UNFINISHING SCHOOL: When is a work of art finished?

Tom Shone in More Intelligent Life:

Unfinished 13. Neel_James Hunter Black DrafteeSitting for the painter Alberto Giacometti was a time-consuming business. Starting at around 3pm, a session would continue until midnight, at which time Giacometti would break for dinner at a nearby brasserie before returning to put in another hour or so. An average portrait took 20 meetings. “Because I was able to go on sitting, he was able to go on painting,” wrote David Sylvester in “Looking at Giacometti”, in which he records the artist layering his canvas with impasto so thick, he would then have to scrape some off in order to proceed. “Cezanne never really finished anything,” said Giacometti. “That’s the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.”

What were the reasons for his inability to finish? The 20th century is famous for its prolonged assault on the Renaissance notion of art as a finished artefact – the diligent end-product of a master craftsman. “A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned,” said W.H. Auden, in a nod to Paul Valéry. With “The Waste Land”, T.S. Eliot replaced classicism with an aesthetic of fracture; Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, which collapsed figurative painting, was left deliberately unfinished; Rodin made a fetish of Michelangelo’s incompleteness, which in turn became the defining aesthetic of the 20th century, the messy, sometimes explosive exploration of process supplanting the fruits of that process: a polished, finished product. Ours is the era of the smudge and scuff, rip and blur – the artistic equivalent of pre-distressed jeans.

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