The Art of Rivalry

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The Art of Rivalry. By Sebastian Smee. (New York: Random House Publishing, 2016)

What is modern art without the inclusion of the undeniable presence of tension and competitive strife between creative masters? It can be argued that this complicated  dynamic between artists,  the incessant pursuit to out-innovate their peers, is in essence, what has shaped the history of modernism. In The Art of Rivalry, Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee explores this very topic. Through depictions of the relationships between some of modern art’s most renowned names, the book, as Smee presents it in his introduction, aims to reckon with “an intimacy in art history that textbooks often ignore” (p. xvi). The result is an engaging account of the creative tensions that characterized the friendships between four pairs of artists: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and how that tension shaped their art.

When reading The Art of Rivalry, one may attempt to pinpoint a unifying force or common theme tying together these four friendships. While he gives no apparent explanation to his decisions for choosing these particular artists, it is interesting to note that all four friendships presented involved  an audacious, more dominant individual, and one who never quite matched the other’s boldness. If not for Pollock’s complete innovation and abstract exploration of paint on canvas, would de Kooning have broken free from the restraint of the figurative, finally pushing the boundaries of his own work?  It’s impossible to say for sure, but what is in fact certain, is that in each story presented, these relationships were impactful. Each story involves the artists reaching a peak in his success shortly after a significant event occurred between the two.  It can be argued that some of these artists may never have reached the height of their success, if not for the influence that these rivalries had on their careers. 

In his work, Smee finds a fantastic balance between informative biography and gripping narrative. The stories were fast-paced (as each section recounted the careers of these artists in merely 90 or so pages), but well fleshed out. This book is not merely a factual account of these artist’s careers, it also includes juicy details about Pollock’s anarchic behavior, for example, like the time he was a friend’s house and punched out a window after telling a guy he needed some air, a moment de Kooning describes as “so delicious—so belligerent…Terrific” (pg. 308), and  details of Picasso’s many lovers and opium usage, and the underlying sexual tensions of Freud and Bacon’s relationship.The inclusion of these titillating details, hooks more than your expected art historian. It appeals to a wider audience, those interested in drama, in tragedy, in intimacy, and is a key component in the success of Smee’s work.

The Art of Rivalry, with all of its admirable qualities, is not without inherent flaws. Smee’s at times unnecessary use of flowery language, detracts from the the story, and even paints him as pretentious in some instances. Also, while it does appeal to a more general audience than say, an art history textbook, those with absolutely no previous knowledge of the history of art may struggle to completely understand the stories in the context of what was happening in the art world at that time. If someone were to read this with only today’s art as their reference, they may not understand why Manet and Degas’ rejection of the history painting, or Pollock and de Kooning’s journey into complete abstraction were so revolutionary at their time. The inclusion of   a brief summary of the art movements and key players during the specific time period, would greatly benefit each of the four sections, at least for those with little to no background in art. Another issue is that some readers may disagree with claims that Smee makes throughout the novel, like when he states that de Kooning and Pollock are the “two most celebrated artists of the twentieth century”. These allegations paint him as biased in some instances throughout the novel.

Overall, in this interesting exploration of friendship and strife between some of modern art’s notable figures, Smee successfully details how these relationships ultimately created a competitive tension that brought their art to great new heights. While some minor flaws may be pointed out in The Art of Rivalry, Smee’s ability to fluidly implement details about the artists’ lives that are more personal than what would be presented in any art history book, provides the reader with an exceptional look into how impactful these relationships were to the history of modern art.  

The 45 RPM Adapter

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The object presented is a 45 RPM adapter. Sometimes referred to as a 45 record insert, or 7 inch adapter, the object is a small insert that is placed in the middle of a 45 RPM record in order for it to be played on the more common 78 RPM sized spindle of a record player. I have chosen this object because I work at a radio station, and we have a pretty big vinyl collection. I remember being puzzled the first time I found a 45 adapter laying around, I had no idea what it was. With it’s unique design, I thought it would make for an interesting description.

The shape of the object presented is generally circular in nature, but consists of three identical pronged points that round outward from the converging points of a central shape.  This central shape is compound and consists of both an equilateral triangular shape with concave sides, and a circle. The negative space plays a critical role in defining the shape of the object. There is a hole cut from the center, about 1/5 the diameter of the overall circular shape of the object. There are also three equivalent curved lines that cut inward, and wrap around the central circle from any given angle, but never touch one another.

The shadows that are visible in the negative space make it clear that the object has depth, but the size of the object is impossible to determine from the attached image. There is also raised, sans serif text that wraps around the center, in between the central cut circle and the three curved lines. In terms of color, the object is very clearly blue, with only slight variations in value caused by the way the object has been lit.

The first 45 rpm inserts were invented by the Webster-Chicago Corporation. They were made of solid zinc, very difficult to insert into a record, and nearly impossible to remove without breaking the record. Eventually, a number of differently shaped adapters were invented, and the plastic “Spider” design you see here became the most widely used, and recognizable. While not as widely recognizable today, especially to younger generations, the design can still be seen on t-shirts, posters and the like. My boss even got a tattoo of one a few weeks ago. This brings up the symbolic nature of the 45 RPM adapter. With advancements in technology and the dominance of digital streaming, they are no longer widely used today for their technical purpose. However, the image of the 45 adapter has come to represent something beyond its function; nostalgia for a music scene past. Symbolic of a transient product that is very hard to come by today, the 45 adapter represents, especially to members of older generations, a time when music was pure, artists played all of their own instruments, and recording and producing a record was a process that took time and careful attention to detail.

