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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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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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