A must read art book: The Art of Rivalry

Maria do Carmo de Pontes  -  March 30, 2018

What did the friendships between art giants such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon or Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock have in common? They were all based on competition, which according to Sebastian Smee is the (male) engine of the art evolution.

The subjects addressed in Pulitzer Prize winning author Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry (2016) have all, single-headed, re-signified the general perception of art during their lifetimes. Thus it’s a tale of giants. What made them so grand, Smee argues – besides enormous talent and great obstinacy – was a sense of rivalry among two men – yes, they are all men, as the author shamefully acknowledges in the introduction – as a driving force pushing their art further. We’re talking about the love/ hate relationships between Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and finally Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

The motives that turned these friendships sour are myriad and at times unclear; in each case, there’s probably more to the bowl then the author, or readers, will ever know. They pass through different philosophical views or modus operandi – for instance, the long and painstaking process of Freud to complete a painting as opposed to Bacon’s smoothness – personal reasons and at times competitiveness at its raw. As a pattern, there’s an age difference between each two artists in question, or at least the feeling that a new kid on the block is coming to threaten someone’s reign – either from the new kids or the old kings. The fact is that, in spite of Smee’s efforts to draw parallels, at times forcefully so, between his case studies, each relationship had it’s own, complex nature – as of all relationships.

The book starts with the most personal relationship among the eight characters, between Bacon and Freud, to which the author even hints towards a romantic note on top of a mutual admiration – noteworthy, Smee has written extensively about Freud in the past. Even if Bacon was some good thirteen years older, both men were extremely handsome and gifted by the time they met in 1945. Both quite eccentric too. Yet there was a crucial difference: whereas Bacon was essentially a charmer, Freud was something of a social weirdo. The narrative goes on to assess the relationship between Manet – also a social charmer – and Degas, who besides any elected affinities shared the burden of coming from wealthy families in a 19th Century Paris where money struggle among intellectuals was, already then, the most common trope. In fact, it was Smee’s visit to Japan to see the portrait Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet, painted by Degas in 1868–69 and depicting Manet lying casually on the couch as his wife plays the piano, that triggered the argument for the book. Degas had given it to Manet as a gift; upon a casual visit to the Manet’s studio, Degas found the work missing a whole slice – that of the face of Madame Manet. Was Manet making an aesthetic point, around the notion of truth that fundamentally differed his approach to art from Degas’? Or was he simply offended about the unflattering way in which his wife had been depicted in the canvas?

Still in Paris, a few years later, the book continues to address the relationship between Matisse and Picasso – the Spaniard newcomer whose ambition to succeed was blatant from the very beginning. The rivalry here seems to be something endured rather by him and his entourage than by Matisse. Smee puts it crudely, ‘it was a fight that Matisse, for a surprisingly long time, doesn’t seem to have quite registered he was even in’. Then Pollock and de Kooning, whose successes can hardly be dissociated from the trope of America itself – the Wyoming-born, poorly educated bloke and the Dutch immigrant who arrived at a new continent with virtually nothing. Both made it big in New York. There’s something different, broadly speaking, about the US and how an open eagerness to succeed professionally is more acceptable there than in other parts of the world.

Smee’s mastery of the English language and powerful story-telling skills gives way to a richly entertaining narrative, accessible even to readers without a prior art-historical knowledge. The book is full of delicious gossips, such as the occasion in which Lucian Freud declined to attend a wedding, ‘finding himself in the unusual position of having been sexually involved not only with the bride but also the groom and the groom’s mother’. Or one evening when, upon leaving a dinner party, Picasso and his supporters, ‘poor but unafraid to make sacrifices in the interest of pleasure’, went to buy toy arrows tipped with suction pads to shoot at a painting of Marguerite Matisse (Henri’s daughter) that Picasso had gained as a present from her father. With roughly ninety pages per segment, each chapter addresses breaking-point moments in these artists’ careers, with all their insecurities, failures and struggles to find an autonomous style. In doing so, the book further includes passages with some of the 19th and 20th Centuries finest players in the arts – Charles Baudelaire, Leo and Gertrude Stein, Peggy Guggenheim and Clement Greenberg, among several others. Friends or fiends, it was certainly an honour that each of these artists could benefit, out of rivalry or love, with peers as gifted in talent as themselves.