Dilemmas: My brother's legacy is ruining my life

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Angie's brother was a talented but totally unsung artist. When he died a year ago, Angie promised she would get his 300

huge abstract pictures to as big an audience as she could. But no dealer nor auctioneer will have the paintings and she's

having to spend pounds 4,000 a year storing them. She says she just can't throw them away. What can she do?


Deathbed promises should never be asked for, made, or kept. It's so difficult to refuse a request, when someone's dying, to change your name to Scaremongering-Bonkers, to bring your child up a Moonie, or to marry Mr Wrong. And then, for ever after, when you've broken the promise, you feel like an utter swine, riddled with guilt like a cancer. Or, worse, when you've fulfilled the promise, you feel eaten up with resentment.

Angie's brother has left her a terrible legacy - a legacy of his own unrealised hopes and dreams and, ultimately, what he saw as his inadequacies.

First let's look at it in a practical way. The Tate apparently gets large numbers of letters from relatives in exactly the same position. So Angie's not alone. And as far as any friends I have in the art world know, there has been not a single painter who had absolutely no success at all before he or she died, who has later been hailed as a genius. So the chances of Angie's brother launching himself as a great, or even reasonably OK, saleable artist from the grave are, to all intents and purposes, zilch. Big abstract pictures by complete unknowns, as Angie's found out, have no market value at all these days.

If I were Angie I'd blow this year's storage money on renting a large warehouse and having a huge exhibition. She should make slides of those pictures that don't sell and then either destroy them or give them away as canvases for young students to work on.

But, of course, this isn't a problem that's just about selling pictures. It's about bereavement. And guilt is a common little devil after a death. Perhaps Angie feels that at some level she wasn't a good enough sister to her brother when he was alive and selling his pictures would assuage her guilt. Perhaps she can't bear to acknowledge his death completely and is hanging on to some part of him. Perhaps in some awful way it's worth pounds 4,000 a year to put off the day when she has to acknowledge that he's really gone. While she still has his pictures on her mind he is, in a way, still alive for her.

I wonder whether it would help to see his work as being a necessary part of a much larger picture.

Like seeds in a field, millions need to be sown for a few to come up. If Angie could see her brother's work as some of the crucially important seeds strewn around the abstract movement, would his life's work seem quite so meaningless? Only some are chosen to survive, and sometimes they're not the right ones and it's not always fair, but they can't all thrive because there simply isn't room. As it is, there have been more than 10,500 "name" artists at work in Britain and North Ireland since the 1940s. There just isn't space for any more, even though these are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Goethe said "Our deaths keep the universe young". This means the death not just of people but also of their creations.

Angie's brother made a contribution in his way during his lifetime, if only to be part of the abstract movement in the ether. He and his art haven't died in vain. But to try to keep his works going at this stage is like slapping the cheeks of a corpse to bring it back to life.

Angie has tried to fulfil her bravepromise - she couldn't have done more. Now she should let both her brother, and his works, die in peace.


This is an impossible task

Angie does not yet know what she is up against. I do. My husband is a talented artist producing huge, unsaleable abstract paintings. I have spent 15 years, written hundreds of letters, cajoled dozens of gallery directors, humped the things around, up and down stairs, lifted and heaved them for hanging until I have nearly dropped with exhaustion. In 15 years, about six or eight have been sold. I have tried giving them away - no one wants them. If the pictures are oil on canvas on a stretched frame, I suggest Angie take them all off the frames and store them rolled up. The stretchers can be sold, or given, to art students. If the pictures are framed, she can sell the frames. Artists, in my experience, do not seem to realise that the fun and achievement of painting is in the act of "doing".



This is about bereavement

Poor Angie. She must have been very close to her brother and probably ambitious for him though I suspect that he just found his painting an absorbing and fulfilling hobby. In her grief I think that she is attempting to keep his memory alive. He might well have been shocked if he had realised that she would feel she must keep and sell his pictures - was he aware of what her promise would mean to her?

She needs bereavement counselling and the courage to get a frank professional assessment of the oeuvre - then hang a few small favourites in her home and get rid of the rest. I think this is what he would have wanted.


Maidstone, Kent

Why not try the Internet?

There can be no wider audience than the Internet. Why not set up a web page and take digital pictures of the paintings offering them for sale or free to a good home. This should certainly cost less than pounds 4,000 a year. If you don't know someone who can help you do this, there are evening classes in how to set up websites and in digital imaging, so you could gain a new hobby and friends too.


Bognor Regis, West Sussex

Send them to a hospice

Many hospitals and hospices have arts programmes that seek to lift the spirits of patients. It may be that (if suitable), the paintings could reach a wide audience if she offered them, on loan or for sale, to hospitals in her locality.


Arts co-ordinator, Gloucestershire Royal NHS Trust

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

This may seem trivial, but it means a lot to me. Recently I've seen a doctor at the local hospital, and a consultant. Though I'm middle-aged (and they're the same age or younger) they address me by my first name. What I find so annoying is that they expect me to address them as Mr or Dr So-and-So. To say "I'd prefer you to call me Mrs Palmer" sounds pompous, and I don't want a consultation to get off to an unpleasant start. How can I deal with this in a civilised way?

Yours sincerely, Sally

Anyone who has their advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, "The Independent", 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail dilemmas@independent.co. uk - giving a postal address for the bouquet