wished. Today the statues stand in bronze, frozen in a cold, solid and restrictive state. The dancers have no defined features, their hands and feet blocky and unfinished. The casting of these evidently incomplete models in more permanent material render them something of a visual paradox, implicitly questioning the nature of a finished artwork and the presumable clash of their current state with the artist’s intentions.

Degas was more concerned with the physical action of the dancers he portrayed. ‘These women of mine’, he once said, ‘are honest, simple folk, unconcerned by any other interests than those involved in their physical condition’. Perhaps this is the same approach we, as the viewers, should take towards these pieces, though this is a typical nineteenth-century attitude, a modern audience should consider the simplicity of the dancers rather than their incomplete condition. Degas must certainly have been interested by the individual flaws of each woman and by the purity of the dance itself, the dancers show us the principle of absolute beauty and the difficulties in achieving perfection.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, 1869 – 1872, Honoré Daumier, Oil on canvas
Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist, 1528-37, Perino del Vaga (1501 – 1547), Oil on panel, 139.8 x 111.2 cm
© The Courtauld Gallery

So what makes a piece of art complete? What makes Donatello’s David any more complete than Degas’ Dancers? The detail? The finish? Or was it, perhaps, critics that assumed the dancers were incomplete simply because the artist had died with the sculptures still in a state of immaturity? By having art presented to us in this way we are given a unique insight into the ongoing artistic process and we are able to recognise artistic merit even in its state of immaturity. Another, more cynical, interpretation of this exhibition might be to suggest that, in raiding the back-catalogue of artists’ unfinished works, never intended for display to a mass audience, the contemporary art world seeks purely commercial gain through the false novelty of the ‘unfinished’ concept.

In either case, Degas’ Dancers among the entire collection of ‘unfinished’ or ‘incomplete’ works are thought-provoking. They invite the viewer to decide for themselves whether they deem the piece to be complete or incomplete and to fill in the lines the artist has laid out for us. Much like Degas’ Dancers, the viewer is free to interpret the piece as they so wish – they are not restricted to certain readings or theories, therefore by being in a state of incompletion, viewers are not pressured to draw the same conclusions. Thus, the piece becomes infinitely more intimate to the onlooker and the artist is able to create a stronger relationship between themselves and the viewer, to bridge the gap created by intimidatingly grand masterpieces and reduce it to something dynamic and incomplete, but undeniably powerful.

by Georgina Gaber