The Art of Rivalry: Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art

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Sebastian Smee introduced by Anita Ghose

 

By Rahul Nair, Official Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger

 

Pulitzer Prize winning art critic Sebastian Smee held the audience spellbound, and they broke into thunderous applause at the session’s conclusion. Smee discussed his recent book, The Art of Rivalry, which examines the relationships between four historically famous pairs of artists, ‘who led lives which were anything but dull and boring.’ He focused on the deeply eventful and intense relationship between British painter Lucian Freud (1922-2011) and Irish artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992), one of the four pairs of artists discussed in his book.

Almost every era has been marked by artists working in conjunction or competition with each other; inspiring and pushing each other to break through to the other side. Freud and Bacon were no different. They bonded instantly, Freud was ‘fascinated by Bacon’s fresh, theatrical, appeal,’ according to Smee. He quoted Freud’s homage to Bacon as ‘the wisest and wildest person he had ever known,’ whose work was ‘original, unlocking the valves of sensations.’ Smee noted how much evidence shows that Freud had a platonic, ‘god worshiping kind of crush’ on Bacon.

Smee described the complexly entwined relationship of the artists and their works, examining a portrait of Bacon by Freud, which one art critic had described as ‘the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off.’ The portrait, which was stolen from a gallery in Berlin, includes an intimate detail: it was drawn while the pair sat facing each other with their knees touching. Thirteen years later, Freud was working on his exhibition in Germany, which many – including Freud himself – considered to be his last. A national campaign was launched to persuade the thief to return the portrait. ‘Will the person holding it allow me to exhibit it at my exhibition next June,’ pleaded Freud publically. A copy of the flyer circulated for the campaign remained outside Freud’s studio until his death.

Also significant were the romantic relationships that Freud and Bacon were each involved in. Freud’s relationship with Caroline was wonderful for the first few years, and the two lunched with Bacon every day: ‘life was rich and unpredictable.’ Sadly, Caroline walked out of the marriage a few years later, unable to bear Freud’s gambling habit any longer.

Around the same time, Bacon was involved with Peter Lacy, a relationship which he later summarized as ‘a disaster and I wouldn’t wish it on my enemy.’’ Lacy was an abusive alcoholic, who in one instance actually threw Bacon out of a window. Bacon survived the 15 foot fall, but his right eye had to be sewn back into place. Freud’s intervention in the matter enraged Bacon, and the two ultimately fell out.

Smee had the opportunity to interview Freud on more than one occasion, and though it was difficult, he broached the subject of their relationship and encouraged Freud to talk. Freud and Bacon were both geniuses in their own right, helping each other and their art evolve. Smee’s rendition of their tumultuous relationship was insightful, concentrating on the ‘intimate history that textbooks ignore.’

 

Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill

 

 

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