By Sebastian Smee

Profile Books. 390 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-1-78125-165-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Do artists always fall out? I suppose rivalries, and the envy they often incite, do inevitably lead to former friends finding reasons to become, if not necessarily enemies, at least distant in their future encounters. Success invites jealousy, perhaps, and sometimes a small incident may be the trigger for a rift in a relationship.

Francis Bacon had, by the 1980s, established himself as a major international artist. His work had been seen in influential exhibitions in Paris, New York, London, and elsewhere: “No British artist of the twentieth century had received more sustained critical acclaim”. By contrast, according to Sebastian Smee, Lucian Freud, though well-known in local art circles, “barely registered” outside the British Isles: “And in the United States he was quite unknown”.

Was this a matter of concern for Freud? Was he envious of Bacon’s popularity? The two had been friends for many years and had painted portraits of each other. Freud’s was a small, accurate, and easily identifiable, head, though Bacon once commented that Freud’s work was “realistic without being real”. And it did slightly distort Bacon’s appearance.  Bacon’s was a larger, full-figure canvas that, frankly, didn’t look like Freud if the viewer was expecting to recognise the named subject. But Bacon never did aim to operate in a figurative style based on close physical observation. He was more interested in capturing what he called “the pulsation of a person”, and preferred to work from memory or photographs rather than have someone sitting for him.

It’s interesting to note that the tiny portrait of Bacon was stolen from an exhibition in Berlin and has never been recovered. When someone suggested to Freud that it was probably taken by an admirer of his work, he disagreed and thought that it was more likely a fan of Bacon who had removed it from the gallery wall.

Smee sketches in the general progress of both artists, and some details of their personal lives, which in both cases had elements of chaos about them. And he says that by the 1970s the relationship between them was strained. Bacon commented that he wasn’t “really fond of Lucian….it’s just that he rings me up all the time”. Freud, for his part, thought that Bacon became “bitter and bitchy” when Freud’s work began to attract high prices. And that his alcoholism had worsened Bacon’s character. There was another reason offered by George Dyer, Bacon’s companion, who thought that the rift developed when Freud kept asking Bacon for money to pay his gambling debts. Both men were inveterate gamblers, with Freud probably less successful at it. He frequently owed money to some shady characters. Dyer said that Freud never repaid the money he borrowed from Bacon, and that the latter was eventually advised not to carry on responding whenever Freud asked for a loan.

Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet met in 1861 and soon became friends. Manet was already exhibiting in the Salon, though he was only three or four years older than Degas. And, if Smee’s commentary is accurate, Manet, like Bacon, had a looser approach to painting than the younger man: “Manet seemed increasingly set on achieving a look of spontaneity and freedom”, whereas Degas denied that spontaneity played any part in his work. Talking to Walter Sickert, Degas remarked, “Damned Manet. Everything he does he always hits off straight away, while I take endless pains and never get it right”. It sounds not dissimilar to what Freud may have thought about his approach when compared to Bacon’s. Smee comments: “Just as Francis Bacon’s effect on Lucian Freud was to enlarge his world – to enhance the pleasure he took in new people, new situations, new forms of social and aesthetic potential – Manet helped pull Degas out of himself”.

Manet was married, whereas Degas, while “deeply moved by female beauty, charmed and even seduced by intelligent female company”, had “a silent, abiding fear of woman’s potential to soothe, unman, enfeeble”. He painted a picture of Manet relaxing while his wife, Suzanne, sat playing at the piano. It may have seemed an innocuous portrait of a domestic scene, but Smee suggests that the deliberate placing of Suzanne with her back to Manet had significance: “Degas, quite simply, was getting too close to Manet’s marriage and the secrets it veiled……..With cool deliberation, Degas had depicted Suzanne absorbed in her music making, facing away from her disaffected husband. He is off in his own world, dreaming, one could infer, of someone else. Of Berthe Morisot, perhaps”.

This, of course, is supposition, though it may be based on known facts about Morisot’s affair with Manet. What is true, however, is that one day, when visiting Manet, Degas saw that the portrait had been damaged. It had been slashed with a knife and “The blade had gone right through Suzanne’s face”. It was Manet who had done it, and some speculation arose that it was because Degas had failed to flatter Suzanne when he painted her. This doesn’t seem likely, so there must have been another reason that never came to light. Degas took the painting away, ostensibly to repair it. He didn’t really get around to it, and the result was that it now hangs in an obscure Japanese gallery with half of the canvas blanked out.

It may have been that Degas, when painting the picture of Manet and his wife, was in his way being disruptive because he was jealous of Manet’s success with Berthe Morisot. Degas himself tried to pay court to her, but she didn’t take to him and told her sister: “I definitely do not think that he has an attractive character. He’s witty, and that’s all”. Smee hints that Manet, despite being married, more or less warned Degas off Morisot. And he followed up by telling her that Degas “was not capable of loving a woman, much less of telling her that he does or of doing anything about it”. It was hardly the way that a friend would behave, unless, of course, he had designs on Morisot himself, which we know Manet did. So, it’s highly likely that the damaged painting got that way because Manet’s wife found out about his affair with Morisot, there was an argument, and Manet vented his spleen on the painting. But we can’t know for sure.

What we do know is that the friendship between Manet and Degas was never quite the same, though they did still speak to each other. Degas was of the opinion that it was difficult to stay angry with Manet for very long. They visited each other’s studios and mixed socially. And continued to consider themselves as rivals. Smee has an anecdote about Degas looking at drawings and paintings in Manet’s studio and having nothing to say about them because, he claimed, his eyes were tired and he couldn’t see very well. Later, a mutual friend reported that he’d met Degas who was enthusing about what Manet had shown him. Manet’s response was, “Ah, the bastard…..”

When Manet died there wasn’t a single work by Degas in his private collection, whereas on Degas’s death some years later, it was discovered that he owned eight paintings by Manet, plus fourteen drawings and more than sixty prints. Whatever had happened between the two artists with regard to the damaged painting, it was obvious that Degas never lost his admiration for Manet’s work. Some of the items that Degas had were illustrations of Berthe Morisot.

I don’t think anything as dramatic as a painting being slashed occurred in the relationship between Matisse and Picasso, though rivalry and ambition, especially on Picasso’s part, certainly came into play. And there was definitely a difference between them when it came to their sensibilities. Matisse was a family man with young sons and a daughter, though he had gone through a bohemian phase when younger. Smee says that the Steins were captivated by “the force of his intelligence, his grace under pressure, his surprising combination of personal propriety and reckless ambition”. He had started painting relatively late, when compared to Picasso, and it took some time for him to be looked on seriously as an artist. Smee describes young painters “laughing themselves sick” when they saw Matisse’s Woman with a Hat in the 1905 Salon d’Automne, the exhibition designed to display the work of new and adventurous artists. Even Leo Stein referred to the painting as “the nastiest smear of paint” when he first encountered it. But he bought it, largely because Sarah Stein urged him to. She had a sharper eye than either Leo or Gertrude Stein for what was likely to become important and influential. It was Georges Braque who said that Gertrude’s eye for artistic talent, “never went beyond the stage of a tourist”.

Picasso was a child prodigy. I remember seeing an exhibition in Malaga devoted to his early work, before he had moved to Paris, and it left me in no doubt about his skills as a draftsman and painter. In Paris he led a bohemian lifestyle with various women always in attendance. There had been a notorious incident when his friend Carles Casagemas shot himself in a Paris café because of his unrequited love for a model. Picasso was affected by his friend’s death. though it didn’t stop him sleeping with the girl in question in Casagemas’s bed in his old studio. Later, he took up with Fernande Olivier on a more-permanent basis. And he seemed to thrive on the bohemian atmosphere of Montmartre.

