Buy now, art later

Daring concept: trusting art collector buys promise of a future painting by Maltese artist Etienne Farrell.

Intrigued by a pristine white canvas with a single, curious detail – a small square partially covered with gold leaf in the upper-left corner – an art collector was willing to fork out €1,000 for a mystery painting which will not be finished until next year.

This is not a prank but part of a daring new concept by Maltese artist Etienne Farrell. Titled ‘2024’, the work remains a canvas of pure potential, waiting for the current year’s events to be etched onto its surface. Will it be a portrait of triumph or a reflection of turmoil? Only time, and Farrell’s creative hand, will tell.

‘2024’ by Etienne Farrell (unfinished)

The unfinished work was part of ‘Ħamsin’ (‘Fifty’), a unique exhibition held last February in Qrendi, comprising 50 paintings that chronicled Farrell’s life, with each piece representing a year from her birth in 1974 to the present day.

“It is difficult to explain the impulse to buy ‘2024’,” the anonymous collector confided to The Journal, “but art either resonates with you or it does not.” He dived in headfirst, not even bothering to ask the price. “Art transcends price tags,” he said. “It is a personal connection, not a commodity to be haggled over, especially when buying directly from the artist.” Perhaps the fact that he had already acquired Farrell paintings before helped make his decision to take this leap of faith easier.

How does he wish the finished work to look like? “It will totally depend on the artist but the use of gold leaf as a point of departure is a promising sign!” he replied with a smile. “What truly draws me to Etienne’s work is that it embodies her enigmatic spirit and genuine love for life and people. As someone who loves colour, I would not mind a vibrant piece, but I know reading this will not sway her process. She will create what she envisions, regardless.”

The painting’s final hanging spot is also a mystery, for now. “I want the artwork to speak for itself first. Art is a journey, after all. You cannot anticipate the artist’s vision, but when the final piece reveals itself, it becomes a beautiful conversation between your emotions and what is on the canvas. Of course,” the art collector adds, “the artist’s intent and the viewer’s interpretation do not always have to align. That’s part of the beauty of art.”

Etienne Farrell

To gain the artist’s perspective we spoke with Etienne Farrell herself, who is renowned for always pushing the boundaries of audience engagement. We were curious: why exhibit an unfinished piece and how will she approach completing it now that a collector eagerly awaits its completion?

At her 50th birthday exhibition the first painting, titled ‘1974’, represented her birth year, while the last was titled ‘2023’. This created a sense of finality which she was not comfortable with, so she added a 51st painting titled ‘2024’, symbolising her ongoing life journey. However, this final piece had to remain unfinished as the exhibition opened only a month and a half into the current year.

“I wondered if anyone would be bold enough to trust me and buy the painting unfinished,” Etienne admitted. “The eventual buyer was already familiar with my work, having purchased pieces from me before. I am happy it will find a home with him.”

‘Ħamsin’. Photo:

The question of when the final painting will be completed hangs in the air. “We will have to wait until the year unfolds,” the artist replies, “and see what experiences it brings. I will paint it all at once, capturing the essence of the entire year, not piece by piece.” But why the golden square on the canvas already, displayed since January?  “It’s a celebration,” she explains, “a marker of reaching my 50th year, the golden anniversary of my birth.”

Etienne admits that, knowing the buyer for ‘2024’ does influence her a bit. “There is a sense of responsibility throughout the year, knowing I have this unfinished piece waiting to be completed for a specific collector. But that will not compromise my artistic integrity. If the year takes a turn for the worse, the painting will reflect that, even though I am aware that the buyer enjoys colourful works.”

As 2024 continues to unfold, both artist and collector embark on a unique artistic adventure. The finished piece, a chronicle yet to be written, promises to be a captivating conversation between art and the year it embodies, a conversation that will surely resonate long after the final stroke is made.

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