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E MUSEUMS: UNFINISHED MASTERPIECES AT THE MET

 LOGO_METROPOLITAN_MUSEUM_OF_ART_NEW_YORK
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GENIUS AT WORK

Roberta Smith, Senior Art Critic at the New York Times, has written a great piece of criticism, scholarship, and creativity in her January 9, 2014 article, The Fascination of the Unfinished,
on a number of unfinished paintings on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She describes how the concept for the piece came to her: 

I started thinking about unfinished canvases on my first, euphoric visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 
reconfigured galleries of European paintings last spring. Everything seemed new, even paintings I had seen 
scores of times ... Unfinished paintings are enticing cracks in the facade of art history, lures along 
the path to a deeper understanding of artistic processes and impulses.

Ms. Smith writes,

Unfinished paintings can feel contemporary because the history of Western painting
 is to some extent about an ever-increasing unfinishedness and loosening
 of surface. Think of the progression from the startling exactitude of 
van Eyck and the velvety brushiness of Titian to the painterly roughness
 of the Impressionists."

DO ARTISTS OWN THE MEANING OF THEIR OWN WORK?

Here are some examples of what Ms. Smith wrote. The images above are from the beautiful slideshow photographed by Suzanne DeChillo of The New York Times which accompanies the article.

n Durer’s “Salvator Durer "Salvator Mundi,”Christ’s face is unfinished. Friedsam Collection

n Durer’s “Salvator Durer “Salvator Mundi,”Christ’s face is unfinished. Friedsam Collection

In Gallery 643, you’ll find … Albrecht Durer’s touching “Salvator Mundi” from around 1505, also in oil on wood, provides another sight of concise underdrawing. Only the face, skillfully rendered in ink and adding a slightly otherworldly effect, more spirit than flesh, is unfinished.

In Gallery 801 [is] ‘Odalisque in Grisaille,’ painted by the master of smooth, Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (and his workshop), between 1824 and 1834. A smaller, more simplified version of Ingres’s imperious ‘Grande Odalisque’ (1814), which is in the Louvre, this work is so precise it resembles a photograph. Yet, unbelievably, it is unfinished. Look closely, and you’ll see signs of relative roughness in the sketchy foreground and dappled background, with the inner portion of the gleaming silk curtain at the right giving some notion of Ingres’s idea of finished.

A close look at Ingres’s “Odalisque in Grisaille,” left, reveals a sketchy foreground.

A close look at Ingres’s “Odalisque in Grisaille,” left, reveals a sketchy foreground.

In Gallery 607, it is hard to miss the large, marvelously rough oil sketch for Tintoretto’s “Doge Alvise Mocenigo (1507-1577) Presented to the Redeemer.” With a figure that might have been rendered by the 20th-century painter Giorgio de Chirico, white outlines defining clothing here and there and the lion of St. Mark obscured by a patch of dark paint that suggests a slightly sinister shadow, this elaborate scene was never meant to be more than a work in progress.

Above, a detail of an unfinished Tintoretto sketch featuring an outlined figure that would be at home in a 20th-century work. Below, the full sketch, which pays homage to a Venetian doge.

Above, a detail of an unfinished Tintoretto sketch featuring an outlined figure that would be at home in a 20th-century work. Below, the full sketch, which pays homage to a Venetian doge.

 As Roberta Smith stated in the “Fascination of the Unfinished,”

 Unfinished paintings are mysterious, even eliciting a slight sense of voyeurism, since we are looking at things that were supposed to be covered over but in the end were not. What halted their progress besides death, some loss of interest or failure of ambition? Perhaps it was the feeling, conscious or not, that the work was actually finished and would be recognized as such by coming generations?

In 2006, blog produced by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eye Level, noted that  “Roberta Smith, art critic for the New York Times, spoke on October 5, 2005 as part of the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series, sponsored by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.” One of Smith’s comments about her own work , as reported in the blog, remains true today ,

About her own criticism, Smith said that writing in more immediate publishing formats like the Village Voice emphasized the notion that artists ‘do not own the meaning of their own work’.

In a very unique way, Roberta Smith has created/curated her own exhibition at the Met. We hope that a larger exhibition, composed of unfinished works from a number of other museums, and a book, will not be far behind.

H/T Mark Dziamba

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