Title: The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art
Author: Sebastian Smee
Publisher: Random House
Hardcover: 416 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic Sebastian Smee tells the fascinating story of four pairs of artists—Manet and Degas, Picasso and Matisse, Pollock and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon—whose fraught, competitive friendships spurred them to new creative heights.
Rivalry is at the heart of some of the most famous and fruitful relationships in history. The Art of Rivalry follows eight celebrated artists, each linked to a counterpart by friendship, admiration, envy, and ambition. All eight are household names today. But to achieve what they did, each needed the influence of a contemporary—one who was equally ambitious but possessed sharply contrasting strengths and weaknesses.
Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas were close associates whose personal bond frayed after Degas painted a portrait of Manet and his wife. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso swapped paintings, ideas, and influences as they jostled for the support of collectors like Leo and Gertrude Stein and vied for the leadership of a new avant-garde.
Jackson Pollock’s uninhibited style of “action painting” triggered a breakthrough in the work of his older rival, Willem de Kooning. After Pollock’s sudden death in a car crash, de Kooning took over his mantle and became romantically involved with his late friend’s mistress. Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon met in the early 1950s, when Bacon was being hailed as Britain’s most exciting new painter and Freud was working in relative obscurity. Their “intense but asymmetrical” friendship came to a head when Freud painted a celebrated portrait of Bacon that was later stolen.
Each of these relationships culminated in an early flashpoint, a rupture in a budding intimacy that was both a betrayal and a trigger for great innovation. Writing with the same exuberant wit and psychological insight that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for art criticism, Sebastian Smee explores the way that coming into one’s own as an artist—finding one’s voice—almost always involves willfully breaking away from some intimate’s expectations of who you are or ought to be.
*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5
One of my favorite things to learn about is how art is made — I mean art in a broad sense, in terms of writing, painting, filmmaking, etc. I find it incredibly satisfying to learn about the lives of those who’ve created amazing pieces of work, and learn how their circumstances influenced those works. So, when I saw that this was available on NetGalley, of course I requested it.
Sebastian Smee does a wonderful job in going through the pairs of artists and giving brief summaries of their lives and how they were affected by each other. I love that this gives a brief glimpse into each of the artist’s works, so that we can see these constructions were not created out of a vacuum, but within the life of an actual person. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that, so it’s nice to learn something about each artist.
The writing itself is incredibly understandable and I felt that the stories were fast-paced but well fleshed out. I was engrossed almost the whole way through and never felt like I was missing any information about the artists, but the story didn’t feel drawn-out. The perfect balance. 🙂
What would have made this book a five was if we were given a brief description of the time period and how art was currently viewed in the culture before delving into the artists’ lives and how they were changing it. We get a lot of detail on what the artists do, but not necessarily why that was groundbreaking for their time — the only reason I was able to almost keep up was due to my vague memories of an art history class I once took. I think knowing the context of the time period would have been incredibly helpful for understanding the different artists and appreciating their new approaches to art.
My favorite section was definitely the Matisse and Picasso chapter, but I also think that those are the two artists I know the most about, so there might have been a bit of a bias when it came to that. I also think it was the least dysfunctional relationship that Smee explores (at least, it seemed that way to me), so that also might have been a factor.
If you’re interested in how art is created, or learning more about the lives of some famous artists, then I definitely recommend you pick this up. I greatly enjoyed it.