on The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art, by Sebastian Smee (Random House)

I was going to begin by saying that if you are a writer or artist, it is impossible to read Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry without reflecting on your professional antagonisms. But of course in any profession, especially among its innovators, there is always competition, scorekeeping, come-uppance, and counterattack. This is a book for anyone with a taste for high-stakes creative tension – but also, for those whose values, goals and processes have been profoundly influenced by a contemporary – in other words, as a result of simply encountering someone.

SmeeCover_0.jpgBut not just anyone and not so simply. To have a sworn enemy (Mailer vs Vidal, Bugs vs Fudd) is one thing. But a motivating, life-changing challenger is something else. Smee says his book is “about yielding, intimacy, and openness to influence … these kinds of relationships are inherently volatile. They are fraught with slippery psychodynamics, and difficult to describe with any kind of historical certitude.”

His subject is the artistic and personal clashing between four sets of titans: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Each chapter is a retelling that relies on previous research. “There is, I believe, an intimacy in art history that the textbooks ignore,” he claims. Art historians and critics acknowledge these duels, but they haven’t treated them with Smee’s heightened avidity for reactions triggered by another’s “seductive pressure.”

Smee.jpegHis prose bristles with dramatic tension, psychological acuity and agile description and comment. As one expects from a Pulitzer Prize winning art critic, his remarks on their works are tersely illuminating. Jack Flam notes in his extended study Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship (2003), the overriding concern for ambitiously disruptive young artists is: “Am I really capable of being a great artist?” Smee’s intuitive grasp of combustible relationships opens a view to how one’s peer, perhaps some years older or younger, perhaps endowed with a particular skill lacking in oneself, spurs the other to achieve something unprecedented. “The art of rivalry is, in this sense, the struggle of intimacy itself,” Smee writes. “The restless, twitching battle to get closer to someone, which must somehow be balanced with the battle to remain unique.”

Among poets at least, often it seems there is little to learn from one‘s peers except how to say the same thing over and over but with less and less necessity. Everyone exhibits such facility! Everyone’s on message! A fearful political climate draws writers together for mutual support and congratulations, generating a sameness of attitude and means. There is a call for “community” which takes cover mainly in the redoubt of the university. So it came as a tonic to open Smee’s book and learn that Picasso’s groupies scrawled anti-Matisse graffiti on the walls of Montmartre. Even so, Picasso had been influenced by Matisse, the acknowledged leader of the avant garde fauves -- and Matisse subsequently was affected by Picasso. They visited each other’s studios, then dashed home to work.

Smee’s chapter on Manet and Degas is especially rich with cross-influence, intrigue, soirée attending, and drama. It begins with Degas’ 1868 portrait of Manet and his wife Suzanne. He slouches on a sofa, in thought or perhaps dispirited, and she sits at the piano with her back to him. Smee writes:

Everyone who knew Manet personally seemed to love and admire him. He was charming, he was warm, he had courage; you wanted him on your side. Degas was no exception. By the time the portrait sittings began, Degas had been close friends with him for seven years. But he may have felt about Manet that he had not yet had the chance to get to know him as he really wanted. Asking Manet to sit for a portrait was perhaps a way not only to seal their quietly competitive friendship, but for Degas to get closer to him, to make some sort of claim on the intimate life of this most convivial of men … Degas, like Lucien Freud, was instinctively drawn to the unknown aspects of people, especially those to whom he was closest. It had struck him that, for all Manet’s social fluency, his laconic magnetism, there was something about him that remained elusive.

Degas_0.jpgJust as De Kooning’s drawing skills outstripped Pollock’s, Degas had this edge over Manet. But Manet was the innovator, emphasizing spontaneity, wit, insouciance, and freedom in his lines and imagery. Smee writes, “You felt that everything he painted he loved, and in his very nonchalance there was something not just erotic but briskly violent – as if one way of thinking of love was a kind of glancing blow.” Degas took notice of his temerity – and by the time of his portrait of the Manets, he had begun to incorporate the former’s influence. He presented the finished portrait to his friend.

So then: why did Manet slash the painting, cutting it right through his wife’s figure? The answer fuses every aspect of their relationship, and Smee tells the story with verve and nuance.

In her autobiography Meaning A Life, Mary Oppen tells the story of the end of the friendship between her husband George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky. Oppen had returned to poetry at age 50 after spending years in Mexico. He had met Zukofsky at age 19 and claimed “he taught me everything.” According to Mary, Zukofsky asked his friend who had just returned to New York, “Do you like your poetry better than mine?” To which George answered, “Yes.” And that was the end of the friendship. I appreciate Mary’s work – but I would look forward to a book on poetry friendships from the keyboard of a writer like Smee.

ZukofskyClub.jpegIncidentally, Mary quotes the following from one of George’s interviews: “Blake is more important to me than Williams. The contemporary poets aren’t the most important thing in my life, with the exception of those few things that really matter to me … It must be some habit of life that makes it seem to a young poet that all the other young poets are the major factors in his life. At any rate, it’s not true.”

[Published August 16, 2016. 416 pages, 14 color plates, $28.00 hardcover. Paperback edition due May 2017.]