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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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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition