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.