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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

When Is It Finished?

As just about any artist will tell you, the final, decisive act in painting is that of telling oneself, "This work is finished." It may well be the most difficult decision in the entire painting process. It's a decision that has bedeviled every artist from Leonardo to the kindergartner daubing around with his or her first strokes of tempera. It never used to bother me too much when I relied more heavily in painting from a single photo than I do now. I'd cover the canvas, go back the next day and touch it up a bit, then, presto, it was done. However more recently, in working on more complex pieces, usually from multiple photos, and often dealing with conceptual themes, it's gotten more difficult. I used to post "in progress" work on my Web site asking friends to comment and offer expert guidance. That helped, although it may also have lengthened the agony in some cases. Now, my touch-ups often stretch over several days. 

Woman in Blue, 1937, Henri Matisse. The initial painting (using the model) is at right, the final version on the left. 
Artists down through history have dealt with this problem in a number of interesting ways. Leonardo may have simply chosen to keep the Mona Lisa, reportedly working on it over a period of years, thus postponing the decision forever. Matisse, on the other hand, seems to have enjoyed the "touch-up" period more than any other part. He'd hire a model, cover his canvas, (as illustrated above, right) and then spend days, even weeks, without the model perfecting his image (above, left) thus saving costly modeling fees, if nothing else. I've also written about Titian during the Renaissance, who became so fond of a hand and arm he'd painted  as part of a double portrait, he chose to paint out everything else, turn the canvas 90-degrees, and then begin anew, building a whole new painting (below, left) utilizing the hand and arm from the first ( see 07-21-11). Other artists, Manet, for instance, was sometimes known to "finish" his paintings by cutting them apart and framing different sections separately. These are extreme solutions of course, but also the stuff which makes life interesting for curators, restoration experts, and art historians.
Titian's Venus with a Mirror, 1555.
The left arm was once a part of a
double portrait.
Harry Cooper and Ron Spronk have investigated this sort of thing. In particular, they chose to look at the way Piet Mondrian handled the "when is it finished?" question. Cooper and Spronk several years ago worked as curators for Harvard University's Busch-Reisinger Museum. They mounted a show titled, "Mondrian: The Trans-Atlantic Paintings" made up of eleven paintings by Mondrian each having undergone high-tech detective work studying the apparently excruciating period of indecision Mondrian seems to have gone through in completing these particular works. There is evidence of much scraping away of dried paint, repainting, and repainting the repainting. Using electronic devices employing ultraviolet light, infrared light, x-rays, and digital imaging, they were able to probe the indecision, and the revaluation process Mondrian seems to have grappled with as he strove to complete each work. Actually there were some 17 paintings in which Mondrian made major changes as long as several years after apparently completing them. The owners of six of the Trans-Atlantic paintings refused to loan them because of the fragility of the paint itself, owing to Mondrian's painted alterations.
Ron Spronk examines x-rays of Mondrian's
Rhythm of Black Lines and Composition No. 7.

In 1940, Mondrian left London and visited New York. There he arranged a one-man show of his work. In returning to London, inspired by the highly charged atmosphere of New York and his American experience, Mondrian decided to revise the 17 paintings he planned to show in New York to be more in line with what eventually evolved into a totally different style--a new era in his work. Until Cooper's and Spronk's work, the only evidence of this has been the fact that these works bore two different dates. However, as these paintings have aged, the changes made by the artist have become more and more noticeable, the paintings themselves essentially "giving away" the artist's secret insecurities about his work. Until Cooper and Spronk got their hands on the Mondrians, no one had any idea how they looked before Mondrian touched them up. There were no photos and only sketchy written accounts of the original images.

Composition in Red, Blue, and
Yellow, 1928, Piet Mondrian
Ironically, once Mondrian took his newly altered work to New York for the show, the critics were either indifferent, or less than kind. What Mondrian had attempted to do was to bridge the gap between his former simpler style, as seen in works such as Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow from 1928, and a new, more linear, more complex, New York style as seen later in his famous Broadway Boogie Woogie series. The altered paintings illustrate the folly of such an effort as well as the validity of the old adage many artists, myself included, have all too often ignored--leave well enough alone.

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43,
Piet Mondrian

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