Ira Goldberg on Unfinished at the Met Breuer

I want to urge everyone who hasn’t seen Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible at the Met Breuer to see it before it closes on September 4. It’s a wonderful show well worth repeat visits.

Unfinished is a mix of diverse works spanning the Renaissance up through the contemporary era, connected only by the “unfinished” quality of the work. Yet that description does not suit every work, as many leave no indication that they are anything less than finished. Time’s impact on much of the art over the years that does fit the description renders their “unfinished” state complete, requiring no further additions; its “as is” state informs 
us about process and how the masters thought about the art they created.

The experience of seeing these works is like being in the artist’s studio: you become privy to what is not meant to be seen. You feel oddly intimate with each artist who is comfortable enough to invite you in to see the art not fully clothed. Among the offerings are paintings by Titian, Rembrandt, van Eyck, Rubens, Picasso, Cézanne, de Kooning, van Gogh, Freud, Degas, Corot, David, Monet, Homer, and many others. 

It’s an interesting experience to see these works in their various states of incompleteness. After 400 years, Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, Portrait of Pietro Aretino, and Tarquin and Lucretia to me defy any definition of unfinished. Other works, like Picasso’s The Charnel House, needed to be left as is in order for to more eloquently state his observations about the carnage in occupied France.

Franz Hals, The Smoker, ca. 1623–25. Oil on wood, Octagonal, 18 3/8 x 19 1/2 in. Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Frans Hals, The Smoker, ca. 1623–25. Oil on wood, Octagonal, 18 3/8 x 19 1/2 in. Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Met Breuer Unfinished

If anything, the exhibition causes us to redefine the concept of “unfinished” in how it applies to art, forcing us to come to terms with that which is better left “unsaid.” Lucien Freud’s small self-portrait painted when he was 80, shows his face from mid-forehead to the top of his mouth in loosely brushed paint; the rest of the picture, a thin under-drawing in charcoal, evokes a sense of the aging artist that its unfinished state more expressively describes. How many times have we heard the precept “less is more” as a guide to making art? Think of Michelangelo’s Slave series of unfinished figure sculpture in the Accademia in Florence. Frans Hals’ The Smoker, which I’ve looked at over the years, never having thought of it as less than complete, begs the question again. Hals’ brushwork often reveals a painterly texture which enhances the artistry of his pictures.

I was struck by Velázquez’s Portrait of a Peasant Girl, considered unfinished for the lack of paint applied to the sitter’s jacket, only outlined on the painting ground. It demonstrates the artist’s extraordinary facility with paint combined with his perception of the humanness and pathos of his subject, comparable to his paintings of dwarfs at the Prado in Madrid.  Similarly, Rembrandt’s portrait of  Saint Bartholomew is a great example of the hand of the master, although its unfinished state is more notable in that the volume in the head and hand of the sitter stands out of the rest of the painting.

For me, the Titian’s Marsyas, made the strongest impact. It was painted during the last six years of his long life. Equal to the appreciation of this masterpiece that could have only been painted by the maestro in the twilight of his career (the seamlessness of the picture makes it look like a completely intuitive exercise), were my own realizations of changes I had experienced since first seeing the work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in the winter of 1986  when it was on loan from the Kromeriz Palace in the Czech Republic. What rapture then! I remember looking at it with an eye for composition, color, and the facility of paint in the hands of one of the greatest artists in history. It was thrilling to see. During my four hours in the museum, I kept returning to Marsyas. I would somehow receive even more instructive signals from this revelatory tour de force with each viewing.

Thirty years of life experience and art study later I found myself at the Metropolitan Museum’s new annex, and I understood that Marsyas is so much more than a beautifully-realized linear armature upon which to drape oil and pigment. I’m now compelled by the story of the satyr musician who lost a competition with Apollo and paid so dearly; the drama for which I have raised the curtain, more aware of the theater of life. Now having lived through more time than awaits me, it’s time to assess the progress of my journey, and what better muse to enlighten me in my new phase of life than the one that drew me in more than three decades ago. Now there is a fable, an interpretation of the penalties for hubris and presumption and whether one should surrender to one’s perceived fate or take a stand against it.

I’m sure most of you have had favorite works of art that you’ve examined repeatedly over the years. They keep us engaged as great art does, telling us more with each viewing and over time we have grown to accept more with our own maturity as viewers and artists. It’s wonderful to have our appreciation for the masters continue to develop as we do. 

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