The Neverending Story: What Can We Learn from Unfinished Artworks?
In December 1911, 24-year-old Maria (Ria) Munk committed suicide. A year later, her heart-broken parents approached the painter Gustav Klimt and commissioned a posthumous portrait. For years, Klimt struggled with the task. His first two versions were not approved by the grieving family. He worked on his third attempt for a year, and in the midst of his work died of pneumonia. Maria’s portrait was left unfinished. A century later, Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk, painted in 1917-1918, was presented at the Met Breuer Museum in New York. The exhibition, titled Unfinished, was dedicated to incomplete works of art.
When visiting an exhibit, we usually expect to find complete artworks: finished, precise, prepared. While we are used to seeing ancient pieces, on which time has left its marks in the form of fractures, faded paint or missing parts, we mostly assume that we are seeing the piece in its finished form, as the artist intended to present it. Meeting an unfinished piece, however, is a completely different experience.
In the case of Klimt’s portrait, we can see much more than the technical process. Maria’s face is in a more advanced stage than the rest of the painting. She looks out, rosy-cheeked, at the viewer. Her pale skin nearly floats, pale, over the different layers of the painting, such as the expressive pencil sketch or the flowers surrounding her. Her face stands out over the visible erasures and repeated attempts, over Klimt’s fingerprints on the canvas which obscure parts of it, erasing, trying again and again.
As I stood in front of it I felt like one could almost get pulled into Klimt’s studio, to travel through space and time and feel his deep deliberations and anxieties as he tried, for the third time, to create a portrait which would meet the grieving parents’ expectation, and perhaps also his own. It was even somewhat comforting to meet, so intimately, the hesitations of such a renowned, virtuous artist as Klimt. But it was meeting the unfinished piece which told a new story about it. A piece whose beginning and end are linked, and in a way, made whole by death.
Thought, Process, Story. Future Plans.
A few weeks after visiting the exhibition, the unfinished work found me again, this time in a completely different context. In the summer of 2016, I began curating an exhibition on the actress and director Ronit Elkabetz at the Design Museum Holon. Elkabetz was a cultural icon — both in her homeland and internationally, portrayed by the NYT as having the “intensity of Maria Callas and [...] the haunting presence of Anna Magnani.” Elkabetz died in 2016, cutting short an illustrious career as an actress, director, and feminist. After meeting her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, who later became the exhibition’s artistic director, I began my research for the exhibition. I suddenly discovered how deeply involved Elkabetz was in dressing her character, both on screen and stage and off them. Elkabetz was involved in every detail of her appearance. She drew sketches in her personal diaries and meticulously planned each ensemble - from jewelry to shoes. Even her hair and makeup were an inseparable part of her iconic appearance.
At the beginning of the research, I found that fashion designers Yaniv Persy and Betty Eldad had four dress sketches drawn, but never completed, by Elkabetz. Elkabetz studied fashion design in High School and was experienced in fashion design and illustration. These were quick sketches, pencil or blue ballpoint pen on a Xeroxed electricity bill, with little handwritten notes hinting at the final outcome - the type of fabric (“Metallic silver!”) or inspiration (“Think Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). Elkabetz’s sketches gave a simple impression of the deep intentions behind them: Thought, process, story. Future plans.
These four sketches were sewn especially for the exhibition Je T’aime, Ronit Elkabetz, which opened on the eve of what would have been Elkabetz’s 53rd birthday, November 27th, 2017. The unfinished group of four ensembles in the exhibition, one of the most intricate and heartfelt for me, was born out of an intentional curatorial decision. The dresses were created in an elaborate process, taking nearly a year, with the creative overseeing of Ronen Levin. For example, a black wool riding coat and a black crinoline-dress designed by Eldad were both inspired by nineteenth-century garments. When working on the dress Elkabetz asked Eldad to make it gargantuan: “As huge as you think the crinoline is,” she told her, “It’s not big enough.”
Next to them, two of Persy’s designs were exhibited: a golden Cleopatra gown, decorated with 60 thousand sequins, each sewn by hand, in a laborious 1,000 hours endeavor. The other, titled the Pirate Gown, was created by Persy out of 50 meters of silk taffeta. The final design departing from reality, soaring to new, imaginary heights, leaving behind any practical use or a need for an actual body. The gown was placed over a podium and erected to four meters tall. When we started the work on the group I deliberately asked Persy and Eldad to leave the dresses unfinished, as if they were still waiting on mannequins, to be fitted to a client. The incomplete dresses, marked with pins and basting stitches(temporary stitches, meant to be unraveled) painfully symbolized the unfinished creative process.
The Incomplete, Broken and Flawed
In May 2018, the exhibition Fashion Unraveled opened at the Museum at FIT in New York. The exhibition, curated by Colleen Hill, was dedicated to the “aberrant beauty in flawed objects, giving precedence to garments that have been altered, left unfinished, or deconstructed.” One of the themes in the exhibition focused on intentionally unfinished garment.
Following the aesthetics of Wabi-sabi, a philosophy which embraces the imperfect, and sees the beauty in the incomplete, broken and flawed, intentionally unfinished-looking garments are characteristic of the work of many contemporary Japanese designers.
One of the most striking examples in the exhibition is a dress by Yohji Yamamoto, combining a tailored dress with a muslin (also known as “toile”). The muslin is the first model created by the designer, a kind of cloth-sketch from simple cotton muslin fabric. In Yamamoto’s dress, part of his 2000 collection, the sketch became the central element. Half of a tailored silk jacket is sewn onto the toile dress, lying gently over the mannequin’s shoulder. Yamamoto added stitch embroidery in red and black on the dress, inspired by Charles James’ famous muslins from the 1950s.
Facing, and contrasting with, Yamamoto’s dress, is an impressive dress from the early 19th century—ivory colored and decorated with raw-edged trimmings,uncharacteristic of the dresses of the time. Even more surprisingly, the dress was never finished. It was chosen for the exhibition from the museum’s collection after a meticulous examination, in which the museum's team found that some parts of it are still basted and were never properly sewn for wearing. This kind of dress, custom made, meticulously sewn and using quality silk and wool would have cost a fortune at the time - before the invention of the sewing machine. This type of clothing is rarely presented to the public. Often, imperfect clothes are not chosen by curators and are kept away from visitors.
Why was it never finished and left unworn? We may never know.
Looking at the dress, and thinking of the mysterious story behind it, reminded me of the many hidden secrets and stories kept between the seams of costumes collections. When these unravel for a moment they expose, as Klimt’s canvas or Elkabetz’s sketches do, thoughts, deliberations, stories, and processes. They represent plans and dreams of the future and carry with them an invitation to keep on looking. An unfinished creation, a lifetime.
A version of this article was originally published on Portfolio Magazine. Translated from Hebrew by Tom Atkins.