Unfinished… at the Courtauld Gallery
Every year, the Courtauld Gallery organises a Summer Showcase assembling a number of prominent works from its permanent collection, grouped under a common point of focus which invites viewers to look at the pieces through a different lens. This year’s display addresses the exciting and hitherto unexplored theme of the unfinished work of art. The material presented ranges across different times and styles, and while it can all be described as unfinished, the reasons behind the pieces’ fragmentary states vary. Some works remain incomplete due to the artist’s death, others were discarded mid-process as they did not meet the artist’s vision. In a sense, the exhibition has a voyeuristic feel, as the artists would not have wished to show and be judged on these aborted efforts.
The central piece of the exhibition is Perino del Vaga’s Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist, a Renaissance work where some sections are painted meticulously but the greater portion of the composition is only faintly outlined with a light brush. The result is perhaps all the more striking because of the distinctive mood created by the washed-out, almost ghostly, unpainted figures. Over the years, this work has served principally as a learning tool for analysing the working methods adopted by Renaissance artists, but thus singled out, the piece shines in its own right in spite of, or perhaps because of, the imbalance in the level of detail provided.
Part of the exhibition is dedicated to impressionism, a movement that famously involves the deliberate omission of detail, which lends it its distinctive unfinished feel. There are works by Manet, Cézanne and Degas where chunks of blank canvas are left exposed. The artists simply wished to explore one single concept and, once satisfied, deemed the completion of the painting a secondary matter. While uncompleted paintings were regarded worthless for most of history, impressionism can be said to represent the evolution of the unfinished work in that it transforms it into a statement promoting expression over perfection.
In reality, there is great ambiguity regarding this multifaceted topic, and even the sealing touch, namely, the artist’s signature, does not always confirm its finished status. This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to appreciate pieces that show character through their half-formed state as they expose something intimate about the artists. Unfinished… is an intriguing display honouring the bold decision to prematurely interrupt the creative flow, but also celebrating creative doubts and frustrations as a natural part of the process. It thus provides a rare insight into the workings of the artists’ minds.
Photos: Ned Malik
Unfinished… is on at the Courtauld Gallery from 18th June until 20th September 2015, for further information or to book visit here.