The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee, review by Bruce Jacobs

Titans in the art world often have titanic egos to go along with their extraordinary talent. In The Art of Rivalry, Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee focuses on the outsized self-esteem, vulnerabilities and principal works of four pairs of contemporary artists who form the bedrock of modern art. With an enlightening blend of biography, anecdote, history and art criticism, Smee explores the relationships between Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning--sometimes fraught relationships based on what he calls "the restless, twitching battle to get closer to someone... balanced with the battle to remain unique."

The artists were rivals as much as friends, more canny observers of their peers' skills than sycophantic disciples, and often personally transformed by the other's behavioral idiosyncrasies. Manet, the dandy and flâneur, drew the reclusive, deliberate Degas out of his garret into the social life of Second Empire Paris, where he learned to "see the attractions, in art as well as in life, of insouciance, improvisation, and brevity." De Kooning overlooked Pollock's debauchery, violent temper, alcoholism and weak drawing skills to see the value of his exuberance and love of paint's texture. Always ambitious and energetic, Picasso took cues on color and figure from the very successful Matisse, and ran with them in his own original breakthrough works where "sex, death, and creative fecundity were ineluctably connected." Freud's labored painting ("unflinching realism, prolonged scrutiny, a beady-eyed focus on humid, blotched skin and sagging flesh.... You could almost smell it") evolved under the influence of Bacon's distorted figures with their "wide-open mouths, screams, snarls."

Smee's selection of artists captures different eras in the rise of modern art, and he enriches his narrative with numerous references to the critics, gallerists, lovers, spouses and collectors of the time. Without Gertrude Stein's preference for his work over that of Matisse, for example, Picasso might not have achieved such success in the competitive Paris art market. Smee quotes Peggy Guggenheim's reaction to Pollock's early work ("This young man has serious problems... and painting is one of them"), noting that the critic Clement Greenberg's enthusiasm for Pollock overpowered Guggenheim's reservations and a show at her gallery put the painter on the map. Whether rivals or friends, these artists were better for their relationships--no matter how much their egos got in the way. The Art of Rivalry is a captivating story of eight artists at the top of their game and how they got there by climbing each other's ladders

Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art Cover Image
$30.80
ISBN: 9780812994803
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Published: Random House - August 16th, 2016