The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee review – from shared vision to slashed canvas

Picasso and Matisse, Bacon and Freud… this study of great painters’ rivalries buzzes with gossip but little real insight

Sebastian Smee’s collection of long essays about artistic friendships springs from his interesting – surely not entirely original – contention that when it comes to inspiration, finding oneself in competition with a brilliant rival may be every bit as important as being, say, in possession of a beautiful muse. But while his principal characters are all male – “culture in this period was overwhelmingly patriarchal”, he writes, casually and unapologetically – his narrative is not quite so macho as it may first appear. The Art of Rivalry is, he suggests, a book about “yielding, intimacy, and openness to influence… about susceptibility”. In other words, though he doesn’t put it quite like this himself, his subject is a series of tender, and then not-so-tender, love stories: between Freud and Bacon, Manet and Degas, Matisse and Picasso, and Pollock and de Kooning.

Each essay begins with a ripely significant moment in the history of these complex relationships, after which Smee retraces his steps, returning to the beginning to unwrap the full story, from early shy sweetness to full-blown falling out. For Matisse and Picasso, this moment is their first meeting in 1906, when the collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein took Matisse and his daughter, Marguerite, to visit Picasso’s ramshackle studio in the dilapidated former piano factory known as the Bateau-Lavoir, while for Pollock and de Kooning it’s one night in the early 1950s, when the two painters were seen sharing a drink outside the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. If Matisse and Picasso’s rivalry was mostly unspoken, a quietly crackling atmosphere in which each of them, almost slyly, checked the other out, Pollock and de Kooning had an altogether bolder strategy. As they passed the bottle between them, each man took it in turns to insist loudly to the other that he (the other) was “the greatest painter in America” – greatness, you understand, was then all the rage, even among the sober – until Pollock finally passed out.

The tale of Manet and Degas begins with the story of Degas’s 1868-69 portrait of Manet and his wife, a canvas Manet famously slashed, his friend having apparently failed to flatter Suzanne. Smee’s belief is that Degas’s painting in fact reminded Manet painfully of the hypocrisy and shame that had once attended his relationship (their son, born illegitimately when Manet was just 19, had been brought up as his wife’s brother). But this is a well known drama. More intriguing by far is Smee’s starting point for the story of Freud and Bacon: the theft from a Berlin museum in 1988 of Freud’s 1952 pocket-sized portrait of his former friend.

“Somebody out there really loves Francis,” Freud said after its disappearance, a feeling with which he could identify, for all that the two of them had definitively broken with each other back in the early 1970s. Thirteen years after its loss, as the Tate was preparing to mount a retrospective of his work, Freud designed a WANTED poster for this portrait in a desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful, bid to get the picture back. The poster in question, he insisted, was the “jokey equivalent of a black armband”. But that word, “wanted”, emblazoned in red letters above a black-and-white image of his former friend’s face, his eyes cast down and his lips forming a kind of plangent sneer, was powerfully significant, whether Freud allowed it or not. If he did not long for Bacon, exactly, he carried with him a hollow in the form of shared history and, perhaps, a debt owed. It was a gap that seemingly wouldn’t go away. Just as Degas frantically collected Manet’s work after his death, so Freud kept Bacon’s Two Figures (1953), in which male lovers lie wrestling in the middle of an unmade bed, their teeth bared, in his house in London until the end of his life.

What did all these men do for one another? Mere days after his visit to Picasso’s studio, Matisse exhibited Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life) at the Salon des Indépendants, a painting that caused Picasso to abandon his own work on a similarly Arcadian theme, The Watering Place, on the grounds that it now seemed unexceptional (even the devoted Leo Stein at first balked at Matisse’s extraordinary painting, a vividly coloured vision of paradise that was also uncomfortably odd). But in the main, influence is not specific like this; it’s subtle and twisting and complicated. Can we ever be certain that it was Bacon who caused Freud to replace his early delicacy with a new, more brutish amplitude? Or that it was Pollock’s wild drip paintings that enabled de Kooning finally to see what was missing in his own work? (According to Smee, he wanted a “share” of Pollock’s abandon, his sense that he was almost “inside” the canvases he laid on the floor and danced around.)

I’m not sure creativity works like this. Jealousy is often a spur. So, too, is admiration: the desire to earn it, as well as to ape the source of it. Friends may encourage and learn from each other. In the end, though, a true artist competes only with himself.

The Art of Rivalry has two great virtues. The first is that it is plainly written, almost entirely free of the clotted art-speak that makes a lot of books on similar themes so difficult to read. (Though it is also rather lazy and flip, sometimes: “He had caught the art bug,” its author notes of the young Degas, before going on to inform us that Manet’s drawings were “often a bit iffy”). The second is that it bulges with gossip, even if you will have heard a lot of it before. In context, the wedding from which Freud absents himself on the grounds that he has been sexually involved not only with the bride but also with the groom and the groom’s mother, barely causes the reader to raise an eyebrow. It’s also almost certain to make you want to chase down (or reread) the big biographies that are some of its major sources. But these things don’t entirely compensate for the sense that Smee, the winner of a Pulitzer prize for his art criticism, is sometimes only going through the motions – particularly so in the case of the rather breathless essay on Matisse and Picasso, which never seems to do much more than skim the surface. All in all, it feels rather forced, bolted together: a book that didn’t need to be written, and thus doesn’t always demand to be read.

The Art of Rivalry is published by Profile Books (£16.99). Click here to buy it for £13.93


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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