Alastair Smart

Paintbrushes at the ready

Sebastian Smee’s subjects include Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon — whose rivalry was, surprisingly, complicated by a sexual element

When the old curmudgeon Edgar Degas died in 1917, a stunning trove of works by Edouard Manet — eight paintings, 14 drawings and 60 prints — was discovered in his studio. There, too, was a portrait of Manet and his wife Suzanne, painted by Degas 50 years earlier. But its right-hand third was missing — which included half of Suzanne’s body and all of the piano she was playing. For some reason, Manet had put a knife through the canvas and sent Degas packing with what remained.

The duo’s relationship is one of four ‘friendly rivalries’ considered by the
Boston Globe art critic, Sebastian Smee, in his new book (Matisse vs Picasso, Pollock vs de Kooning and Bacon vs Freud being the others). In each case, Smee reckons, competition between the pair changed the course of modern art. And this wasn’t a matter of sworn enemies slugging it out for art-world supremacy, but of ‘yielding, intimacy and openness to influence’ inspiring the respective parties to greater heights.

Smee avoids chronological order, which is a pity, because with that we might have followed the influence of each pair on the succeeding one. He begins with Bacon and Freud, perhaps because theirs is the relationship he knows most about (his previous five books have all been on Freud). Or perhaps it’s because their relationship was the juiciest, with a hint of the sexual about it. Bacon’s one-time neighbour, the art critic David Sylvester, insisted that, for all Freud’s reputation as a ladies’ man, ‘Lucian clearly had a crush on Francis’.

The pair were 22 and 35 respectively when they met in 1945, and Smee steers us engagingly through the ensuing years, as Bacon — going from strength to strength — snapped British art out of its neo-romantic comfort zone into a new world scarred by the horrors of the second world war.

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