I tend to cringe when I am assaulted on the web by suggestions of books I might like, but I have to admit that sometimes those algorithms come up with gems. One such fascination recently was “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friends, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art” by Sebastian Smee.
Published first in 2016, it is apparently still regarded very highly by the art world - I saw it for instance in the Boston Fine Arts Museum bookshop. Not surprising, for it is really so full of information and insights about eight key artists of the modern era, and how they interacted with each other in the chosen pairs of friends and rivals.
One of the really interesting chapters is devoted to the long-lived friendship, coupled with mutual inspiration, competitiveness and stimulation, between Picasso and Matisse, who was twelve years older and already an established artist when they met. Smee evokes their personalities and interactions in really perceptive fashion, whilst putting them in the context of Paris’ swirling world of international art collectors and gallerists. One painting Smee cites as being a lynch pin work in their relationship is - almost predictably - Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Matisse disliked it, as did Braque and other artists, but it influenced them all and displaced Matisse from his perceived role as an avant-garde painter who had broken new ground with his Fauvist idiom. Picasso had stormed into a new way of expressing the modern world in art; Matisse watched and studied what was happening, adapting aspects for his own art, just as Picasso did reciprocally, right until Matisse died in 1954. It was a shifting, vibrant friendship and rivalry that has enriched us all.
As Smee reminds us, those influences between artists are many-faceted and long-lasting. This was a portrait, one of a series over time that Matisse painted of his daughter, Marguerite. Most of the portraits were fairly straightforward, but this one apparently dictated to Matisse that it should be different as he was painting it. Indeed, it is, and its heritage is Cubist, its lineage from Picasso.
The other pairs of friends and rivals about whom Smee writes are equally fascinating in the detail of lives, background, interactions: Manet and Degas, Pollock and de Kooning and Freud and Bacon.
There is so much detail and thoughtful analysis that goes into this book that perhaps the best way to incite readers to pick it up, if you have not done so already, is simply to show some of the paintings that are emblematic of the jousting and interaction between these great artists.
Take for example the eloquent portrait of Edouard Manet and his wife, from which Manet sliced a portion, and which Degas recuperated and kept. Behind it was a huge, complex drama.
Smee cites Manet’s feelings for fellow artist, Berthe Morisot, as perhaps entering into the equation.
Much has been written about the complex relationship between Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, and Smee certainly adds to the insights about these two British artists, both driven by so much psychological drama and ultimate bitterness about the break-up in their friendship.
These were two portraits done of the other by each of these artists quite early in their friendship.
Smee is equally thoughtful and interesting in his examination of the interactions between the classically trained and hugely gifted Dutchman, Willem de Koonig, who struggled to break free of that heritage as he befriended, competed with and was inspired by Jackson Pollock, the American whose artistic endeavours were dogged with failure for so long. Daring, success, alcohol and more - such a typically mid-20th century story in America. And both artists were also looking over their shoulder at Picasso. Influences, obvious and latent, spread far.