Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Art of Rivalry

Reading and being caught up in Sebastian Smee's, "The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art".

Fascinating. 

I'm with Bacon and Freud now, but the book will include Matisse/Picasso, Degas/Manet, de Kooning /Pollock.

Could it be I like it so much because it's a reprieve from soul-crushing politics? Maybe. But another way of saying it is that it's an awakening from politics.

Smee writes very well about what it means to be considered innovative and original in the age of Modernism. He highlights how it involved being thought so not by the traditional guardians of taste but by other tastemakers, which is to say, other artists.  And that informs the closeness and the rivalry he describes among his protagonists.

I'm getting close to and awaiting, like a murder in a whodunit you know is around the corner, the explosive breakup between Bacon and Freud.

But it's satisfying to read about the difference in style between Freud and Bacon, great friends for a time anyway, and the way, it seems Bacon freed Freud. Was that reciprocal?

Don't know yet.

Do I have a caveat? No — barring a suspicion now and then that Smee might be reading more into the images than is there, implanting more of the kind of drama that intrigues him. This kind of misreading  can honorable, of course, and something of the kind is always a temptation for writers about visual arts.

I think, for example, about Simon Schama's endless exegesis of Rembrandt, and of individual paintings by Rembrandt (including Rembrandt's "Artist in his Studio", which, if I allowed myself that kind of language, I'd call divine, in the best, most profane sense of that word.)

But Schama doesn't misuse or abuse Rembrandt. Though his critical cup spills over, he does no harm to the paintings.

So far so good with Smee.

And I like his account of how at the start Freud had no takers in the United States, though he was garnering appreciation in the UK. But Freud's realism and portraiture seemed retrograde to tastemakers here, where Ab-Ex and the like prevailed and reversions to realism meant being sentenced to an aesthetic glug.

I may be going too far here, but bear with me if you can:  Freud's focus on face reminds of Van Gogh's decades earlier when Impressionism was in command and faces had less to recommend them than clouds, haystacks, lilies.

But back to Smee. . .





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