Both Matisse and Picasso attended the Stein’s salons, and it could only have rankled him somewhat to see that Matisse’s paintings were prominently displayed on the walls of their apartment. Picasso’s French at that time wasn’t too good, and Smee thinks that the evenings must have been “a trial” for him. Matisse, on the other hand, “would hold forth in his native French with sober charm and impressive command”. Picasso must have “felt acutely conscious that he was behind him in almost every way –in achievement, in maturity, and, above all, in creative audacity”. Matisse, for his part, “could surely smell Picasso’s ambition, and he had picked up – either directly or from the whisperings of others – on his brilliance”. Matisse was friendly and encouraging to the younger painter, but Picasso “could not abide the idea of being a follower”. He needed to be pre-eminent. But to be so he had to come up with something that would grab the attention of artists, critics, and the gallery-going public. And draw the spotlight away from Matisse.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon didn’t come easy. Picasso spent months working on it, and its impact when it was finished was almost nullified by Matisse’s Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, which was shown in the 1907 Salon des Independants. Smee says that it was “shockingly raw. It was a nude, yes; but it refused to offer the seductions of soft flesh or familiar curves. There was something brutal and disruptive about it”. It didn’t go down well with critics and other artists, and though the Steins bought it, Picasso was not impressed.

Matisse finally got to see Les Demoiselles d’Avignon when he visited Picasso’s studio in the Bateau-Lavoir, the tumbledown building in Montmartre where Picasso and other artists lived. Accounts of his reaction vary from him laughing out loud, to being angry and vowing to take revenge on Picasso. Smee’s opinion is that he more likely felt that while he “had dedicated years of experiment and honest enquiry to making a high-order authentic breakthrough, here, now, was Picasso, stealing ideas he didn’t fully grasp in order to produce a painting that was deliberately and senselessly ugly – all for the sake of looking equally bold”. Matisse was not the only one to feel that Picasso had produced a failure with the “pictorial dissonance” of his painting and his use of African-style masks instead of regular human faces. Matisse had introduced Picasso to African art, but, in Smee’s words, “never expected his discovery to be adopted in such a blatantly literal way”.  

Picasso did eventually become the leading light among the Parisian avant-garde, and his supporters mocked Matisse and claimed that the older man’s work was becoming increasingly lightweight. Gertrude and Leo Stein turned against him and disposed of their Matisse paintings. Gertrude Stein’s account of an exchange of paintings between Picasso and Matisse was, Smee suggests, “more a symptom of Stein’s desire to cast the two painters as enemies than anything else”. But it seems that the paintings in question pleased both artists. Picasso was happy that Matisse responded “to his new interest in angular forms and ambiguous spatial relation”, and Matisse was satisfied that Picasso “took seriously his interest in children’s art”.

It’s unlikely that Matisse and Picasso saw themselves as enemies. Rivals, yes, and prepared to be critical of each other’s work, when necessary. But it’s possible to be a rival and still be willing to acknowledge that the other person is someone to be admired.

That sort of situation could easily apply to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, the two leading painters of the New York School, or the Abstract Expressionists, or Action Painters. All those terms were, at one time or another, applied to the group of artists who swept across the American art scene in the late-1940s and 1950s. Abstract Expressionists was the one that stuck.

Their early days were not easy ones, and it took time for them to establish significant styles and gain attention from influential critics. Willem de Kooning had grown up in Holland, where he had a formal training in drawing and other matters. He stowed away on a ship to America in the early-1920s, and at various times found employment as a carpenter, window-dresser, and house-painter. He seems to have been, in his younger days, at least, a likeable person, with, in Smee’s words, “a mind made for mischief. A sense of irony gurgled beneath his habitually open and generous manner”. Jackson Pollock, by contrast, was moody, easily irritated, and had a violent temper. They were friends, though “far from best friends”, but it was a friendship that was increasingly under pressure as they became successful and people expected them to function as rivals. Two of the major art critics in New York took sides, with Harold Rosenberg backing de Kooning and Clement Greenberg boosting Jackson Pollock. Reading Smee, it almost seems that the real battle was between the two critics and that the painters “were essentially used as pawns”.

