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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Unfinished Masterpieces Can Be As Compelling As the Originals

Unfinished Masterpieces Can Be As Compelling As the Originals

Works of art are often left incomplete through war or artists’ death. Some are finished by other people; but most are made interesting by being abandoned.


On the April 2011 publication of David Foster Wallace’s novel, The Pale King, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst wondered in Britain’s Sunday Times at the attraction of unfinished works. ‘You don’t buy a jacket with one arm, so why seek out what amounts to a creative stump or narrative doodle?’

Wallace’s book came from 200 pages left stacked on his desk when he committed suicide in 2008, intertwined with fragments from his bin. For many readers, it’s a suicide note revealing the man’s state of mind.

Douglas-Fairhurst also cited Henry James’ short story The Middle Years about a novelist on his deathbed dreaming of the stories he might have written, as illustration that it’s the might-have-been bits which appeal to readers.

Unfinished Literature

In 2010, Nabokov’s The Original of Laura was published, reproducing his handwritten postcards so readers could shuffle the narrative into any order. Stieg Larsson, bestselling Swedish novelist, died of a heart attack in 2004 aged 50. He had planned 10 Millennium novels; three were published posthumously: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005), The Girl Who Played With Fire (2005) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010).

He’d almost completed the fourth. A legal dispute over royalties for his long-term partner Eva Gabrielsson, (Swedish law doesn’t recognise unmarried couples) attracted as much hype as the books themselves.

Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) artist, novelist, poet, illustrator, published the Gormenghast Trilogy (Titus Groan, 1946; Gormenghast, 1950 and Titus Alone, 1959) to generally critical acclaim. Influenced by Dickens and Stevenson, his experiences as a Second World War artist and fighting Parkinson’s Disease, his haunting imagery evoked epic fantasy worlds.

Peake had started a fourth, Titus Awakes, but was too ill to complete it. His widow, Maeve Gilmore wrote a version from fragments he’d left, Search Without End, in the 1970s, but it was not widely known about. A discovery of the fuller manuscript in 2010 in the family attic led to publication in 2011.

At his death in 1870, Charles Dickens’ had published six of twelve monthly parts of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Critic GK Chesterton said the book was: ‘designed by Dickens, but ultimately filled up by others. The Mystery of Edwin Drood showed how little others made of Dickens’ suggestions’.

Many sought to finish it. An 1870 attempt by American Robert Henry Newell was more parody. An 1873 version by Thomas James, praised by Arthur Conan Doyle, was sold as ‘ghost-written’ by Dickens himself.

Since then, others have attempted to second-guess Dickens. Movies in 1935 and 1993, television interpretations (2011), radio (1953) and theatre offered alternative endings. Drood (1985) was a musical comedy, still favoured by amateur companies.

Incomplete Film and Architecture

Evan Andrews published (2009) his top ten unfinished art works. Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, started in 1972, was planned as the ultimate expression of the martial arts for which Lee was becoming famous. He stopped to make Enter the Dragon, intending to finish Game of Death later.

He died of cerebral edema, aged 32 in 1973, leaving Enter the Dragon Director, Robert Clouse to splice 11 minutes of classic Lee footage with new to make a movie. Not all films are finished after death, however.

Orson Welles’ (1915-1985) left behind The Other Side of the Wind, which he’d been working on since the late 60s. When the Shah of Iran was ejected in the 1979 revolution, financial/legal disputes followed. It was never completed.

Andrews listed architecture, too. Moscow’s Palace of the Soviets, started in the late 1930s was to have been the world’s tallest edifice. War stopped it when the huge steel frame was recycled to make rail bridges and fortifications. Until about 1958 they intended to resume the project, but never did.

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a massive Roman Catholic cathedral under construction since 1882. It was Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece; he toiled for 40 years on it, but when he died in 1926, it remained unfinished. Since then, Spanish Civil and world wars, financial constraints, different architects and builders contributed to delays and controversies. Although incomplete, it’s both tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage site, consecrated as a minor basilica in November 2010.

Unfinished Poetry, Music and Art

For Andrews, a double album by Jimi Hendrix, First Rays of the New Rising Sun should feature in the top ten. Hendrix’s drug overdose death in 1970 was followed by disputes about copyright and ownership. His family finally won, and hired engineers and producers to convert nearly complete tracks with rough cuts to make an album. This appeared in 1997.

Shortly before he died in 1791, Mozart was commissioned to compose a Requiem for a man’s wife, which he may have come to believe was for himself. His death prevented completion, which was done by his student, Franz Sussmayr. Controversy about which parts are Mozart’s has continued to the present.

Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan is different from other incomplete works, as it was recovering from an opium haze that stopped the writing. Coleridge fell asleep reading a book about the Far East while taking laudanum. When he woke from his dream/stupour, he wrote 50 lines, and was then interrupted. When he returned to the writing, the vision had faded. The poem was unfulfilled.

The US dollar portrait of George Washington, known as The Athenaeum, was painted by Gilbert Stuart who deliberately didn’t finish it so he could produce copies at $100 each. He is thought to have made about seventy copies, but never finished the original before his death in 1828.

Leonardo da Vinci’s horse statue was left unfinished. He unveiled a 23-foot clay model of Gran Cavallo in 1492, as war between France and Italy broke out. Metal for the statue was used for cannons, which shows how people don’t always recognise artistic genius in front of them.

It also shows that creatives should finish their works, wherever possible, before death comes for them.

First published on Suite 101, 15 July 2011
Image: Sagrad Familia, Being Built Since 1882 – Bernard Gagnon

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