On The Art of Rivalry, by Sebastian Smee
I don’t remember how it is that Pulitzer prize winning art critic Sebastian Smee’s book The Art of Rivalry was on my stack of books on my bedside. Did someone give it to me as a gift? Did I buy it? And why? But I did, and since I have decided last Fall that I was not going to read books from Kindle or any other electronic device anymore—believe me I have always been a tech person but it’s not as much as fun. Kind of like the difference between real and virtual sex, at least for me—all Winter I read mostly hardcover books and I didn’t mind their weight anymore as I carried them in my bags.
Now one of the reasons I recommend The Art of Rivalry because like a lot of my friends, and especially those who want to learn more about art, art history but find most writings too complex, or boring, I sometimes want easy, exciting reading. I mean I don’t really read in bed when I’m alone because I need something to help me forget about the things I have to do, plans, problems etc. so I confess I fall asleep to something on the television. But if I am with Dani who falls asleep so easily and of course before me, I end up having to read a book in bed with my reading light. On such occasions I do need a book that wouldn’t require too much concentration on my part and wouldn’t require me to have a pencil at hand which I normally do for notes and underlining. But of course those easy books make me feel bad about myself. Enter The Art of Rivalry, guilt-free reading.
The book consists four sections which describe the relationships of four pairs of artists and how they influenced one another and their overall artistic output: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning.
Much like the television series In Treatment, and The Affair, Smee analyzes the artists from a psychological point of view. How all these artists’ ambition, their desire to achieve success and always improve are achieved through rivalry: Another artist whom they were friends, or friendly with, that propelled them to breakthrough. Competition is good. It pushes you further. A little bit of jealousy is needed to succeed. But also learn from the other as well.
Both Freud and Bacon came from a family of successful people: Lucian Freud, the grandson of the founder of Psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, and Bacon a descendent of Sir Francis Bacon whom he was named after. Both were gamblers, risk-takers, and both did portraits of each other. Smee centers his arguments around one portrait of Bacon made by Freud that got stolen from a museum exhibition in Berlin—which is still not found—and also about their relationships with others, and how they each evolved and influenced one another.
The second section about Manet and Degas was my favorite part. Degas who came from an affluent family of only men is juxtaposed with Manet who has an out of wedlock son and marries his mother Suzanne who is from a lower class. Degas paints Manet and his wife which later led Manet to slash the painting. Why did he do that? The characters were better analyzed and it was most interesting to read as you try to understand.
The Matisse and Picasso section was the quickest as there was nothing new for me, although it is always fun to read about Leo and Gertrude Stein and how together with their other brother Leo and his wife Sarah, fostered much of the artists in Paris in their day. Matisse’ daughter Marguerite had survived diphtheria when she was little whereas Picasso had lost his sister Conchita died from it. I thought Smee analyzed Picasso mostly from how this devastating event influenced Picasso in general and how given the opportunity to take a painting by Matisse why he chose the portrait Matisse made of his daughter Marguerite and why Picasso kept it for life. Both Matisse and Picasso were influenced by African Art, and Matisse actually coined the term “Cubism”.
The last section of Pollock and De Kooning portray the artists and how both were raised in poverty with absent fathers, one in the American West, the other in Holland. They both married artists who promoted them: Elaine Fried with De Kooning and Lee Krasner with Pollock, and in fact Lee Krasner introduced Pollock and De Kooning to each other. But the section read more like how De Kooning broke through as Pollock’s art influenced him. In the end, De Kooning even had an affair with Ruth Kligman for years, Pollock’s girlfriend who survived the car crash that killed Pollock.
There is so much more to write of course. There are also important characters as you read the book that would make you read upon those too: like Gertrude Stein, Peggy Guggenheim, Ruth Kligman, and Lee Krasner. Yes, it’s true: Women are side characters in this book. But I wanted to check one detail Smee provided about how Lee Krasner met De Kooning before she knew Pollock and married him. So I ended up reading Gail Levin’s book Lee Krasner, a detailed book about the artist, and did not find what would be an important detail about her life. I don’t know which is correct in this case.
At the end of the day: Buy The Art of Rivalry. You will enjoy reading, learning, the juicy stuff; you will feel good about yourself. Both for having acquired more knowledge, but also for knowing that ambition, and rivalry is good. For you, and for the world.