Does it matter if an artist is dead or alive?

If somebody were to ask me whether I preferred Lucien Freud or David Hockney, then I am not sure what my answer would be. This is mainly to do with the fact that the two artists have little in common besides gender, dates and nationality, and the fact that both currently have large survey shows on at major London galleries. However, it is this last similarity which throws into contrast their biggest difference, and this is that David Hockney is alive whilst Lucien Freud is dead. The question is; does this matter?

Bearing in mind both exhibitions were planned with the respective artists, ‘Lucien Freud: Portraits’ being organised before his death, then the answer should be no. After all, both exhibitions had similar origins, and it is only by accident that one is a last testament. If anything it should be Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Picture’ at the Royal Academy which generates more interest as it is all new work, and uses what Rachel Campbell-Johnston calls ‘a completely new method of depiction’. However, without being disrespectful to an excellent artist and a breathtaking show, there is something about Freud’s show which intrigues me.

Lucian Freud in front of his work

I think this is to do with ghosts. The ghost of Lucien Freud undoubtedly haunts his show at the National Portrait Gallery, and is manifested not just in the many self-portraits, but in every work where his predator-like gaze has captured the subject. However, it is there for us to see and capture with our own gaze, and is almost like inspecting a crime scene whilst safe in the knowledge that the danger has passed. We are free to be not only viewers but voyeurs. This contrasts to the show of a living artist like Hockney. In a show such as this, the ghost cannot be seen but felt. This ghost is the spirit of Hockney, and manifests itself in us the viewers. This is because we do not feel as liberated to pass judgement upon works which are the footprints of a live man, rather than the relics of a man who has passed away. Whilst the landscapes Hockney shows are pre-seen, the paths to understand and engage with them are not, and must be trodden down by the individual. This is an even more intimidating task when the fear of rebuke or being corrected by the artist exists.

David Hockney and Martin Gayford in front of Hockney's work

Does it matter if an artist is dead or alive? This is not a question which relates to the quality of art, but to the quality of our viewing. It is the difference between an intimate conversation with a stranger, and reading their diary. If somebody were to ask me whether I preferred Lucien Freud or David Hockney, in mind of their recent shows, then I would have to refer to Robert Frost. I take the path less travelled by, and it does make all the difference.


Polly Warrack

Image1 – Artnewsblog

Image 2 – Gerryco