It’s probably true that, as Pollock’s reputation grew in the late-1940s, de Kooning was envious. But at the same time he knew that the interest surrounding Pollock would benefit the Abstract Expressionists generally. Smee thinks that: “What de Kooning admired in Pollock, in other words, was not unlike what Freud saw in Francis Bacon: It was a quality that had as much to do with Pollock’s perspective on life as with his achievement as an artist – although what seemed most marvellous, perhaps, was that the two things were impossible to separate”.

Later, when de Kooning’s work was attracting critical attention, it was Pollock’s turn to react, and in his case it was with anger. He turned up uninvited at a gathering of artists in a New York restaurant, and started to fall out with various people. Someone who was there commented: “He lashed out at everyone, and no-one could say anything to please him”. Present at the party was Arshile Gorky, “de Kooning’s former mentor and comrade-in-arms”. Gorky was not in good shape, and Pollock must have known it, but he started “shouting insults at him, mocking his paintings”, until another artist, William Baziotes, told Pollock to shut up.

It’s worth quoting in full Smee’s comments on this incident: “Pollock was not one to calculate far in advance. But it’s likely that, given de Kooning’s earlier attachments to Gorky, Pollock saw the attack on him as an indirect way of discharging his jealousy over de Kooning’s success. If so, it wouldn’t be the last time Pollock suppressed and garbled his emotions in such a way”.

Given the hothouse atmosphere in New York, and the need for many other people – painters, patrons, critics – to line up, take sides and get in on the act, it’s inevitable that de Kooning and Pollock would be seen as rivals, even enemies. Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, fiercely berated de Kooning when he spoke favourably about an article that Harold Rosenberg had written and in which, she claimed, he had attacked Pollock. She accused de Kooning of “betraying her, betraying Jackson, betraying art”, when he defended Rosenberg’s article. But as Smee points out, “the essay was perhaps less an attack on Pollock than an intellectual assault on Pollock’s preeminent champion, Clement Greenberg”. Rosenberg realised that Greenberg was fast becoming “the dominant influence over New York’s burgeoning avant-garde art scene”. And he resented it.

It’s probable that, left to themselves, de Kooning and Pollock might well have been able to sustain a friendship that was “good-humoured, intimate, and creatively generative”. True, Pollock had problems that made his behaviour erratic and sometimes offensive, but that needn’t have been a major stumbling block in his relationship with de Kooning. But they were thrust into roles in a situation which involved matters outside their control. America wanted major artists creating a new form, Abstract Expressionism, that would pull attention away from Paris, and Europe generally.

You could even say that it was, in some ways, an extension of the Cold War, in that it gave the United States cultural hegemony over Russia. Abstract Expressionism, once it became established as the dominant form of painting, was certainly used to demonstrate American ideas about freedom of expression. Obviously, neither de Kooning nor Pollock were directly political. But others were, and it might be useful to see the battle fought between Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg as relating to the cultural/political struggles among New York intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s, but which had their roots in the 1930s.

Smee recounts an incident at a party at Robert Motherwell’s house when Pollock, who hadn’t been invited, turned up, and was mocked as a “has-been” by de Kooning and Franz Kline. Pollock, for once, was sober and didn’t respond. And, of course, he later died in a drunken car accident and so left de Kooning as king of the castle, so to speak. But de Kooning’s reputation declined as the 1960s brought other art movement to the fore. And he suffered from the same problems that afflicted Pollock as he drank excessively and behaved erratically. There may be some irony in the fact that he had an affair with Ruth Kligman, who had been Pollock’s mistress and had survived the car crash that killed him and one of Kligman’s friends.

The Art of Rivalry doesn’t only just dissect the private lives of the artists concerned. Sebastian Smee also analyses their work and places it in the broader contexts of art history. His book is immensely readable and informative, and has a useful bibliography.