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The Art of Rivalry

By Sebastian Smee

Profile Books, 2016

ISBN: 9781781251652

The Art of Rivalry

This thought-provoking book could best be called a micro-history of art.

In it, Sebastian Smee casts a forensic eye over four friendships between artists: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, and Pollock and de Kooning. All were rivals and fellow innovators as well as friends, of course, and while one may have predominantly influenced the other at the start of their friendship, the influence was never going to only flow one way. Artists are ultra-individuals, so there will come a point when they want to shake off influences – seeing them as just another encumbrance – and become more fully themselves; that creates a problem as well. And artists can be dogmatic: what works for them is best.

So to see Matisse and Picasso, two very different personalities, puzzle over each other’s newly minted work and – despite being perplexed – not dismiss it out of hand, is kind of wondrous. There is an element of suspending judgement out of respect, of thinking: ‘For him to do something so silly, well, there must be something to it, though I don’t quite get it at the minute.’

One of the motors here is that one artist covets in the other what he feels he lacks in himself. Pollock’s spontaneity versus de Kooninhg’s measured, careful approach to craft, say, or Degas, the reclusive bachelor, eyeing with envy Manet, married man and man of the world. If a fellow artist values your work, it’s probably OK: that is the constant. Beyond that, each friendship tells a story. As for Freud, it was Bacon’s openness to experience, his willingness to risk all, that was a prime inspiration. He acted as a goad to change. Yet that was also a stumbling block: Bacon’s extreme masochism, the intensity of his relationship with Peter Lacy in particular, was something that Freud just couldn’t get his head around.

There are plenty of intriguing and entertaining quotes in the book, with one favourite being this one from Degas:

A picture is something that requires as much trickery, malice and vice as the perpetration of a crime.

It is an elegantly written book, Smee’s pellucid prose making for a supremely enjoyable and effortless read. There is an important and to my mind convincing (though incomplete) thesis at its heart, mind. That it is the passing of a baton (or rather, a back and forth exchange) between individual artists that is the fulcrum of significant artistic change – not movements, historical eras, schools of art, visionary geniuses and the like. (I thought, while reading the book, of the dialogue between Klimt and Schiele: another instance of Smee’s thesis.) While Smee’s focus is on the modern period (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), both Rona Goffen and Fred Ilchman have adopted a comparable approach when writing about Renaissance artists, and one could perhaps apply it to contemporary art too.

A beautiful and important book, which the publisher describes here.