LONDON - In a matter of months, London will be hosting the Olympic Games. Not to be outdone by the sporting and commercial spheres, the city’s great art institutions have lined up a series of ambitious exhibitions for 2012, beginning with a blockbuster at the National Gallery about Leonardo da Vinci’s years in Milan, and moving on in the spring to retrospectives of two stars of the much-vaunted YBA, or Young British Artists, generation: Damien Hirst (Tate Modern) and Gillian Wearing (the Whitechapel Gallery).
But two of this Olympic year’s most formidable shows have just opened at the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy. The first is an overview of Lucian Freud’s portraits, the second an exhibition of landscapes by David Hockney.
Freud’s death last year at 88 gives the coincidence of the two shows a special poignancy: The two artists were longtime friends and mutual admirers. The Freud show includes a portrait of Hockney painted by Freud in 2002. Hockney, meanwhile, has contributed a brief and insightful appreciation of his friend to a publication accompanying the Freud exhibition.
Until his death, Freud was routinely described as “Britain’s greatest living painter,’’ a label the British press has now eagerly - and rather tactlessly - transferred to Hockney. (But who wants to earn laurels by default?)
Hockney, for his part, seems marvelously untouched by such things. At 74, he is an artist confident in his own path, exemplary in his energy, his curiosity, and what can perhaps best be described as his preternatural knack. Again and again, he just pulls things off.
Hockney’s way of working and indeed his whole temperament are about as far from Freud’s as it is possible to imagine. Where Freud’s work captures, like no other artist before him, the heaviness of being - the sheer effort, leavened only by a slow infusion of the erotic, of occupying a body, maintaining a living presence - Hockney’s art tries to crystallize something lighter and breezier, but affecting in its own right: the joys of color, light, pattern. Against Freud’s congested physicality, he posits a sort of swarming, mischievous, light-fingered loveliness.
Unlike Freud, who has said, “My idea of travel is a downward travel, really. Getting to know where you are, better, and exploring feelings that you know more deeply,’’ Hockney is always on the move, mentally and literally, skimming insights and ideas from wherever he goes - the Grand Canyon, the fjords of Norway, and increasingly in his twilight years, his native Yorkshire.
Landscape, then, is a fitting subject for his show at the Royal Academy, which is one of the freshest, most innocently exhilarating exhibitions I’ve seen in years.
The show is focused on his recent work - a torrent of oils, watercolors, and even iPad drawings, some of them executed on a massive, enveloping scale, others smaller and sketchier but hung here in grids that adorn whole walls.
By no means do all these paintings impress. The failure rate is relatively high for a show by a major artist at such an august institution. And yet the cumulative effect is nothing short of intoxicating. There are bravura touches everywhere you look.
The vast scale of many of the works, their deceptive simplicity, and Hockney’s fondness for almost embarrassingly vivid colors all link these landscapes with his earlier involvement with stage design. (He has painted sets for productions as diverse as “Ubu Roi’’ and “Turandot.’’)
The love of patterning, meanwhile - dashes and dots in complementary colors and stylized plant motifs - links the landscapes with predecessors such as van Gogh and Matisse.
Beside such titans of early modernism, Hockney’s late work can look thin. But his ambitions are crucially different and deserve to be judged by distinct criteria. They are about freshness, style, wit, and a way of looking that is never as sustained or as intense as, say, Freud, or even Matisse, but which delights in a kind of casual ease. Hockney, no matter how overtly traditional he becomes, will always owe as much to the Teflon exterior of his old friend Andy Warhol as to the ardor of van Gogh.
Happily, the show opens with a series of Hockney’s early landscape-oriented works, including several in the flat, Pop-oriented but still painterly idiom that made him famous in the 1960s.
These are among the liveliest, most original achievements of that decade. “Flight Into Italy,’’ with its rainbow stripes for the Alps, its ghoulishly blurred figures, and its humorous snippets of text (“thats Switzerland that was’’) has the joie de vivre of a Jacques-Henri Lartigue photograph or a “Jackass’’ caper.
We also see snippets of slightly later work, including Hockney’s California landscapes, some large-scale photo-collages (his most underrated body of work), the Grand Canyon paintings, and a series of Yorkshire landscapes made in the late ’90s. These last combine shifting perspectives with broad and boldly colored patterns to re-create the feeling of winding and tilting through undulating hills in a car.
Freud’s portrait of Hockney in the National Portrait Gallery show gets over some of his wry, conspiratorial demeanor. But mainly, in characteristic Freud fashion, it presents a Hockney stripped of his public persona, his social panache. It shows his head, instead, in all its fleshy reality: aging, exhausted, alert, concentrating. On what? On existing.
Freud’s portraits of humans have a visceral intensity which, in big exhibitions of his work, is somewhat relieved by his paintings of other subjects: horses, dogs, plants, views from the window, still lifes.
All these subjects have been excluded here, however, presumably because they fall outside the ambit of a portrait gallery. It’s a shame, but the show doesn’t suffer unduly.
Curator Sarah Howgate leads us from early pictures in Freud’s stylized, childlike idiom to fastidiously detailed paintings of uncanny intensity (some of them teetering on the edge of a neurotic romanticism) and, finally, room after eye-popping room of portraits - big and small, naked and clothed, singular and in small groups, heads and full bodies - all painted in Freud’s searching, densely congested mature style.
Not all the large-scale pictures are completely successful. But the hits are so many, and their effect so strong, that it’s impossible not to fall under their sway. These are pictures of intimacy as well as honesty, of affinities and attraction but also alienation, mortality, incipient ruin.
Above all, they are deeply involved. You look at pictures like the head portraits of Freud’s granddaughter Frances Costelloe and of his friends Francis Wyndham and Frank Auerbach, or at the full-length naked portraits of reclining women in the 1980s, or at the enormous “Big Sue’’ in “Sleeping by the Lion Carpet,’’ and you can’t help but be drawn into emotions that seem to sweep away the border between art and life.
DAVID HOCKNEY RA: A Bigger Picture
At: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Through April 9. www.royalacademy.org.uk
LUCIAN FREUD PORTRAITS
At: National Portrait Gallery, London. Through May 27. www.npg.org.uk
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.