on friendships, jealousies, and theft in art (The Art of Rivalry)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Art of Rivalry has had my attention these past few days. Sebastian Smee on, to quote the subtitle, "Four Friendships, Betrayals, And Breakthroughs in Modern Art." Freud and Bacon. Manet and Degas. Matisse and Picasso. Pollock and de Kooning.

Most of the time it's just not pretty (the lives, I mean, not the book itself, which I loved). Most of the time, in fact, it is painful as the early friendships and conversations and comradely hope dissolve into jealousies and theft, unfair advantages, unforeseen attacks from the right or left. One artist will lean toward another, helpful. The other artist will admire, acknowledge awe, then take—acts of stealth and planned disturbances. The artists will goad the other artists on, and the work will advance, the volcanic pressures between them will yield new forms, but oh, the cost of it all. Borrowed ideals, lovers, friends, techniques. Smash ups. New work. Bold work. Despair. It is hard to watch, even at this distance, because the lessons here are not just historic. Such rivalries, in every discipline, still and always abound.

I felt particular empathy for Matisse in the face of a younger Picasso who wanted much, who drew close to Matisse for his own advantage, who leaned on the generosity of the older artist, then locked himself away in the hopes of emerging as top dog/best. Writes Smee, about Picasso's breakthrough Demoiselles, which borrowed heavily from ideas and discoveries of Matisse (ideas/discoveries that Matisse had overtly, generously shared with Picasso, ideas/discoveries that Picasso absorbed by paying close attention to Matisse's work), "The most credible account (of Matisse's comments after seeing Picasso's canvas) was him saying, more mutedly but with evident bitterness: 'A little boldness discovered in a friend's work is shared by all.' The implication being that while he, Matisse, had dedicated years of experiment and honest inquiry to making a high-order aesthetic 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."

From the evidence presented by Smee, at least, Matisse had every right to draw the conclusion he had, and every right to watch, amazed and not quite certain what to do, as Picasso continued to abuse their friendship in search of ever-greater stature. But what Smee's book also makes clear is that "winning" in art is hardly ever a satisfactory outcome. The victor becomes the target, the next big thing to push aside, the isolated genius who is no longer just one of the guys (all the primary artists in Smee's books are guys), but a force that (in order to be reckoned with) must in some way be destroyed.

de Kooning, for example, outlasts, outwits Jackson Pollock. He gets to be the Numero Uno Artist of the time. He even sleeps with Pollock's last girlfriend. He wins! But here is winning, not just for de Kooning, but for so many artists, dead and alive. Winning is its own form of loss:
But he was far from content. Even as the adulation peaked, he seemed increasingly harried, frustrated, and petulant. Alone at the top, he behaved as if under permanent threat—just as Pollock had. He was pining, too, for lost comrades—"imaginary brothers" gone missing. He was missing Gorky, his old sidekick, long dead. And he was pining, obscurely, for Pollock. More than anyone else, Pollock would have understood what de Kooning was now going through; what it was like to be at the top of the pile; what forces buffeted you up there and made you want to drink yourself to oblivion.
Moderation is not a sexy word. The quiet conversationalist is rarely the headline maker. The giver is not the victor, not most of the time anyway. Greatness comes at incalculable costs. The Art of Rivalry offers object lessons in how art gets made—and in how life might have been (might be) better lived.


A.S. King said...

Wow. This sounds amazing.

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