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Figures “Unfinished”: On Process and Met Breuer’s “Thoughts Left Visible”
“I can’t help but be reminded of all the times I had put off major revisions in my manuscript in favor of tinkering with the minor.”
This spring I spoke at the launch of the Met Breuer Gallery for its inaugural exhibition, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” The Met invited artists across disciplines—from choreographer and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell, to actor/producer Gina Belafonte, to brewer John LaPolla—to discuss their practice in conjunction with the artwork. True to its name, “Unfinished” is a curation of works by Titian, Picasso, Klimt, Pollock, and others at various stages of incompleteness—offering rare glimpses of the work during the creation process when we as viewers are only accustomed to experiencing the finished “product.”
As a writer who spent almost a decade tinkering with her first novel, Re Jane, and is now at work on her second, I could not help but view “Unfinished” through the lens of writing and editing. As they say, a manuscript is never actually finished; it’s wrestled out of the writer’s hands by her editor. I found myself drawing continual parallels between painting and writing. The works in this exhibition can serve as visual cues—an artistic blooper reel, if you will—that can help us better understand our own writing process.
I was matched up with a portrait of the Duchess of Huéscar by the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs. What was most striking about this Spanish noblewoman was not the detailed folds of the rich, red fabric draped around her shoulders, the intricate carvings of her chair, nor even the gold ring and key she held in her hands; it was that her face, as well as the dog in her lap, were complete blanks.
In Mengs’s painting, the “template” is there: the familiar seated portrait pose, along with markers of class, society, and times: the subject’s dress, the gold objects, the lapdog, even. It’s an artistic approach I understand, as I also leaned on a classic scaffolding for my novel—I used the structure of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre, to tell the story of a mixed-race Korean orphan named Jane Re. I painted a portrait not of Victorian England or eighteenth-century continental Europe, but the worlds I knew: Flushing, Queens and Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn at the turn of the millennium.
But templates do not a novel—nor painting—make. When you look closely at the portrait of the Duchess, her face had been painted but scraped away, suggesting revisions. Perhaps the Duchess had a stand-in model. Or maybe Mengs was unhappy with his rendering of her face and decided to obliterate it, hoping to start afresh. In looking at the disconnect between the Duchess’s intricate clothes and the blank of her face, I can’t help but be reminded of all the times I had put off major revisions in my manuscript in favor of tinkering with the minor—detailing the accoutrements of the thing rather than the thing itself. Call it artistic procrastination.
It is difficult to nail a character portrait on the first, or even tenth, try. Specific subject details—a facial expression, a verbal tic, a particularly wrought—or laconic—syntax—are what invite us as viewers, as readers, to relate to a character’s journey, but they can also be the most difficult for an artist to capture. The Duchess may very well have undergone a number of iterations, just as my protagonist Jane did— and not just cosmetic ones. Jane’s voice was in my head, but in early drafts I could not translate it to the page. At one point I sent Jane off to a boarding school—hewing closely to the template of Jane Eyre —only to find she came back a little too all-knowing, her dialogue a little too bookish; she had no room to grow. So I, too, had to scrape away that version, among other failed attempts. I brought her back to Queens, and the course of the novel became her journey of “getting out” and discovering her identity along the way.
In “A Young Man,” Sir Joshua Reynolds captures the subject’s sharp cheekbones, the shadows of his jawline, the slightly upward and sideways gaze of his eyes, poised in a determined, thoughtful expression. Yet the well-developed face is at the expense of the rest of his body as well as the background, and the effect is a disembodied head floating amidst hastily painted clouds. This nebulousness pervades the painting: We have no markers of time nor the subject’s societal status; we have nothing in which to contextualize that thoughtful facial expression. In paintings, as in novels, subjects cannot exist in a vacuum. Reynolds’s portrait is the painterly equivalent of fleshing out a character before constructing plot. Part of testing a character’s mettle is placing her in different contexts and seeing how she reacts—even if her essential core is known to her creator. I wrote scenes of Jane at home, on the subway, at the bar. But the scenes repeated in a cyclical vortex and generated little forward movement. They felt like episodic moments that bore no true connection to each other. No new information was revealed to me about who she was. I also wrote fake diary entries for Jane that I knew would never make it to the real novel, along with inventories of her bookshelves, fridge, and closet. I was getting to know her voice, but they did not advance her story.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Portrait of a Young Man” (1770) www.metmuseum.org
There is a technical precision to Adolph Menzel’s “Altar in Baroque Church” that reads more architectural blueprint than artistic expression—right down to the blue pencil work. The “scaffolding” of the church altar—the painting’s main subject that takes up most of the canvas—is sketched out in exacting detail, as if it were a paint-by-numbers guide Menzel created for himself. It’s an artistic approach akin to my novelist colleagues who extensively outline their plots, staking out the forest before painting in each leaf of each tree branch.
Adolph Menzel, “Altar in a Baroque Church” (1880-1890) www.metmuseum.org
Similarly, the scaffolding of Jane Eyre— a novel broken down in three volumes—follows an Aristotelian three-act structure. Jane’s narrative is peripatetic, but what happens to her is not random or episodic; there is a purpose to each leg of her journey. Re Jane has a similar structure: Part I is Jane leaving Queens for Brooklyn, Part II is Jane’s travels to Seoul to learn more about her family’s roots, and Part III is Jane’s return home with a renewed sense of self-identity.
As I rounded out the context in which Jane grew up, I found something odd happening: That carefully calibrated portrait I’d created of her was beginning to change. I pushed back the original time period by a decade in order to more accurately reflect the more conservative views of mixed-race children in Korean society. Jane now came of age in the pre-internet era; her New York growing up was one of graffitied subways with broken windows, not of rising condo prices and farm-to-table restaurants. There was a continual back and forth—as Jane’s “background” shifted, so too did her persona, and I found myself continually writing, scrapping, and rewriting anew.
Picasso’s “Portrait of Olga” is actually two sheets of paper on top of a larger sheet of paper, which Picasso then affixed to a canvas, creating a patchwork collage which feels, frankly, slapdash. Or maybe Picasso could not keep up with the flood of ideas, evidenced by his pencil drawings of the woman’s shoulders and torso that extend past the paper borders. I picture “Olga’s” literary equivalent: a heap of Post-Its stuck to notebook pages, the hasty scribbles of inspiration overflowing the sticky note borders. But rather than opening a new Word document and starting on a clean slate, imagine soldiering on with the haphazard Post-It/notebook mishmash—as Picasso seems to by painting the top half of the portrait in pastels instead of beginning with a new canvas. Then again, sometimes you have to see a draft through before abandoning it.
Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Olga” (1921) www.metmuseum.org
While some works of the Met exhibition were deliberately left “unfinished” by their creator, others were uncompleted due to factors not entirely known to us; a shortage of funds, a change in patronage, an aesthetic dissatisfaction with and abandonment of the work itself. One thing is clear: The collection illuminates the internal logic governing each artist’s creation; from rough charcoal doodles to splotches of painterly marginalia.
I am always groping for the precise metaphor to capture the writing and editing process. Running a marathon. Building a house. Rowing a one-oared canoe in pitch-black. The truth is, our process produces unintelligible heaps, more often than not scrawled in a code discernible to only the writer herself. Perhaps this is why I latched onto the paintings in “Unfinished.” For the first time, we are presented with visual markers that guide us through an artist’s creation process. I found these paintings—for all their erasures and regenerations—to be a useful tool for thinking about my own work. Art and writing can be viewed as analogous artistic processes—where finished and unfinished are fluid points on the spectrum of time.