Their names are enshrined now.
In museums, we’re used to seeing their work reverentially displayed. We may know a bit about their stories. (Jackson Pollock was an alcoholic mess; Francis Bacon had a taste for abusive boyfriends.) But the images we have are a shorthand at best, cartoonish at worst.
Thanks, then, are due to Sebastian Smee, the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, who with novella-like detail and incisiveness opens up the worlds of four pairs of renowned artists in “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.”
His focus is on Bacon and Lucian Freud, Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, and Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. He traces their influences on one another not solely through analysis of their paintings, but through the push-pull of their friendships and rivalries, both professional and social. Each of his portraits is a biographical gem, deftly taking social milieus, family backgrounds, and the art controversies of the day into account.
Some episodes feel as if they should be better known: Manet’s unexplained knife slashing of a portrait that Degas painted of him and his wife, for instance. But while such mysteries are “magnetic,” Smee acknowledges, “it’s not always evidence they attract. Just as often it’s further enigmas, deeper questions, stranger suppositions.”
Smee’s vivid, agile prose is especially good at evoking the temperaments of the personalities involved. Manet, a dapper womanizer whose marriage harbored a scandalous secret, and Degas, a lifelong bachelor who had little use for “family and other troubles,” offer a prime example.
“Everyone who knew Manet personally seemed to love and admire him,” Smee writes. “He was warm, he had courage; you wanted him on your side.” Nevertheless, he adds, there was “a dollop of melancholy, even of morbidity, behind Manet’s legendary charm. This would later fascinate Degas, who was himself an introspective man, a brooder.”
Casual art lovers, beguiled by Degas’s studies of ballet rehearsals and Parisian concert life, may be startled by the chilly, calculating side of the man. (“A picture is something that requires as much trickery, malice, and vice as the perpetration of a crime,” he once wrote.) Smee, while noting that Manet’s motives for slashing Degas’s canvas remain unknown, suggests that Degas may simply have peered too deeply and discomfortingly into the nature of the Manets’s marriage. Degas, amazingly, got over the knife attack, and even became a guardian of his friend’s legacy after his death. But in his own work, Smee observes, “Degas never again toyed with narrative.” Much of what he’d had in common with Manet, in terms of approach and subject matter, simply dropped to the wayside.
Smee has written extensively about Freud, and his chapter on Freud and Bacon is a marvel. Here, as elsewhere in the book, he takes a single incident — in this case, the theft of a tiny but remarkable 1952 painting of Bacon by Freud — and uses it as his Rosetta Stone in interpreting Freud’s attraction and resistance to Bacon’s method and his madness.
Smee is a wizard at illuminating the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of any artwork, and his parsing of Freud’s Bacon portrait is no exception. While he sees the right side of Bacon’s head as “a study in placidity,” everything on the left side strikes him as “slipping and skidding about . . . Most striking of all is the way Bacon’s left eyebrow extends its powerful arabesque into the furrow at the center of his forehead. This has nothing to do with ‘realism’ if you take that term literally; no eyebrow behaves this way. But it’s the engine that powers the whole portrait.”
Bacon’s painting technique (fast, reckless, working from memory or photographs) loosened up something in Freud, Smee observes. But Freud turned it to his own purposes, never giving up his practice of taking his time and always working with a live model. “If Bacon’s was a model to emulate,” Smee sums up, “it was also one to avoid.”
Pollock had a similarly double-edged liberating effect on de Kooning, eight years his senior. But any competition between them, Smee makes clear, existed mostly in the mind of Pollock, who achieved fame first. De Kooning may have envied him a little, but felt the younger man’s success, by putting Abstract Expressionism on the map, might “rebound and bring benefits to him.”
The rivalry between 24-year-old Picasso and 36-year-old Matisse, who were introduced by Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, in 1906, was similarly lopsided. Picasso saw the two of them as being in a race toward artistic breakthroughs. Matisse, however, took a genuine interest in Picasso and was surprised by those who insisted on seeing them as “sworn enemies.” (Gertrude, trying to “divide the world into ‘Matisseites’ and ‘Picassoites,’ ” doesn’t come off well.)
Smee’s descriptions can be both sharp and droll. He notes how the charismatic de Kooning “churned up little storm systems of ardor wherever he went” and characterizes the sex life of Freud as “hair-raisingly labyrinthine.” (Freud once avoided a friend’s wedding because he’d slept with the bride, the groom, and the groom’s mother.)
A repetition or two of material — for instance, mentions of Caroline Blackwood’s mother trying to sabotage her prospective marriage to Freud — could have been avoided. And readers may dispute some of his assertions. (Are Pollock and de Kooning really “the two most celebrated American artists of the twentieth century”? What about Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol?)
That said, “The Art of Rivalry” is a pure, informative delight, written with canny authority.
“When you fall under the spell of someone,” Smee observes, “there is often a dual movement within you: Even as you succumb to the other person’s powerful influence, you feel an equal and opposite impulse to bolster your own identity, to fortify yourself – in a sense, to push back.”
That comment, made about Manet and Degas, applies to all four pairs of artists in this striking book.
THE ART OF RIVALRY:
Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art
By Sebastian Smee
Random House, 390 pp., illustrated, $28
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former book critic for The Seattle Times. Visit him at www.michaelupchurchauthor.com.