y the turn of the twentieth century the problem of the unfinished print had been taken to its furthest reaches--the possibility of a work of art in a perpetual state of becoming. All barriers had been effectively breached and the matter of unfinish transformed from a practical and philosophical problem to a precondition of modernity. In certain conspicuous instances the question of finish could be indefinitely suspended. Alternately accepting and rejecting the implications of its technological foundation, the print had its own contribution to make to modernist aesthetics. The provisional nature of the unfinished "state" presupposing some final version had by this time been well authorized as a work of art worthy of exhibiting and collecting in its own right. Hence, the dictum attributed to Rembrandt that a work of art is finished whenever its maker determines it to be was superseded by a wider claim to subjectivity, extending the prerogative to include the beholder as well. "When is it complete and when is it not complete? I don't think one can say what one longs for" (Jasper Johns, 1981).
Mary Cassatt, who spent the better part of her career in Paris, was an important innovator in color printing as well as in her subject matter. This sequence demonstrates her approach to making a color etching, beginning with a drawing and proceeding through successive states to the final stage when the plate was published as an edition. Cassatt was one of the first artists to exhibit proof states as self-sufficient works and a demonstration of process.
Jacques Villon's ten variant proofs of La Parisienne deviate from the norms of printmaking: there is no definitive state, no known final edition, and no apparent attempt to create uniformity. Instead the artist was absorbed in varying color and impression. The sequence begins with the impression in black (proof 1). Villon went on to introduce additional plates and colors. In the third proof he included color notes as a guide for the printer. In the fifth he cropped about an inch from the plates at bottom and left; and in the ninth he heavily burnished out most of the background, severely reducing the ornateness of the interior and edging the image toward abstractness. Villon's experiments with La Parisienne chronicle his artistic development into relative abstraction. At the turn of the century, the condition of "unfinish" had become an essential aspect of modernist thinking.
On the basis of the Gallery's proof impressions, and extrapolating to other extant proofs, the case can be made that Villon's development of the print was undertaken in three distinct campaigns. The first comprised the initial working of the plate(s) and elaboration of the ornate setting, the "additive" phase of the print's evolution (proofs 1-4). The artist's cropping of the plates signals the second campaign, which took a "subtractive" course toward simplicity and the beginnings of abstraction (proofs 5-9). The third and last campaign included both additive and subtractive changes, which further extended the work's shift toward abstraction (proof 10).
These monotypes come from Gauguin's Tahitian period and were created in ways that are both direct and complex. Partly because of his geographical isolation Gauguin worked with relatively simple materials. His techniques permitted a considerable tolerance of accident, causing irregularly textured patterns, broken lines, and intermittent blotches on the images. Hence these prints fall distantly into the tradition of the constructed fragment, an initially romantic idea transformed into a consciously "primitivist" aesthetic.
Copyright © 2008 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC