A famous portrait of Francis Bacon brazenly stolen off a museum wall. Manet stabbing through an image of his wife painted for him by Degas. Lucian Freud declining a wedding invitation because he found himself “in the unusual position of having been involved sexually not only with the bride but also the groom and the groom’s mother.”
Juicy details like these dot a new book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee. But Mr. Smee is ultimately after something more subtle — though no less gripping — in “The Art of Rivalry,” a study of the creative tensions embedded in four separate friendships between artists — Manet and Degas, Matisse and Picasso, de Kooning and Pollock, and Freud and Bacon — and the effect of those tensions on their art and the Modernist movement as a whole.
In an enticing introduction, Mr. Smee writes of his project: “The idea of rivalry it presents is not the macho cliché of sworn enemies, bitter competitors and stubborn grudge-holders slugging it out for artistic and worldly supremacy. Instead, it is a book about yielding, intimacy and openness to influence. It is about susceptibility.”
The vocabulary and spirit of those last two sentences reminded me of the writings of the psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips, so it wasn’t surprising to see Mr. Smee later cite an essay by Mr. Phillips that “inspired and provoked” him. In that essay, “Judas’ Gift,” Mr. Phillips wrote: “Somewhere in ourselves we associate being loved with being betrayed, and being betrayed with growing.”
In Mr. Smee’s telling, the differing temperaments of these major artists intersected at crucial moments, leading to stylistic breakthroughs via some combination of irritation, jealousy and self-analysis, however subconscious.
It does a disservice to Mr. Smee’s complex analysis to reductively seek a common denominator in these four cases. But it’s still striking that in all of them, one artist envied another’s boldness and almost animal impulsiveness, his quickness to act.
Freud “labored” with “patient and concentrated scrutiny” for weeks and months on his paintings, while his friend Bacon worked in the throes of “chance and high emotion — fury, frustration, despair.” (“His work impressed me,” Freud said of Bacon, “but his personality affected me.”) Degas once said of Manet: “Everything he does he always hits off straightaway, while I take endless pains and never get it right.” Matisse was “always shoring himself up against chaos,” Mr. Smee writes, whereas Picasso “welcomed collision and strife.” De Kooning was prone to “endless revisions and erasures”; Pollock abruptly smashed windows and other people’s faces.
The tensions in these relationships were just as often implicit as naked. Despite obvious competitive impulses, de Kooning and Pollock enjoyed “a gruff camaraderie and a sincere, mutual admiration.” Everyone apparently loved Manet, including Degas, but Mr. Smee makes the case that Degas may have too accurately captured a boredom in Manet’s marriage, causing Manet to lash out against the canvas.
It’s the Matisse-Picasso chapter that fully delivers the adrenaline expected from rivalries. The rest of this engrossing book reads like high-end art history; this section also reads like sports. Mr. Smee calls the pair’s period of intense influence on each other “a drama unlike any in the story of modern art,” even if “it was a fight that Matisse, for a surprisingly long time, doesn’t seem to have quite registered he was even in.”
Here we get a real slugfest, with Picasso, in his mid-20s and 12 years Matisse’s junior, pushing himself and, subsequently, Matisse to the kind of leaps in growth that would make them giants. Picasso abandoned a painting called “The Watering Place” when he saw Matisse’s more adventurous “Bonheur de Vivre” (“The Joy of Life”). Matisse’s “Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra” “forced Picasso to radically rethink what he was doing” while he was working on what would become his groundbreaking “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Once “Demoiselles” was finished, Matisse knew that Picasso was “an electrifying innovator,” someone even to “possibly learn from.”
Mr. Smee’s skills as a critic are evident throughout. He is persuasive and vivid about the art itself, as when he describes Freud’s “beady-eyed focus on humid, blotched skin and sagging flesh,” in paintings that were “raw and rash-ridden.” (All of Mr. Smee’s previous books dealt with Freud and his work.) He’s also knowledgeable enough to add, for instance, a parenthetical note on how shifting social conditions in France helped lead to the advent of the detective novel.
“The Art of Rivalry” is rooted in a closely observed theory, but it roams in a way geared to nonspecialist readers, part mini-biographies, part broader art history. Reading it could lead to a crowded cart on your next trip to the bookstore. Its four sections, each about 90 pages, pack in a lot, but these are subjects that sprawl far past Mr. Smee’s incisive framing of them.
In addition to whetting one’s appetite for full biographies of all eight of its central figures, “The Art of Rivalry” arouses deeper curiosity about a number of supporting characters, including Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, Peggy Guggenheim and Lee Krasner. You leave this book both nourished and hungry for more about the art, its creators and patrons, and the relationships that seed the ground for moments spent at the canvas.