Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee

Upon seeing the title, a prospective reader might imagine a couple of artists having fisticuffs, with paint splattering across the walls.But the sensationalist title belies the meaning the author ascribes to it, which is that each artist caused growth in the other’s artistic style, something that might not have happened otherwise. I guess “Influence!” wouldn’t have had the same impact?
The book is divided into 4 sections, each covering a pair of artists who were contemporary: Freud and Bacon, Manet and Degas, Picasso and Matisse, Pollock and de Kooning.They all began as friendships, which sometimes morphed into something else.The pairs are not arranged chronologically, nor is a reason given why those sets were chosen instead of others, say, van Gogh and Gaugin. Each narrative begins with a portrait that one of the artists painted of the other(except for Picasso/Matisse, where it’s a studio visit), then their biographies and artistic journey expands from there.
The first section was a pair of 20th Century artists that I knew the least about, Lucian Freud(grandson of Sigmund) and Francis Bacon, both of whom did figuratives in various mediums, concentrating on faces. Bacon’s looser style affected Freud’s approach, which was meticulous line work at the beginning. Each were gamblers with self-destructive personalities. Their childhoods were unconventional too, the Irish-born Bacon’s having been quite traumatic and Freud’s undisciplined years in a wealthy family.
The book next moves to Belle Epoque France with Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas.Manet convinced Degas to switch from historical subjects to everyday scenes and portraits, the hallmarks of the Impressionists. Degas at first focused on expressions, but his later portraits less so, as they were set at the ballet or theatre and often from angles where the face was partially hidden. Manet was a faster worker and his passion shows in his brush strokes. He loved to be the center of a crowd and courted popularity, while Degas was aloof.
Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse had the most intense rivalry, though it was mostly felt on Picasso’s side. But having read a book previously titled Picasso and the Chess Player about his supposed rivalry with Marcel Duchamp, perhaps he was just competitive with everyone? The older Matisse was already pushing the bounds of art at the beginning of the 20th Century when Picasso was in his Blue and Rose periods. Matisse’s brighter colors and flat style spurred Picasso’s incorporation of African masks into his works, beginning with “Demoiselles d’Avignon”. Each pushed the envelope with portraiture, their popularity alternating throughout the 20th Century.
The final pair, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, both working in America, was a rivalry made up by the press, especially “Life” magazine. Pollock was the uncouth “cowboy” who couldn’t draw and was actually kicked out of art school when he was younger. He only achieved fame through his drip paintings beginning in the late 1940’s. De Kooning was a Dutch immigrant who admired Pollock’s unself-consciousness and reckless personality more than his art, though it did move him towards abstract work at least part of time. Alcohol-fueled fights often broke up their friendship, but in a poignant twist, de Kooning moved his studio across the street from the cemetery Pollock was buried in after his fatal car accident.
The author always adds much about his subjects romantic lives in the encapsulated biographies,though it never reaches the tabloid level. And he has an understanding of artistic mediums and methods, but it’s not too technical for a general audience. There are also a number of color plates showing the major works of each artist, which is handy if certain paintings are unfamiliar. All in all, this is an intriguing book for anyone interested in artists and their creativity.

Random House 2016 416 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0812994803

One comment on “The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee

  1. Kate
    May 31, 2017

    This sounds tremendous, thank you!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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