As Iron Sharpens Iron

Review: Sebastian Smee, 'The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art

"Mr. and Mrs. Manet," slashed painting by Edgar Degas
December 31, 2016

Male-male relations, if they are not sexual, are rarely considered these days, generally absent from the mental screen of those who consider men and women. Now all are reduced to the abstraction of "gender." Or rather men are. Sisterhood is powerful; OK, sure. The closest we get to a male version of this is the military's idea of "band of brothers," men united by combat. But this is increasingly under siege, as now women are to be admitted to all branches of the military and into all realms of combat. So much for the notion of the band of brothers. Now perhaps the band of humanoids?

And it's not just the military. Straight men aren't the flavor of the month. Nobody cares about their odd ballet of love and hate with each other. Of course I do, and so do many other men. It's just that we can't let on that we do. Sebastian Smee, the art critic for the Boston Globe, also cares. But in what seems like a clever sleight-of-hand, his book about the way men bond and compete with each other as dearly loved rivals is offered as (and will clearly be sold as) "art history" rather than as Men's Studies: The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.

Say it loud and say it proud: Straight men both love and hate each other. Why wouldn't we? Our nature as the king of our small preserve means that other men fall either into the category of threats or bosom buddies. Or go from one to the other. We compete with each other, but we know that we're the closest the other has to a mirror image. Do we love each other more than we hate each other? Or the reverse? Things can get messy.

Smee's gossipy bio-book about the male-male relations of four artist pairs from the last two centuries chronicles this mess. Thankfully, he doesn't go for the easy gotcha of telling the reader that in fact X was sexually involved with his frenemy Y. That would have seemed way too 2016. But of course male-male rivalries typically do involve competition over sexual partners. The four artist pairs whose relations he chronicles are no different. These provide some of the book's spicier moments.

De Kooning had an affair with Jackson Pollock's last girlfriend after Pollock's death. Degas seemed to have a yen for Manet's (platonic?) girlfriend Berthe Morisot, who married Manet's brother (at Manet's suggestion). Lucian Freud was into girls whereas Francis Bacon, his frenemy, wasn't. But Freud didn't like Bacon's long-time live-in Lacey and punched him out. All rivalries between men, the subject of these painterly relations, have something about them that is at least, in Smee's non-threatening word, homosocial. Beating the other man at art is somehow related to beating him sexually: We're all about competition, poor deluded mutts that we are.

That about sums up the lives of these four pairs of artists. Some of their lives were sadder than others. The most out of control was probably Pollock, who rose to prominence as "the most famous artist in America" through his canonization by the art critic Clement Greenberg and the attack on him (sold as an encomium) by Harold Rosenberg. He got a full-page spread in the then-so-influential Life Magazine. And then he stopped painting, went back to drink, and died in a car crash. (The conflict between these two art critics is a secondary example of male-male rivalry sublimated through creative channels.)

Another violent liver was Francis Bacon, tumultuously gay and off the charts with his "rough trade" partners. Even Picasso survived his mistresses only, it seems, because the gods were looking the other way. And it was the syphilis Manet contracted from his women that took him out, leaving the unmarried and socially awkward Degas to carry on.

In these pairs of alpha males linked to admiring and more normal ones, it's usually the more understated (not to say dweeby) one who survives and conquers—De Kooning, Freud, Degas. However, the younger and more volatile Picasso outlasted the more predictable Matisse, changing and growing to become the old wizened satyr of Vallauris. The fates are strange.

Most of us are, sad to say, the dweebs. This book about colorful men feeds our fascination, those of us who carry on with our day jobs and our families. It also feeds our schadenfreude, our need to believe that there is a point to our drudgery and that those who live large will die young. That artists are rebellious outcasts is a Romantic trope, after all, and this book begins well in the throes of late Romanticism, with the Baudelaire who defended Manet.

These pairs aren't just jock and nerd, to put them in high school terms. Though Smee doesn't say so, each is a Dionysian/Apollonian contrast—to borrow Nietzsche's way of characterizing conflicts of Western philosophy since Socrates (who according to Nietzsche was Apollonian, all cool rationality, in opposition to the more orgiastic Dionysian slant of artists like Wagner, of whom Nietzsche was an advocate). On the nineteenth century music scene, the dualities also held good: the music critic Hanslick defended the Apollonian Brahms against Wagner, with the latter's sweeping melodies and longing for a heroic savior of the human race, the Siegfried of the Ring cycle.

The Apollonian usually survives longer because he doesn't get drunk as often, but it's usually the Dionysian who inspires the other to greater heights. That's the pattern with all four of these pairings. It makes sense. Think of how high school nerds are envious of the bad boys, who usually burn out early. We're all moths drawn to the light, even if the light itself has limited fuel. But ultimately the nerds rule, because they stay alive to write the histories.

That's the most interesting aspect of this re-do of Vasari's "Lives of the Artists." We're beyond the classical attempt to tell lives of famous people as guidance for the young, like Vasari or Plutarch. Instead we get Romantic and post-Romantic artists, all of them more or less alienated from society. We're supposed to be fascinated by their travails. They're self-destructive, yes, but they're way more interesting than we are.

A lot of this book is artsy gossip, things overheard at a Manhattan cocktail party at the opening of a new art show. It's ephemeral stuff, and at least for me, yawn-inducing after all these years. Why does it matter that X said this to Y or that the circumstances surrounding the production of work Z were thus and so? The point of art is to transcend the individual who produced it. Otherwise they wouldn't work so hard to make it.

Smee spends a lot of time telling about his voyage to a provincial Japanese museum to see the painting by Degas of Manet and his wife that someone, possibly Manet, sliced with a knife. At the same time, he talks about how deserted and down-at-the-heels the galleries are in which the painting is located. To find Matisse's "Bonheur de Vivre," you have to book tickets well in advance to Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation and look in a niche upstairs off a balcony. Few people do.

Similarly, I get a big charge out of listening to visitors to the National Gallery in Washington in the rooms that include, among other paintings, Manet's "Dead Toreador" (which comes in for its share of consideration in this book). They tend to say things like, "That looks like Tom." But reading Smee's fluid biographical accounts of the real lives beyond all these so alien artworks—the chronicle of affairs had or contemplated, male clashes like two bucks not over a female but only over a painting style—brings it all to life.

It is not coincidence that all the painters Smee considers are winners; all now have entered the pantheon of painterly greats. We like memoirs of those who beat the odds and became Great because their lives have a dramatic coherence. We wouldn't be at all interested if the lives chronicled were those of unknowns or also-rans. In this way Smee's book offers us titillation and self-valorization in equal measure, measuring out conflict within the already solid parameters of the Judgment of History.

Or are these so solid? Many nineteenth century museums and concert halls carry a frieze of names of the artists or composers who were considered immortal at the time. It's always fun to find a name we barely recognize, or who has now passed from fashion. Try reading the list of authors who won the Pulitzer or even Nobel Prize: many are no more than names, if even that.

The assumption of this book is that the petty, sweating lives of the artists were worth it—after all, both members of each warring pair made it to Parnassus, or at least our version of it. But what if in a century we roll our eyes at the so-repetitive Pollock or the always-almost-spiraling-out-of-control Bacon as second rate? What if Matisse strikes us as childish and vulgar rather than free (as his "Bonheur de Vivre" did many contemporaries—confession: I don’t like it either)? What if Freud seems too ugly, Degas too controlled?

This book will appeal to the culturati of today who like to curl up with a good book full of artistic gossip, but it's a curiously smug book: after all, we know who's great. I don't think our grandchildren will necessarily agree.

Published under: Book reviews