The Art of Rivalry is a relief in art critical terms. It is well and clearly written, with no pretentions. Sebastian Smee is currently the art critic for the Boston Globe, where he has been since 2008. In 2011 he won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, having been runner-up in 2008. Before that, he was national art critic for the Australia, and before that again he wrote for a range of publications here in the UK: Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Art Newspaper, Independent, and Spectator. In fact, a curriculum to rival that of the late lamented Bob Hughes, whose forthright views are much missed in today’s art world.
His book is about the somewhat edgy rivalries between pairs of celebrated artists: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Manet and Degas, Matisse and Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The pairings are presented, not in chronological order, but in the sequence given here.
This puts a bit of extra stress on the first pair, whom Smee perhaps knew personally, as he cannot, in fact, have known the others. The jacket blurb, in addition to listing the various publications Smee has worked for, notes that he has been a contributor to no less than five books about Freud.
Rivalry between leading artists is nothing new. One only has to dip in and out of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists to be aware of that. Smee is right to point to the way in which one major talent can, and usually will, strike sparks of another when both are living and working in the same context. At a time when the art world is torn between the two spheres of celebrity bestowed on artists by mass media, and bureaucracy, which exercises an ever increasing influence over the way in which we actually have access to the art of our time, it is useful to be reminded of these intimate rivalries and contacts, and the way in which they, rather than the media and official institutions, have played a primary part in the way in which the visual arts have grown and changed – one hardly dares to say ‘about the way in which they have progressed’. There is a good deal here to demonstrate that major artists are often, indeed almost invariably, very imperfect human beings.
In a way, the first section, the one devoted to Freud and Bacon, is the most fascinating, as it is clearly the relationship where Smee was closest to being an actual spectator and the one that triggered the rest of the book.
Freud and Bacon now tower over the landscape of British Modernism, where other reputations have started to fade a little. The colossal prices their paintings make at auction are there to prove it. Which brings me to the one thing that Smee skates over perhaps a little too lightly – the power of money. If there is one name that is conspicuously missing from the index to the book, it is that of Erica Brausen of the Hanover Gallery, once – at the all-important early stage in their careers – dealer to both Bacon and Freud. The murky story, a credit to neither artist, is told in a small book of memoirs, Erica Brausen – Premier Marchand de Francis Bacon, published in 1996 by Brausen’s business partner and assistant, Jean-Yves Mock, who worked at the Hanover Gallery from 1956 until it closed in 1973. The text is in French, and the book consists of only 32 pages. Two reasons perhaps why it isn’t better known. Brausen did much to create the reputations of both artists, and in the end got little thanks, only betrayal.
The basic story seems to have been this: Brausen had seen Freud’s portrait of Bacon, one of his most striking early works, and expected it to figure in a show she was giving the then young and little-known artist. Behind her back, Freud sold it to Tate. Brausen sacked Freud, who got taken on by the Marlborough Gallery. Freud then set of work to seduce Bacon, at that time a much bigger star than himself, to join him at Marlborough. The Bacon portrait, lent by Tate, was stolen in 1988 from a Freud retrospective exhibition organized by the British Council, on show at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. It has never reappeared. Freud later kept a Wanted poster featuring it, and offering a reward of 300,000 Deutschmarks, on his wall. Maybe a way of affirming, not Bacon’s value, but his own. Come home Caravaggio, all is forgiven!
Sebastian Smee – The Art of Rivalry – Profile Books £16.99