Famous as the inventor of the modern day encyclopaedia, and for mistakenly believing that pillows tied around his head would save him from Mount Vesuvius’ toxic fumes, Unfinished at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House is proof, if it was ever needed, that Pliny the Elder can comfortably claim artistic understanding amongst his list of achievements.
For what an insight we get. Three small rooms tactfully divide ‘Unfinished’ pieces of work from ‘The Second Hand: Reworked Art Over Time’ work that has been remodelled and reappropriated by subsequent artists. Together, the exhibition offers a glimpse not only into the working of some of the world’s most famous masters, but the changing and combative approach artists and art historians have had to what they consider ‘finished’ works of art.
In the first room, Curator Dr Karen Serres offers up a romp through the story of history of art, where she has cherry picked a small sample of the best pieces of unfinished art work by some of the greatest masters. Different painting techniques are on show, from renaissance master Perino de Vaga whose highly finished infant child in Holly Family with Saint John the Baptist sits in on the lap of the loosely sketched Virgin Mary, barely touched at all; right through to Edward Degas’ Lady with a Parasol whose entire painting, rather than being finished bit at a time, was sketchily brought together as a whole.
More important are the questions raised by Paul Cezanne’s work Turning Road (Route Tournante) that critics believed to be unfinished for many years because of the gaps left between squares of colour that showed the naked canvas, but was probably considered complete by the artist himself, who made many similar pieces. When is artwork finished? Who decides? James McNeil Whistler, by contrast, found Girl With Cherry Blossoms preserved by those who considered it a perfect work of art after he ripped it to pieces.
In the second and third rooms, The Second Hand: Reworked Art Over Time, curated by the Courtauld's MA students, deals with the impact of reworking old artists and raises questions about artistic ego. When Peter Paul Rubins painted over Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, was he asserting the triumph of Baroque painting over the Renaissance?
Two paintings that deal most glaringly with what it means to rework art are two macabre images by Jake and Dinos Chapman, One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved. Original unknown portraits were, in the artists’ own words, “ripped from their frames, and sort of abused,” mutilated and given sores and blemishes and the inky imprint of teeth coming through a Victorian image, like someone possessed.
Courtauld exhibition highlights
Some of the best art to find at Somerset House this summer includes the unfinished Italian Renaissance masterpiece, Perino del Vaga’s Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist and Edgar Degas’s Lady with a Parasol, which remained uncompleted in the painter’s studio until his death. You'll also want to see unfinished sketches by William Turner and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and of course Rembrandt Cézanne’s ambiguous Route Tournante (1902-6) that got controversially rejected by the Parisian Academy!
In the heart of Somerset House, the Courtauld Gallery is one of our favourite small museums in London with a cracking international reputation for Impressionist and Modern Art collection. With some works showcased for the public for the very first time, this exhibition is a sure fire hit thanks to its unique and surprising content.
|What||Unfinished, Courtauld Gallery|
|Where||Courtauld Gallery, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Charing Cross (underground)|
18 Jun 15 – 20 Sep 15, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Price||£8.50 for adults|
|Website||Click here for more details|