Time does not stop, technology will keep advancing, and for the music industry, this is no exception. And who knows, maybe in 40-50 years Spotify’s logo will come to represent the nostalgia for the music scene past that the 45 adapter represents today.

René Magritte

René Magritte, often referred to as the most praised Belgian artist of the 20th Century, is also one of the most widely recognized Surrealist artists of the time period. The primary goal of surrealist artists was to channel the unconscious in their works, let go of rationalism, and unlock the power of imagination. This was no exception for Magritte, but what set him apart from other Surrealists, was his deadpan, illustrative approach that clearly portrayed the content of his paintings. This illustrative technique results in contradictions within his paintings; beautiful, simplistic imagery, that simultaneously elicit unsettling thoughts. There is a stark contrast between the seemingly ordinary, and the mysterious. Influences of psychoanalysis can also been seen throughout Magritte’s work; repetition was a key feature throughout his career, and regarded also as a sign of trauma according to Freudian thought.

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Above we have the painting “Les Amants,” or “The Lovers” painted by Magritte in 1928, the first in a series of four variations. Here Magritte has portrayed a cinematic-style kiss between two lovers, but in a mysterious twist of the expected, has concealed the faces in cloth, hindering the viewer’s ability to peer in on the scene. Surrealists were often interested in the idea of disguises and masking what lies beneath the surface, it is quite evident that Magritte was no exception to this. It is speculated that this series of paintings was inspired by the death of Magritte’s mother, who drowned herself and was retrieved from the river with her nightgown draped over her face. Although Magritte denied this, the story is still pervasive. In my own personal interpretation of The Lovers, I see the series as a representative of past failed relationships, of the old photos we keep as a reminder of times spent with people who have since become distant memories. “The Lovers” are no longer in love, and that is why their faces have been covered as if they were corpses. 

René Magritte had significant influence on movements that followed his death in 1967, including both Pop Art and Conceptual Art. His emphasis on concept over one’s execution was particularly impactful, and he has been cited as key influences by artists  such as Andy Warhol and Martin Kippenberger. Magritte’s work is still influential readily on display around the world today.

Works Cited

Hamilton, Adrian. “Smoke and Mirrors: The Surreal Life and Work of René Magritte.” Independent. N.p., 9 June 2011. Web. 21 Oct. 2016. <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/smoke-and-mirrors-the-surreal-life-and-work-of-ren-magritte-2295262.html>

“MoMA | René Magritte. The Lovers. Le Perreux-sur-Marne, 1928.” MoMALearning. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2016. <http://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/rene-magritte-the-lovers-le-perreux-sur-marne-1928>

“Rene Magritte Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <http://www.theartstory.org/artist-magritte-rene.htm>

Printed Books Existed Long Before Gutenberg’s Bible

Johannes Gutenberg is often credited as the inventor of the printing press. Many people think of him in that regard to this day. The reality is that Gutenberg didn’t exactly invent anything. His contributions to printing technology; namely his advancements in moveable, mechanized type, were indeed revolutionary, but the history of printing, and the printing press, begin about 600 years before Gutenberg’s time in Asia.

The true origins of printing begin with what historians refer to as woodblocks, a system in which printers would carve an image or letters into flat pieces of wood, ink the images, and then press them against cloth and paper to transfer. The earliest known woodblock printed book originated in China. Diamond Sutra (pictured below) was printed in 868 and is currently kept at the British Library in London. Woodblock printing was also utilized in Japan and Korea as early as the 8th century. The use of metal blocks was also not uncommon.

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The onset of the 11th century marked a very important improvement to this method of printing; moveable type. Moveable type was developed by a Chinese man named Bi Sheng. Shen Kuo, a scholar who documented the work of Sheng mentions that his method of printing was actually fairly efficient in that day and age, and could print thousands of copies. The issue here, and why Sheng is not as prominently recognized as Gutenberg is for his advancements in moveable type, is that his method of printing didn’t become popular for centuries after his development.

One of the most notable examples of Chinese moveable type can be seen in a work printed in the 14th century by Wang Chen. His book on agriculture, “Nung Shu,” was originally printed in 1313 using the woodblock method, but was later reproduced using moveable type. Historians suggest that moveable metal type was independently discovered in Korea during the same century. In 1377, Baegun, a buddhist monk, printed a compilation of buddhist ideologies using moveable metal type. “Jikji” (Pictured below) is recognized as the oldest book in the world that was printed using metal type.

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Whether or not Gutenberg was aware of Wang’s and Baegun’s advancements in moveable type is not exactly known, and up for debate. What is clear, is why the technology was so much more widespread in European countries as opposed to the Asian ones where it was first developed. The number of characters in Asian Languages is far greater, and the characters themselves are more ornate and detailed. With western languages, you’d need to cast only a few dozen pieces and you’d have the entire alphabet.

The reason that Gutenberg is “the man” (pictured below) when it comes to the origins of printing, is because he developed the press that mechanized the whole process. The first printing press, with its assembly line style printing process, allowed for far greater efficiency than simply pressing by hand as his Asian predecessors had done.

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References:

Palermo, Elizabeth. “Who Invented the Printing Press?” Live Science. N.p., 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.