The Unfinished show has an intriguing subtitle: “Thoughts Left Visible.” The exhibit showcases works made over some 600 years, which offer glimpses into the creative process and sometimes reveal artists’ anger or despair.
Curator Andrea Bayer says that unfinished works can still be masterpieces. She cites a small, exquisitely detailed drawing Jan van Eyck made in 1437, in preparation for a painted panel.
Saint Barbara sits on a hill near a looming Gothic tower. She holds a thick book and long, graceful palm leaves. The young woman is drawn in black, on a pale background. Van Eyck paints in just a few birds against a blue sky. “And then he stopped,” says Bayer, and declares, “It’s a masterpiece.” No one knows why van Eyck didn’t apply paint to the rest of the panel. But he signed and dated it, which usually means an artist thinks it’s finished.
Rembrandt was once asked why so many of his works look half-finished. He replied: “A work of art is complete when in it the artist has realized his intention.” Rembrandt implies that it’s up to the artist to decide, not to critics, who may say a work appears raw, lacking a complete appearance.
Paul Cezanne, who was never satisfied, rarely signed his works. In a letter to his mother, he wrote that finishing things was a goal for imbeciles.