Incomplete Works

The Belvedere Museum in Vienna is home to the world’s largest collection of Gustav Klimt paintings. As you wander the rooms, you pass portrait upon portrait of porcelain-skinned sitters lounging elegantly among gold leaf, no inch of the canvases untouched. All of which you will be prepared for: Klimt, after all, is the master of decorative excess — the artist of finishing touches. More surprising is what greets you as you leave the crowds clustered around “The Kiss”: Klimt’s “Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl.” Here, the sitter’s face and shoulders are finished with the artist’s characteristically intricate brushwork, but the rest of the picture is incomplete, the background blocked out in plain green wash, the foreground untouched. Roughly drawn lines demarcate sections that, had the portrait been finished, would have been filled with the usual flurry of decoration. Stripped of embellishment, Frau Zuckerkandl commands your full attention. The blank spaces offer an insight into how the artist composed his pictures, but also provide a platform for the viewer’s imagination. We are left wondering not only about what the finished painting would have looked like, but also about why the artist never finished it.  

From Mozart’s “Requiem” to the abandoned films of Welles, Hitchcock and Kubrick, unfinished works continue to fascinate, both in what they can reveal about the artistic process, and in the place they leave for the audience’s imagination. Over the last few years, the theme of incompletion has been the subject of two major exhibitions. The first, “Unfinished,” was held at the Courtauld Gallery in 2015, and the second, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” was the inaugural exhibition of the Met Breuer in 2016. Both shows approached the subject of unfinished artwork from various angles: they considered works that were left incomplete for circumstantial reasons (such as the death of the artist or withdrawal of financing), and works that explore the notion of incompletion intentionally — using their unfinished form as a platform for broader ideas. It turns out that Klimt’s “Amalie Zuckerkandl” falls into the first category: the artist was working on the picture when he died suddenly of a stroke in 1918. 

Alice Neel’s “James Hunter, Black Draftee” (1965), which hung in the Met Breuer’s exhibition, is a portrait of a soldier that was never completed because the sitter, drafted for the Vietnam War, could not return for his second sitting. Neel might well have finished the portrait from photographs, but, by leaving it incomplete, offers instead a powerful metaphor for the disruption to ordinary lives that military service entails — and hints at the risks that servicemen and women take on our behalf. Also in the Met Breuer’s exhibition was Robert Smithson’s installation “Mirrors and Shelly Sand” (1969-1970), which consists of a large heap of sand divided by mirrors at regular intervals. As the sand, incapable of retaining its shape, gradually spreads across the museum floor, the work accentuates impermanence and the erosion of form. The endless lifecycle of sand, constantly worn down into increasingly smaller particles, reminds us of the fate of all artworks, whose apparent completion is only ever illusory in the grand scheme of things.    

As Charles Baudelaire wrote, the very notion of incompletion is a constituent part of Modernism. In his famous 1863 essay, he elected the little-known artist Constantin Guys as the titular “Painter of Modern Life.” Guys, an illustrator and watercolorist who produced rapid, journalistic sketches of everything from the Crimean War to Parisian daily life, embodied, for Baudelaire, the fragmentary, transitory essence of modernity. Baudelaire’s choice of this rather humble painter was telling: unlike dominant 19th-century figures like Delacroix or David, Guys’s emphasis was not on the perfectly executed, finished artwork, but on the creative processes preceding it. 

In parallel, modern literature saw a similar movement towards incompletion, notably through a deliberate disruption to narrative form. The idea, originating from Aristotle, that a story should have a “beginning, middle and end,” with events neatly resolved in the final pages, might be seen to reflect a fundamental human desire to give order and meaning to life, for our existence to form a coherent and finite whole. In the 20th century, critics such as Walter Benjamin, Frank Kermode, and Peter Brooks started to analyze these inherited literary conventions and the assumptions that underpinned them. At the same time, writers experimented with new literary forms more apt to reflect real experience — as the novelist Iris Murdoch put it, “Since reality is incomplete, art should not be too afraid of incompleteness.” Highlighting the artifice of literature and the intrinsically arbitrary way in which any piece of writing is brought to a close, a whole host of literary practices began to emerge, interested precisely in incompletion. This includes the non-linear narratives of the nouveau roman, the endless lists and inventories of Georges Perec, the continuous reworkings and revisions of Francis Ponge’s poetry, the fragmentary, draft-like style of Roland Barthes’ late works, and the circular dialogue of Samuel Beckett’s plays. 

Another way to approach the question of incompletion is to look at the radical shift that took place in art and literary theory over the last century. Critics, artists and writers have increasingly emphasized the role of the viewer or reader as an active participant in the creation of an artwork’s meaning: a work is never finished, but constantly reconstructed by its audience. The idea of audience participation can be interpreted literally, as in Andy Warhol’s “Do It Yourself” painting series (1962), whose paint-by-numbers format invited the viewer’s involvement. Similarly, recent experimental literature, such as “hypertext fiction,” involving interactive, online texts, allows the reader to decide the progression of the narrative and the story’s conclusion. 

The same principle lies behind interactive cinema, whose growing success led Netflix to commission Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.” Released in late 2018, Brooker’s interactive film fuses traditional cinema with a videogame format. Its five alternate endings and the constant loops and options to “restart the game” mean that the cinematic conventions of linear progression and the straightforward conclusion determined by the writer/director are subverted. The film met with mixed reactions and the confusion of many viewers demonstrates that, even today, after 100 years of literary and artistic experimentation, certain expectations are hard to shake. 

The idea that art should abide by certain criteria, with well-defined formal characteristics and an omnipotent creator, resulting in a completed final product, may pervade. Yet, as Klimt’s extraordinary, unfinished “Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl” reveals, sometimes the most interesting and surprising results happen when, intentionally or accidentally, these criteria aren’t met. Perhaps, sometimes, the real revelations occur when the ending never comes. 

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.