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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

For better or worse: The potency of artist rivalry

Invitations for exhibition opening night ‘drinks with the artist’ appear less frequent these days.  It seems for good or bad that such events are not viewed in this digital age as valuable as they once were.  These usually well-catered evenings are no doubt comparatively more expensive to stage than other marketing events, particularly when there tends to be more ‘artist’s friends’ than genuine art buyers taking advantage of the gallery owner’s hospitality.

Whilst these gatherings of artists are outwardly friendly affairs, the spectre of artistic rivalry is invariably never far away as they critique the artwork and each other.

Artists’ friendships are embedded with creative tensions.  The ensuing rivalry invariably affects their art.  Rivalry, as opposed to competition, operates on a personal and frequently less rational level.  Because rivalry potency lies in the power of comparison, it can be an effective driver of achievement say psychologists.

However, rivalry can also give rise to feelings of bitterness and betrayal when things go wrong.  This may not be all bad.  Often we associate being betrayed with growing; breaking new ground by doing something perhaps new and unexpected.

Art critic Sebastian Smee - who recently visited Melbourne to launch Gareth Sansom’s extraordinary survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria - in his book The Art of Rivalry: Four friendships, betrayals, and breakthroughs in Modern Art contends that when it comes to inspiration, finding oneself in competition with a brilliant rival may be every bit as important as being, say, in possession of a beautiful muse.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Sebastian Smee

Whilst Smee’s principal characters are all unapologetically male – “culture in this period was overwhelmingly patriarchal”, his narrative is not quite as masculine as it may first appear.  Smee introduces his book in this way,

The idea of rivalry … 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 … about yielding, intimacy and openness to influence.  It is about susceptibility.

Reviewing Smee’s complex collection of essays, The New York Times’ John Williams writes,

… though he doesn’t put it quite like this himself, his subject is a series of tender, and then not-so-tender, love stories: between Freud and Bacon, Manet and Degas, Matisse and Picasso, and Pollock and de Kooning.

(John Williams, 'The Art of Rivalry’ Dissects Four Jostling Pairs of Artists, The New York Times, 21 August 2016)

Willem de Kooning, Excavation 1950

Smee argues that it is the differing temperaments of these major artists intersected at crucial moments that led to stylistic breakthroughs via some combination of irritation, jealousy and self-analysis, however subconscious.

In the end, creativity may not truly work in this way - springing from a see-sawing between intimacy, friendship and jealousy.  Jealousy is often a spur, but so too is respect: the desire to earn it, as well as to mimic the source of it.  Where friends encourage and learn from each other.

Ultimately, though, true artists compete only with themselves.

The Art of Rivalry is published by Profile Books

Main Photo:  Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, The Spectator (Harry Diamond)

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia.

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