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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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 appears in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

Free trial CSS