The question of finish was crucial to the emergence of modernism. The gauntlet was first thrown down by Manet, whose works in the 1860s were declared by critics to be unfinished—in fact, not even paintings but mere sketches. Similarly, a few years later, Whistler was accused by the Victorian sage himself, John Ruskin, of doing nothing more than “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” But Baudelaire had already anticipated the howls of Manet’s and Whistler’s denigrators when he observed, in 1845, “that in general what is ‘completed’ is not ‘finished’ and that a thing ‘finished’ in detail may well lack the unity of the ‘completed’ thing.” From Manet and Whistler (or, indeed, from their predecessor Corot, who was the object of Baudelaire’s defense) until today, artistic modernism has been inseparable from the critique of finish. And this change in painting and sculpture occurred in tandem with similar developments in the other arts. Consider the difference, for example, between the omniscient narrator of the high Victorian novel and Flaubert’s style indirect libre, which depends on the reader making implicit connections and intuiting unmarked shifts in viewpoint; or, in the 20th century, the rejection by modernist architects of ornament—which had long been considered indispensable to a building’s finish—as something that, as August Perret remarked, “generally conceals a defect in construction.”
For all that, the force of the unfinished was far from a discovery of the 19th century, as Kelly Baum and Andrea Bayer point out in the catalog for “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” the exhibition they’ve curated with Sheena Wagstaff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.