In our species’ rumination on art, perhaps the oldest question is where does the darned stuff come from. I can well imagine our Paleolithic ancestors scratching their heads over that when they peered at cave art as long ago as 30,000 years. Many millennia later the classical era came up with the Muses as one explanation.
Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee has made a deep and entertaining excursion into that territory with his recent book The Art of Rivalry. Subtitled “Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art,” in it Smee focuses on the thin line between friendship and competition, and how rivalry can be a spur to artists’ careers. The four friendships Smee dissects are Manet and Degas, Matisse and Picasso, Bacon and Freud, and de Kooning and Pollock.
Smee claims there is “an intimacy in art history that the textbooks ignore” and that intimacy is a nuanced compound of friendship and rivalry. Smee is not particularly interested in the macho rivalry of “sworn enemies, bitter competitors, and stubborn grudge-holders slugging it out for artistic and worldly supremacy.” Which is not to say he is blind to that dimension nor does he overlook that the relationships usually end badly. “If this is a book about seduction,” he tells us, “it is also to some extent about breaking and betrayal.”
Scattered throughout the book are enough juicy anecdotes to fuel several dinner parties. To pick one example: “[Lucien] Freud married just twice. . . but over the course of his life he sired somewhere in the vicinity of 13 children, and had so many lovers that even the most determined biographers would struggle to make a full accounting.” Okay, I have to share one more. “Finding himself in the unusual position of having been involved sexually not only with the bride but also the groom and the groom’s mother, it’s no surprise, perhaps, that Freud chose to stay away [from the wedding].”
In Smee’s accounting, these artists were affected more by the other’s personality than by the example of their art. As Freud said of Bacon, “His work impressed me, but his personality affected me.” One effect Bacon had was to tone down Freud’s pugilism. Freud said, “I used to have a lot of fights. It wasn’t because I liked fighting, it was really just that people said things to me to which I felt the only reply was to hit them. [Then Francis said] ‘Don’t you think you ought to try to charm them?’” That was a revelation to the younger Freud.
Each artist realized that his career would benefit by adopting a measure of the friend’s opposite behavior. The poles of one axis where Smee plots his eight artists are disciplined/structured vs. anarchic/binge-effort. Freud, for example, saw that Bacon’s approach was the antithesis of his. Smee reports that “Where Freud labored over his portraits for weeks and months, Bacon’s painting, when it succeeded, relied on stealth and surprise. Through a combination of chance and high emotion – fury, frustration, despair – he saw himself unlocking ‘valves of sensation.’” Matisse and Picasso similarly influenced each other: “Matisse was always shoring himself up against chaos. Picasso meanwhile thrived on dissonance. He welcomed dissonance and strife.”
For three of Smee’s pairs there was a marked assymetry in social ease. In each case the awkward party (Freud, Degas, Pollock) gained in social aptitude by virtue of the other’s example and guidance.
In examining four friendships, Smee ends up giving us eight pithy biographies. Besides possessing a keen critical eye, he is also a superb author. His writing is clear and never bores. To wit, he observes in Freud’s work a “beady-eyed focus on humid, blotched skin and sagging flesh.”
An earlier exploration of artistic coupling was a 1993 collection of essays, titled Significant Others, edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron. That book offers 13 examples of both healthy and damaging versions of romantic and artistic interdependence among such couples as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.
Krasner receives a fair amount of attention in Smee’s chapter on de Kooning and Pollock. That pairing is the most depressing in The Art of Rivalry, due to both artists’ alcoholism and immense capacity for self-destruction. The often miserable de Kooning-Krasner-Pollock triangle could have kept a clinic full of therapists busy.
An anecdote about de Kooning as a schoolboy in Rotterdam nicely captures the whole thrust of Smee’s book. “See that guy sitting over there?” a teacher who had done much to encourage de Kooning’s interest in art said to him during drawing class. “Go and see what he’s doing.” De Kooning did as told and saw that the other student was drawing freely and fluently, whereas his own drawing was tight and controlled. The two began talking, whereupon the other boy told de Kooning the teacher had said exactly the same thing to him: “Go and see what that kid is doing.”
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