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The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art

In a recent drama series devoted to the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – titled The Crown – a few arresting sequences show the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sitting for a portrait by English artist Graham Sutherland. The series, intelligently written and beautifully enacted, offers what I found to be some of its best dialogue in the exchanges between the lovably cantankerous politician and the observant, enigmatic, modern artist who is commissioned to paint the portrait. Churchill, himself an enthusiastic painter, is visibly intrigued and a little threatened by the younger artist, whose methods are at odds with his own simple, plein-air mode of working. To hide his unease and counter Sutherland’s air of quiet strength, he delivers a string of knowing remarks about painting, and asks the other seemingly nonchalant questions that the viewers can see he desperately wants answers to. Sutherland, meanwhile, is unfazed by the older man’s baiting and prompting and is focused only on getting at the truth behind the man Churchill. Their Pinteresque sessions mount to a climax which shows them studying each other’s work and making poignant discoveries. The two men, one shy and one swaggering, both sensitive, unite over the experience of losing a child.

This raw, human drama all unfolds over the course of, and because of, a sitting for a portrait. Art has a way of drawing out secrets and pasts, of forging bonds between artists that are as logical as they are brittle. In his latest book, The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Sebastian Smee looks at four famous rivalries from modern art history to explore the mysterious workings of inspiration among artists and understand the role of rivalry in creative growth and maturation. The artist duos he surveys are Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Not only do these names and the oeuvres linked with them mark turning points for modern art, they bring with them visions and associations of entire eras and cultures that Smee passionately explores through their lives. We are taken through post-war London as Smee traces the movements of Freud and Bacon during the most crucial years of their practices. We sojourn in Paris twice, first at the turn of the last century as Manet and Degas become friendly competitors, then a few decades later to see Matisse and Picasso unwittingly bring out the best in each other. We end up in New York to find Pollock and de Kooning define abstract expressionism as we have come to know it.

Smee has a knack for weaving multiple stories – actual and hypothesised (he imagines what Freud’s first conversation with Bacon must have been like) – into a larger narrative, and lives and locations seem to come together effortlessly in his retellings. For example, at one point in the chapter on Manet and Degas, Smee suddenly and painlessly takes you years into the future with just a casually recounted fact – ‘The setting Degas had chosen for his portrait was a third-floor apartment on the rue de Saint-Petersbourg…It was here – just down the hill from where Pablo Picasso would later meet tensely with Henri Matisse – that Manet and Suzanne lived, together with their teenage son, Leon, and Manet’s widowed mother, Eugénie-Desirée.’ The cast is never limited to the two artists he is ostensibly writing about. It includes predecessors and successors, peers and patrons, admirers and critics, shadowy fathers and mothers, wives and lovers. Smee demystifies genius by not attributing an artist’s success to one, golden, epiphanic moment but to a series of less magnificent, less special instances and occurrences that slowly and tortuously lead to innovation and breakthrough. His informed yet conversational writing – at times bordering on gossip but never irrelevant to the discussion at hand – makes you want to look at other biographies, other relationships – from Charles Baudelaire’s with Manet’s to Peggy Guggenheim’s with Pollock.

What enables Smee to be so nuanced in revisiting these four famous rivalries is his thoughtful take on rivalry itself. Introducing his book, he writes, ‘Its title is The Art of Rivalry, but the idea of rivalry it presents is not the macho cliché of sworn enemies, bitter competitors, and stubborn grudge-holders slugging it out for artistic and worldly supremacy. Instead, it is a book about yielding, intimacy, and openness to influence. It is about susceptibility.’ And, indeed, each of the chapters includes a touching example of what these relationships really meant to those involved. Freud sought long and hard for his portrait of Bacon that was stolen in 1988 from the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, years after the two had fallen out. Upon Degas’ death in 1917, a small collection of Manet’s works was found tucked away in his studio. Then, of course, there are the works themselves – those predating the fateful encounters between these artists and those made as postscripts. Smee is vivid and poetic in describing the art and the changes it underwent as a result of the ‘slippery psychodynamics’ of these friendships. Freud’s drawings, pre-Bacon, he observes, ‘were cramped, fanciful, childish, their pressurised lines criss-crossing the page like cracks in thin ice.’ His paintings, after getting to know, admire, laud, possibly resent, the older painter, began to show ‘unflinching realism, prolonged scrutiny, a beady-eyed focus on humid, blotched skin and sagging flesh…’ His work became ‘raw and rash-ridden. Sweaty. You could almost smell it.

I firmly believe that more can be done for art and its history through frank, lucid writing than through complex and self-important texts, and books such as this one – engaging, anecdotal, heartfelt – do art, art students, and art enthusiasts a huge service by bringing some of its most mythic names into the realm of the strictly human. And that is the only realm where great art is made.

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