The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art
The book examines the friendships and rivalries between four pairs of 19th and 20th century artists (in the following non-chronological order): Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. My review is perhaps too long, but, concentrating as it does exclusively on the relationship between these artists, it deals with only one part of this superb book, which brings the artists’ personalities vividly before us, is full of other incidents in their lives and has perceptive things to say about the climate in which they worked.
Freud and Bacon met for the first time in 1945, when Freud was 22 and Bacon 35. They took to each other immediately. They were both wild, led rackety lives and were socially undisciplined, Freud’s paintings were at that time very precise, controlled and result of the closest scrutiny; Bacon’s the very opposite: impulsive and daring; and Freud was fascinated by it (and by Bacon’s extrovert personality). Bacon, for his part, admired Freud’s draftsmanship, though probably indifferent to his friend’s work. They made portraits of each other. Freud’s portraits of his sitters often took weeks; Bacon’s distorted portraits were mostly dashed off in an intense spurt from memory or from photographs. Bacon was, at that time, much better known and very much better off than Freud, who became financially dependent on him until his own marriage in 1953 to his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood of the Guinness family. The relationship between Freud and Bacon began to fray as Freud observed Bacon’s masochistic infatuation with and dependence on one of his lovers, the violent Peter Lacy; Bacon resented one of Freud’s intervention in 1952, and made more negative comments on Freud’s style. Their close friendship came to an end (though they still socialized on and off for the next twenty years or so and they even worked on each other’s portraits. And Bacon’s work contributed to the changes in Freud’s later style, when Freud abandoned precise linear draftsmanship for an equally intensely observed but now powerful impasto and for the three-dimensionality of heavy bodies. There is now a ruthlessness about his depiction of flesh which some critics have called “cruel”, which is also a charge made against Bacon. Freud now became really successful and prosperous, and perhaps Bacon’s resentment of this brought about their final falling out in the early 1970s. Smee has written four books on Freud, which may account for this chapter to be the best and least speculative of the four. It is superb in its analysis of the personalities and works of both men.
Manet and Degas, both in their late twenties with Degas the younger by about three years, first met in 1861. Manet was had a relaxed and sociable personality, Degas an austere, puritanical and somewhat tortured one. Manet seemed happily married; Degas, though moved by female beauty, was a natural bachelor. Manet was already a fluent painter of “real life” subjects (as distinct from the allegorical, historical or mythological subjects that were favoured by the establishment of the Salon), whereas Degas was struggling to find a path between Ingres and Delacroix, the revered senior artists representing Neo-Classicism and Romanticism respectively. Manet persuaded him to abandon this for painting “real life”. The two men became close friends, but Degas was anxious to be his own man and not merely an acolyte of Manet’s. Smee argues that the difference that appeared between the two men was that Manet was interested in external appearances and paid little attention to expressing characters through faces (true, I think of Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, but surely not of Olympia? And Smee himself writes about Manet’s interest in the face of Berthe Morisot with whom he was for a while bewitched), whereas Degas looked for an inner truth in the people he painted and that this would best be captured if he caught them unawares. Degas was good at conveying tensions in a marriage. In 1869, during the period when Manet was known to be pursuing Berthe Morisot, he painted a picture of Manet and his wife Suzanne. He showed Manet on a sofa listening to Suzanne playing the piano, and painting conveyed a distance between them (partly caused also by the fact that Manet was not very interested in music). Degas presented the picture to the couple; but when he next visited them, Manet had cut a piece off the painting, which upset Degas very much. Smee sees this episode as very important; but the two men did not break off their friendship, though “its intensity was missing”.
When Matisse and Picasso, his junior by twelve years, first met in 1906, Matisse was an established painter and Picasso was a rising star. Matisse was well disposed to Picasso as a fellow flag-bearer for modern art and encouraged him, but Picasso was determined not to be Matisse’s follower, and it was long before the two men were equals, with Picasso the bolder innovator and seeing himself as a rival to Matisse. Art historians agree that that this rivalry did exist, though Smee has, I think, too many phrases like “Picasso must have felt”, for which there is no evidence. The “breach” between them was over Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907 – that is only year after their first meeting), but Matisse was not one for personal grudges, and, as in the case of Manet and Degas, the two men kept up friendly relations; and much of the antagonism was between their respective followers. When Picasso embraced cubism, Matisse even painted some pictures with something of cubism about them.
De Kooning’s early art work showed that he was a very fine draftsman, though this bothered him, and he was looking for an escape from this particular talent. He moved away from representational to abstract art, but the latter was still linear and disciplined. Pollok, on the other hand, was initially unhappy about how poor his own draftsmanship was, and for this and other reasons he took to bouts of binge drinking during which he was occasionally violent. He then attached himself to Thomas Hart Benton who saw talent in him and helped him to improve his skills in representational art; but this did not satisfy him either. He experimented with surrealism; then was influenced by Roberto Matta, who got him to draw with blindfolds. In 1942, encouraged by a Jungian analyst, he began to doodle; some of this now went into his paintings; Peggy Guggenheim took him up, and he suddenly became famous among aficionados of modern art. The great 180 square feet mural he painted for her in 1943 a single night were, if you like, a gigantic but wonderfully rhythmic doodle. From there he moved on in 1947 to his famous drip-paintings of canvases he laid on the floor: to these apparently chance marks also he imparted a rhythm. Pollock had first met De Kooning in 1941. Fame had so far eluded De Kooning. He now began to admire the freedom in Pollock’s work (rather as Freud had admired Bacon’s) and he began to cut loose in his own paintings. The works he showed in 1948 were fluid and thickly-painted abstracts, though they lacked the rhythm of Pollock’s. As these began to attract attention, Pollock became aggressively jealous of De Kooning. Even so, they established a gruff and sometimes literally sparring friendship. They were now regarded (and regarded each other) as the two great masters of modern American painting. Just as in the case of Matisse and Picasso, it was not they but their followers (notably two leading art critics who hated each other) who sided with one and denigrated the other. In 1950, De Kooning abandoned abstract art and embarked on his famous set of “Woman” paintings. He was embarking upon something new and vigorous and much acclaimed at the very moment when Pollock’s work was becoming mechanical, critics were turning against him, and his behaviour became more intolerable than it had ever been. But De Kooning would not have achieved the fierce freedom of these new works if he had not initially been liberated by Pollock’s influence. When Pollock saw these figurative paintings, he shouted drunkenly to De Kooning that he had “betrayed” abstract art. There was of course no betrayal involved, any more than there had been when the paths of Freud and Bacon or of Manet and Degas or of Matisse and Picasso had diverged; and I don’t think “betrayal” merits its place in the subtitle of this book. The last few pages of this chapter show how, after Pollock’s death in a car crash in 1956, De Kooning’s behaviour and alcoholism became increasingly as unhappy and as alcoholic as that of his late friend. At the time of Pollock’s death, De Kooning was considered the greater artist; but that, too, would change during the remaining 41 years of De Kooning’s life.
Sadly, the book has only 18 illustrations. Thank goodness for Google Images!