'Unfinished' part 1
‘A profound insight into the creative process’ - A Visual Journey Revealing the Invisible
By Mahalia Curtis-Lundberg
Unfinished artwork has often been viewed critically by both the artist themselves and viewers throughout history, with the very definition of unfinished denoting a lack/deficiency, thus rendering artworks imperfect if they are not completed to certain standards. However, is it fair to categorise unfinished artwork as lesser, or should we revere unfinished works with the same esteem as finished pieces? What is it that gives unfinished artworks beauty and significance? Undoubtedly, these unfinished works, whether incomplete incidentally or by design, are profuse with visual interest, historical revelations and meaning and are therefore just as significant, if not more so, than finished masterpieces.
Firstly, unfinished artworks may be greatly significant in that they reveal the artist’s techniques, providing insight into their ways of thinking and artistic process. Curator Kelly Baum comments, ‘an unfinished picture is almost like an X-ray, which allows you to see beyond the surface of the painting to what lies behind’ and ‘gives profound insight into the creative process’. This is certainly evident in traditional artwork where the underpainting becomes visible, such as Michelangelo’s ‘Manchester Madonna’ in which we can see how he built up each figure one by one using a green pigment (terra verde) as his base flesh tone. Similarly, in Perino de Vaga’s ‘Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist’ we see a contrast between some figures painted to completion and others left as a faint initial drawing, leaving a blank ochre space indicative of an almost ghostly existence. This destroys assumptions of the whole painting being worked up to the same level simultaneously, revealing a method of working which would otherwise be unknown to us if the paintings were complete.
Unfinished works such as these were therefore useful teaching tools, securing their significance as examples of technique. Preparatory sketches too, unfinished works in themselves, are important for both the artist’s own reference when creating final pieces, and they reveal to us the initial groundwork of the creative stages. Therefore, the state of unfinishedness becomes essential to understanding the creative process, as art historians can discover the techniques, colour palettes and preparations that are normally disguised or effaced beneath a pristine finished painting. Unfinished works are valuable in a way that finished artworks can never be, for they are a visual journey not only a final outcome; they reveal the invisible.
'Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist' - Perino de Vaga
Works by Cézanne further illustrate how unfinished works can be indicative of the artist’s techniques; ‘Bouquet of Peonies’ and ‘Turning Road’ both leave areas of bare canvas which draw attention to the flat short brush strokes and patchy rendering of colour, elements which typify the Post-Impressionist emphasis on depicting the abstract form of the landscape using simple geometric panes. Cézanne’s unfinished works were not only significant in revealing his gradual concretisation of colour symphonies, but pioneered the way for Matisse, Picasso and the Fauves, as well as Derain who adopted Cézanne’s use of the bare canvas as the ground of the painting. While initially considered inferior, Cézanne’s paintings now remain great examples of experimentations which drove Cubism and Abstract Art, highlighting the importance of unfinished art in the progression of modern art history.
'Bouquet of Peonies in a Green Jar' - Paul Cezanne
'Turning Road' - Paul Cezanne
Indeed, from the early 20th century there was far less certainty about what what constituted finished work, and an analysis of Rauschenberg’s ‘Erased De Kooning Drawing’ can further emphasise the importance of unfinished art in terms of revealing the artistic process. Rauschenberg began with an undeniably significant artwork by De Kooning, then erased the drawing leaving only an inscription and frame. Rauschenberg appears to be ‘unfinishing’ the artwork here, removing marks rather than adding them- yet how can this ‘unfinished’ artwork reveal the artist’s process in a way comparable to the underpainting of Michelangelo? It is the absence, the pencil traces that have been rubbed away so they are barely visible, that are indicative of both Rauschenberg’s process of erasure, and reveal De Kooning’s technique as his drawing is stripped back to its very conception. In this way, unfinished work shows how the process of removing can also be the process of making, blurring the distinction and proving that unfinished works can provide fascinating insight into experimental processes.
image - 'Erased de Kooning Drawing' - Robert Rauschenberg 1953