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The best of rivals: how four friendships changed the course of art history

Manet and Degas, Matisse and Picasso – The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee reminds us that who we meet can change who we are.

The creative process is one of the great ­human mysteries. Sebastian Smee, a critic for the Boston Globe, illuminates this enigma by persuasively arguing that the art of rivalry concerns “yielding, intimacy and openness to influence”, as well as seduction, break-ups and betrayal. To prove his point, he uses four pairs of painters – Manet and Degas, Matisse and Picasso, de Kooning and Pollock, Bacon and Freud – who experienced “competitiveness, wary friendship, peer admiration and even love” in relationships that spurred each artist’s creativity. Smee quotes Delacroix’s assault on marriage (“An artist should know no other passion than his work, and sacrifice everything to it”) and shows how these rivalries replaced the wives and muses who have inspired great art throughout history.

Manet, for instance, encouraged Degas to abandon historical pictures and become a painter of modern life. In Degas’s double portrait Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet, his friend lounges on a sofa as he listens to his talented Dutch wife (who had probably borne Manet’s father’s child) play the piano. In a bewildering act of vandalism, Manet slashed the picture right through the profiled face of his wife. Smee suggests that Manet felt Degas had portrayed him as overcome by ennui, boredom, indifference, even contempt. The cut was the psychological equivalent of Manet stabbing Degas. Smee draws parallels between the slashed picture and Degas’s greatest painting, Interior/The Rape.

Although Matisse thrived on having rivals, Picasso, both bolder and younger, was determined to surpass him with a great achievement. When Matisse saw Picasso’s 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – a work that changed the course of modern art – he vowed to take pictorial revenge. Picasso’s followers declared war on Matisse but the two men recognised each other’s genius and in later life were reconciled.

Smee could also have connected the devastating death of Picasso’s younger sister with the suicide of his close friend Casagemas (which thrust him into his “blue period”) and linked Picasso’s scenes depicting young women on their deathbed with Edvard Munch’s morbid Death in the Sickroom. Picasso’s drawing of the exposed genitals of his adopted adolescent daughter, Raymonde, unnervingly foreshadowed Bal­thus’s erotic images of prepubescent girls.

When it comes to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Smee observes that where the former struggled with his inability to draw, the latter struggled to set aside his technical mastery. But Pollock’s influence freed his friend and both achieved great wealth and fame before the drunken Pollock died in a car crash and de Kooning lapsed into alcoholism and dementia. The competition between them prevailed to the end. When de Kooning heard of his rival’s death, he boasted, “I’m number one.”

Many critics attacked Pollock’s vast canvases as a kind of apocalyptic wallpaper, lacking composition, drawing and human figures, and whose inherent meaning was suggested by their pretentious titles – Cathedral, Enchanted Forest and the like – or by other, more enthusiastic critics. Smee fancifully extols Pollock’s half-accidental images, which “twinkled and pulsed, evoking distant galaxies and the deep recession of space”, describing them as “beautiful, decorative and transcendent”. There is, how­ever, no evidence in this book that the boorish and belligerent Pollock, who “didn’t have an intellectual bone in his body”, was an “intelligent” painter.

Smee sacrifices some revealing comparisons by placing his chapter on Bacon and Freud (both of whom had a passion for horses) first in this book, out of chronological order. Freud noted that Bacon’s more daring work “related immediately to how he felt about life. Mine, on the other hand, seemed very laboured.” Bacon, like Manet and Pollock, dashed off his paintings; Freud, like Degas and de Kooning, was a brilliant draughtsman who found it difficult to finish his pictures. Like the earlier painters, Freud was influenced both by his friend’s art and – despite Bacon’s ruthlessness and cruelty – by his risk-taking personality. Bacon, in whose pictures the smeared faces are both a caress and an assault, painted the brutality of fact; the young Freud, who created anguished yet exquisitely delineated figures, was the Ingres of existentialism. They had a nourishing friendship, but the artists quarrelled bitterly after Freud beat up Bacon’s lover Peter Lacy and never repaid large sums of money he had borrowed from the open-handed Bacon to support his obsession with gambling.

Smee, however, repeats certain dubious biographical details without examining them. The reckless and uncontrollable Freud, expelled from school, did not have a “steady childhood”; nor did the strikingly good-looking young man “look like Harpo Marx”. Jowly and pear-faced, Bacon was not “handsome” and, being self-destructive in the Pollock mode, he was certainly not “wise”. Yet Smee analyses the figurative paintings perceptively. He draws the reader into Freud’s superb portrait of Bacon, for example, describing how the “whole left side of his mouth twists upward, triggering a pouchy swelling, like the body’s response to a sting”. This tiny portrait, which was stolen from an exhibition in Berlin in 1988 and has never been recovered, has the same hypnotic asymmetry and intensity of vision as Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Jeffrey Meyers’s books include “Modigliani: a Life” (Duckworth)

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee is published by Profile Books, 390pp, £16.99​

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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