From Picasso and Matisse to Bacon and Freud, Artists’ Rivals Are Also Their Greatest Assets
As he trailed Lucian Freud up the stairs of the artist’s Holland Park home, something caught art critic Sebastian Smee’s eye. There, hanging beside the studio door, was a “wanted” poster printed with an image of Freud’s Portrait of Francis Bacon (1952). The flyers had been part of an unsuccessful campaign to recover the work, which was stolen in 1988 from a Berlin museum. To this day, the portrait has never been found.
Bacon and Freud had famously befriended each other in London in the 1940s. But by the 1970s their relationship had completely unraveled. (The photograph, above, from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection captures their friendship near its end.) Even a decade after Bacon’s death in 1992, it was considered taboo to broach the subject with Freud during interviews. So why, Smee wondered, did the portrait of Bacon still hang next to his studio door?
“I knew that he wanted that painting back very much because of its quality,” Smee recently told Artsy. “But I also thought it must have been partly to do with the fact that the subject of the painting was this person who had played such a crucial role in his life and in his artistic career. And in that sense it felt poignant.”
For Smee, the lingering questions posed by the “wanted” poster served as the jumping off point for his latest book, The Art of Rivalry. Out August 16th, it traces the complicated relationships between four pairs of modern masters—Freud and Bacon, Picasso and Matisse, Manet and Degas, and Pollock and de Kooning. Although the term “rivalry” may conjure up visions of bitter adversaries pitted against each other, Smee believes that model is outdated. “The famous rivalries you hear about, whether it’s between Delacroix and Ingres in the 19th century, or the famous Renaissance rivalries, they’re all about competing with your enemy—a kind of macho idea,” he said. “I detected something really different in these relationships between artists coming into the modern era.”
Instead of out-and-out competition, Smee spends much of the book exposing the layers of uneasy friendship and intimacy that existed between the pairs—subtle moments that are often overlooked in the art historical narrative. “I just related to it; I think perhaps we all can, if there are people in our lives who we are seduced by and impressed by,” Smee said. “We're drawn to them—and if they're an artist, their way of looking at things—and that's a very intoxicating feeling. But at the same time, we are made conscious of things that may be lacking in ourselves, and again, if we’re artists, in our own artistic approach.”
Freud’s relationship with the older Bacon came early in his artistic career. Although he always painted portraits, initially these were crafted in a childlike, innocent manner. The smooth surfaces and wide eyes of Freud’s early subjects were miles away from the eventual fleshy, paint-heavy portraits that would go on to define his oeuvre. It was Bacon’s risk-taking, his loose, smeared paint and fascination with the space surrounding his sitters, that inspired the younger artist. Freud later said, “I think that Francis’s way of painting freely helped me feel more daring.” Bacon’s influence led the painter—considered by critics to be an excellent draftsman—to give up drawing completely for several years, resulting in a rapid shift in style that alienated many of his supporters. In fact, art historian Kenneth Clark, one of the artist’s early admirers, never spoke to Freud again.
Public rejection and disapproval often helped forge these artistic relationships. It wasn’t until the modern era that originality emerged as a factor in the way art was judged, a shift “that creates all sorts of problems,” Smee noted. “Once you value originality over so many other things, you lose hold of the criteria that used to exist to help us judge the quality of art. It affects the artists themselves in profound ways, because they’re suddenly unable to know for sure whether what they’ve just done is any good.”
Matisse’s experiments with Fauvism in the early years of the 20th century are one such example. These works, so far from accepted artistic practice at the time, provoked panic attacks, insomnia, and fierce anxiety as the painter considered public reaction. “In that context, other artists become incredibly important—people whose judgment you can trust, people who you can admire for their own originality and their own artistic virtues, whatever they may be,” Smee explained.
Matisse and Picasso served as each other’s sounding boards for years, with each pushing the other to new experiments and broader horizons. At first, it was Matisse who took the risks—painting with increasingly brighter colors in flatter and more saturated compositions. Picasso’s work, while original and capable, did not yet push boundaries in the same way as his fellow painter. But as the two of them spent hours together, often in the home of Leo and Gertrude Stein, Picasso started to chafe at living in the established artist’s shadow.
“I think Matisse deeply destabilized Picasso in a way that ended up being unbelievably fruitful for his whole artistic career,” Smee explained. “It’s a dynamic of being drawn to him and the things he was experimenting with and his influences, and yet at the same time pushing against him and trying to find his own identity and his own voice.” Inspired in part by the African masks that fascinated Matisse, Picasso commenced work on his eventual masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). And while Matisse initially thought of Picasso as a protégé, the older artist eventually realized that the relationship might be more fluid than he first imagined—even taking cues from Picasso’s competing artistic school of Cubism.
Sometimes the rivalries between the artists had an obvious visual representation. Such was the case with Manet and Degas, whose relationship came to head when Degas painted a portrait of his fellow artist and his wife, Suzanne. Inexplicably, Manet—who was known by all as an easygoing and affable man—slashed the painting in half, slicing through his wife’s face and body. Degas later began to repair the painting with a strip of canvas but never got around to repainting the missing portion. De Kooning and Pollock’s rivalry had an even more visceral personal connection. In a move that shocked the close-knit New York art world, de Kooning began an affair with Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s lover, soon after Pollock died in a car crash.
What is perhaps most intriguing, however, about Smee’s four pairings is the undercurrent of uncertainty that runs throughout. In a world where a Picasso sells for $179 million and a Pollock for $140 million, it can be easy to forget that these artists once felt insecure, even threatened, as they set out to create works that would redefine artmaking in the coming decades. “You really do feel their vulnerability in these early years,” Smee said. “And that’s something that when they’ve become haloed in this aura of greatness, you think, ‘Oh, it must have been always like that. They must have always known that they were great.’ And I just don't believe that at all.”