Friday, December 30, 2022

The Unf

The Unf. Strange word? Maybe, but then again, it is incomplete. Literally and figuratively. Literally, it should read "Unfinished." Figuratively, it refers to all the never-completed works of artists...

Throughout the ages, many (art)works have been created that have not been finished. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes because life - or rather, death - put a stop to it. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because of that never-completed stage, these works of art have become world famous. For years I have been intrigued by Keith Haring's Ünfinished" (1989).  I always felt that, although unfinished, it is exactly as Haring envisioned it. As if this work had to be that way. Recently I found critics saying the work is actually completed but purposefully left “unfinished” to make a statement about aids and his life. So, maybe my gut feeling was right.  

Keith Haring (detail) "Ünfinished".
Copyright Haring Foundation.

One of the oldest known unfinished works is Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Da Vinci began working on the Mona Lisa in 1503 and continued refining it until fourteen years later, in 1517. He interrupted work on the painting, probably because of arm injuries, and died in 1519 without ever getting around to resuming his work on the smiling diva. The unfinished painting never went to its commissioner, and Da Vinci was never paid for his work, but it did become one of the most famous works of art.

More recent, and literally closer for me, is the work "Victory Boogie-Woogie" by Piet Mondriaan. (Indeed, with two a's; exactly the way his name is written in Dutch). This work was still on the easel when Mondriaan died. Mondriaan had moved to New York in 1940 at the beginning of WW2 where he was finally free from German attacks. In 1944, it seemed the end of the war was near. Good news, bringing a sigh of relief to the world; Piet Mondriaan's reaction was no different. The colors represent everyone's elation. Some of the worst atrocities in human history would finally be over. (Although in most occupied territories, including The Netherlands, freedom did not come until 1945). "Victory Boogie-Woogie" makes the eagerness and joy for the light at the end of the tunnel tangible; even nearly eighty years later. Its purchase - the cost in over 82 million guilders, roughly €50M - caused a political and public uproar in The Netherlands. An expensive piece of national heritage. Even though it was made in the USA...

Gilbert Stuart, "Athaneum Portrait"
of George Washington.

Speaking of the USA. Perhaps the most widely used and nevertheless unknown unfinished work, is held by millions of people every day. At least, a copy of it. Although you may not recognize the name, you have certainly seen this famous artwork by Gilbert Stuart. Stuart is considered one of America's finest portraitists. Portraying George Washington was Stuart's dream, but he struggled to work with him. Washington, according to Stuart, was a rather dull interlocutor. As Stuart put it, "An apathy seemed to seize [Washington] and a void spread over his countenance, most terrible to paint." Despite this difficulty, he completed the iconic "Lansdowne portrait", a life-size painting of Washington, in 1796, the president's last year in office. But there is also a second, unfinished, portrait; the "Athenaeum Portrait" (its title referring to the Boston Athenaeum that acquired the portrait after the artist's death). Stuart never finished the portrait of his own accord and asked the president to keep it, a request that Washington granted. Stuart spent much of his life copying the portrait and selling copies of his famous artwork to earn a living until his death in 1828. So, is this the reason this portrait is so well known? Nope. You probaby recognize it as, since 1869, Stuart's painting of George Washington has graced the front of the U.S. one-dollar bill, although the bill looked very different than it does today.

Besides Haring's "Unfinished" I have another favorite work. Not really unfinished. It is the last drawing by the Belgian, surrealist, painter René Magritte. The last drawing on which, quite symbolically, he portrayed his hands for the last time. 

 (Sketch by Magritte - August 1967) 

I love Magritte's style and creativity. One of my first short stories, came about because of my admiration for his work "La Carte Blanche." It's not so much a title as a concept: "giving someone carte blanche." I gave my 1989 short story the same title.

Rene Magritte in his studio with
“La Carte Blanche”, 1965
(photo Duane Michals)

During the 16th century, thanks in part to the infamous precedents of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, both of whom left so many works of art incomplete - often deliberately - it became fashionable for artists to attempt unfinished effects. While the appreciation of unfinished artworks may seem odd, they did have a substantial impact on the art world. The technique, intentional or not, is called Non-Finito. (Italian for "unfinished"). There is no denying the charm of unfinished art, and as any artist will tell you, a significant portion of artworks, perhaps even most of them, remain unfinished. 

Unfinished art is everywhere and is an integral part of art as we know it. Parallels can also be found in literary art. Kafka's novel "The Trial," for example. Here, too, the incomplete has its function. If Kafka would have finished it, it might have been less interesting. Precisely because the story is about the endlessness of the law.

Anyway. With my abstract artwork "The Unf," I have already gotten a head start. Although, if the day ever arrives, I know there will be unfinished work of mine left here and there as well. Reality is usually wry. (Just read about it in the (free) Flash Fiction story I also conveniently called "The Unf"). 

But. Where there is an end, there is also a beginning. My Flash & Short story collection Vinyed 3, "In His Secret Heart" contains stories about the end as well as "A New Beginning." Why wait if you can finish something today? Order now and start reading today!

The Lyric Landscape "The Unf' (as pictured above) can be ordered as artprint in my printshop.