Saturday, December 10, 2011

Unfinished paintings, perhaps: "No vanity's displayed..."

W.B. Yeats wrote, in what must be his best book of poems, The Winding Stair, a poem called "Before The World Was Made," and here is its first stanza:

If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity's displayed:
I'm looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

So I was rooting around in my folders filled with images from magazines and from my xeroxed drawings, and I found this wonderful picture, from a French magazine article on Ingres (from six? years ago?):

The "vide intérieur" of this portrait, (the "empty interior"), the caption on the lower left reads, echoes a passage from Flaubert's Sentimental Education.  But I wasn't clever enough to save the name of this work. It is exhibited in Le Musée Ingres in Montauban, France. One of Ingres's assistants painted in the background, and Ingres started in on the outline and figure.  The closest Ingres woman to this sketch, in pose and manner, is his "Madame Moitessier," from 1856:

Ingres was not interested, initially, in painting a portrait, but here we are.  I like the idea of the "vide intérieur"  passing through to this finished version; Madame's face is perfect, but rather out-matched by her dress.  If we look closely at the mirror image of her face, however, the less "finished" portrait, there is a kind of mystery (a mystery that Picasso's large faces would pick up on, years later).  I love the mirror image here, and that's what made me think of the Yeats poem, of the woman looking in "mirror after mirror" for the face she had "before the world was made."  I like the fact that the "world" of Ingres's portrait was not quite finished in that mirrored face ... not-quite-finished works appeal, because you can almost see the artist thinking. Take a look at this sketch, an Ingres work called "Woman with Three Arms," from 1859, three years after the portrait of Madame:

Wow.  Here, there are no draperies, no distractions. The face here is more "finished" than Madame's, I would argue; you can see the model clearly, here. The third arm here will help Ingres make a decision about where to place the arms on the woman on the far right border of his 1862 "Turkish Bath":

We can see that he made his decision ... her head is framed by her arms. Ingres was 82 when he painted this scene.  But the face of the (formerly three-armed) woman on the right is less complex and compelling than the "sketch" above...

I went to Picasso, next, who knew Ingres's work well; here is his "The Artist and His Model," from 1914:

This is a work emerging from Cubism ... Picasso had completed his best works in that mode by this point ... and we can almost feel the uncertainty here.  "What now?"the artist, and the painting, seem to be asking.  The unfinished work is playing figure against ground, the lines of an Ingres portrait against a less well-defined landscape ... because it is so open, so much a question, I find it fascinating.

One more, this from De Kooning, his "Seated Woman" of 1940, a "portrait" of Elaine, who would marry him three years later.  De Kooning's "Women" have divided critics.  I think they all descend from this sketch ... it feels, to me, just a bit unfinished ... and the beauty here appears and disappears, like the Ingres face in the mirror so many years before:

Matisse-ian, no? The fore-grounding of the figure here is clear, and yet... the powerful blues and oranges tend to overwhelm the body. De Kooning seems to be looking for Elaine's face, still.  On November 5, I had written that if we can see that the artist is still looking, the work feels unfinished ... here, I think, that is true. "I'm looking for the face ... [she] had/  Before the world was made."

No comments:

Post a Comment