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Strokes of rivalry

By Sebastian Smee

In the universe of Modern art, rivalry is a complex dynamic that enables one artist to be influenced by another even as he struggles to find his own identity

"Betrayal is an uncanny form of intimacy,” British essayist and psychotherapist Adam Phillips once wrote in his essay, ‘Judas’ Gift: In Praise of Betrayal’ for the London Review of Books. He implied that we can only feel betrayed by those we really love. I remember being intrigued by the notion, especially when I reflected upon it within the realm of art. During my research, I had come to understand that British portraitist Lucian Freud and figurative painter Francis Bacon shared a very important relationship, but had had a falling out. I had been greatly interested in why they had parted ways, and also by how close they had been before they did. Both artists had influenced each other tremendously, and this was where Phillips’ statement came to mind. The dynamic of being susceptible and open to the influence of another person and then resisting him for fear of losing one’s own identity – and what that can do to one’s art – intrigued me. It was a pattern I observed in the four relationships I address in my book, The Art of Rivalry – Manet and Degas, Picasso and Matisse, Pollock and de Kooning, Freud and Bacon.

The dynamic of being susceptible and open to the influence of another person and then resisting him for fear of losing one’s own identity – and what that can do to one’s art – intrigued me.
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As one moves from the Renaissance to the Modern era, the implications of rivalry begin to change. The Renaissance was witness to rivalries of the bitterest kind, with conflict over commissions and creative supremacy. Michelangelo, for instance, often expressed acerbic hate for several rivals – from Da Vinci and Raphael to Titian. In the Modern era, the dynamic is more complex. There is jealousy and aversion, but there is also attachment and intimacy. I have wondered many a time why this is so. Perhaps it is because at the time, there was a sudden absence of recognised criteria for excellence. People could no longer agree on what constituted great art, and what didn’t. This also marked the beginning of the avant garde movement.

In such an environment, when the old idea of mastering and extending tradition has been done away with and radical new ground is being broken everywhere you look, the response of fellow artists, especially those you admire, can mean a great deal. If someone you respect reaffirms that you are doing good work, you receive a sense of validation and everyone else – critics, collectors who laugh at you and term your work absurd – cease to matter. Degas, for instance, was deeply affected by Manet, and the latter could sense that he was influencing the former. The idea that you can have such an impact on another person can be extremely seductive. It is what drew Manet to Degas, as also Matisse to Picasso. When you research a subject such as this, frequent encounters with gossip are inevitable. A lot has been written about all eight artists, as well as about what they said of each other. There are also, however, great biographies about all of them that enable one to sift rumour from reality, and I have reliable sources of my own too. It was through reading more and more about them that I became aware of the pattern and what its ramifications were in each case, especially with regard to the development of each individual artist’s aesthetic vocabulary.

It began with one artist coming under the spell of another and then pushing him away, but also had a significant effect on his approach to, and process of, art-making. On the one hand, you had one artist who was struggling to find his voice and on the other, a magnetic, explosive personality that made things happen swiftly and beautifully. This was the effect Bacon had on Freud, and Pollock had on de Kooning. De Kooning enjoyed an incredible amount of credibility and respect among his peers, but he always had trouble finishing his works and never showed them to the public. And then Pollock came along with his radical method of painting – by dripping paint on a canvas – and inspired him to loosen up and alter his approach to art. De Kooning has admitted to this himself, in fact.

There is, perhaps, a sense of liberation to be found in being confronted with something radical that draws you away from the rules and regulations of mainstream artistic discourse. But once you are liberated, the question must arise: is this who I am? What can I learn from this and what must I resist? Bacon worked on his portraits based on photographs and never actual people. While Freud was immensely intoxicated by his personality and method of art-making, he eventually understood that he needed an actual sitter in the same room as himself in order to do his portraits. Where Bacon was inspired by film, Freud found his muse in ‘real’ appearances.


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