Art of Rivalry cover

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee (Random House, New York, 2017)

At the center of Sebastian Smee’s new book “The Art of Rivalry” is the idea of artistic struggle through rivalry. Smee won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2011 and is now the Boston Globe’s art critic. His work is widely recognized for its insight and cogency, and that goes double for his new book, which yields to the attentive reader a wealth of understanding about the nature of creativity in relation to conflict and community. Modern art is characterized by a boundless energy that crosses boundaries, its sometimes plan free approach, and its relentless emphasis on originality. “Make it new” sounds deceptively easy. In truth, making it “new” is the most difficult thing an artist can undertake. “The Art of Rivalry” is an indispensable guidebook to the things that made modern art modern and how difficult it was for art and artists to break free of the shackles of a suffocating classicism, an often slavish regard for academies, and the need to put bread and wine on the table.

Smee focuses on four friendships that involved varying levels of trust, mistrust, friendship, rupture and repair. Each of these friends and rivals sought to find their own “voice”, a way to lurch away from accepted norms, social expectations and artistic limitations. In the case of Picasso and Matisse, the struggle for mastery of the Parisian scene was particularly vigorous, especially because “modern art” was already, in the early 1900’s, a going concern. Each man vied for the “eye” of Gertrude and Leo Stein, for the favor of gallery owners and critics, and for sales. Picasso especially kept an eye on the older, more mature, more stable, Matisse, whose color-drenched flat surfaced work presented unique challenges to Picasso, who was classically trained and the much better draftsman. In the case of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, it was Freud who looked up the older and more successful Bacon and it was Freud who possessed the greater drawing skills. Their rupture, when it came, represented a unique turning point in the history of British modern art, driving both men to near despair. But it was Manet and Degas who maintained for many years the most stable friendship. Manet, cultured, charming and well spoken, perturbed Degas with his attractiveness, sociability and wit. Degas, on the other hand, while intelligent, pursued his art outside the box of the Parisian social whirl. In the case of Pollock and de Kooining, however, the “rivalry” reached heights of spirited rancor, drunken bitterness, and fawning concern with “greatness” that almost crashed it against the rocks of futility. Nevertheless, both Pollock (drunken, vitriolic, violent) and de Kooning (drunken, vitriolic, faithless) forged a bond of competitiveness that led Abstract Expressionism to the pinnacle of New York’s art scene in the 1950’s, and remains to this day the ultimate in sophisticated cultural achievement in the “big city”.

Any reader interested in art, modern art, or creativity will profit from Smee’s enormously readable, steadily insightful, and magnificently argued book. The point is, I suspect, that what others expect of us is a limit. What we expect of ourselves ideally has no limit. One sees this in art, music, and sport, among many other endeavors. The mirror tells us who we are, especially when a competitive friend is reflected there as well.