Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, And Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee (2016)

Art history certainly is not one of my areas of expertise; I know just enough about art and artists to be slightly dangerous, or perhaps to answer a few questions in trivial pursuit without having to resort to say "Picasso" for every answer.  Smee's book was eye-opening, engaging, and at the end of the day, quite a good read.  The four sets of rivals were Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, Pollack and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon.  Their names were all familiar; but their lives (and quite frankly, their art) were not.

Matisse: revolutionary for his time.
Picasso:  really quite awful regarding women; a letch.  He sounds vile.
Manet:  revolutionary for his time, and, well, sort of forgotten I think.  People mix him up with "Monet" for sure, including me.
Degas:  I knew next to nothing about Degas, and before reading this, would have mixed him up with Gaugin.  Degas painted the ballerinas, but this was essentially about his early life, not that time period.
Pollock:  The worst kind of artist, in the sense that he was an awful drunk and mean as a snake.  After Picasso, the second biggest jerk in the book.
de Kooning:  I knew nothing about him, and come away knowing just a little bit more;  he was an illegal immigrant though, which was interesting.  This chapter was the weakest in the book.  It was primarily about Pollack, who is far more interesting.
Freud & Bacon:  both incredibly fascinating and the best chapter in the book.

If Smee's intent was to show how rivalry changed these artists, I am not totally sure he succeeded in each chapter.  To begin with, the four chapters read like four small books - or really, four pieces of long form journalism. They are very, very loosely connected, and "rivalry" certainly isn't one of those links (perhaps "art" and "artist" are the true links between the four).  Secondly, the rivalry between all of them seemed forced.  Like Smee set out with this in mind and then wrote his way through it, without having much evidence to back it up.

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern ArtThe Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Art history is certainly not one of my areas of expertise. I know just enough about art and artists to be able to answer trivial pursuit questions with answers other than "Picasso." So reading this book from the vantage point of learning something new was a great experience. Smee is a good writer; his book was neither terribly academic and dry, nor a vapid pop biography. If Smee's book was a meal, then it was rather well-cooked meat and potatoes, rather than a tv dinner or fancy French. But if his intent was to prove something about the power of rivalry vis-a-vis art and artists, I'm not so sure he succeeded. Almost, the book is an exercise in writing towards a theme; Smee wrote the art of rivalry into being, perhaps in a bit of an "emperor's new clothes" facade. Each of the four chapters centered on the "rivalry" between two artists, and in each of the four chapters, I learned a bunch about the artists, enough to find Picasso and Pollock to be sort of reprehensible (their art might be great, but their personalities are shit). Every chapter essentially reads like a piece of longform journalism though, and this unifying theme of "rivalry" just didn't hold water for me. If you can ignore that, you will enjoy this book (I was successful in that pursuit).


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