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Monday, June 4, 2018

Art Rivalries

Constable and Turner, perhaps not the most famous of art rivalries, but certainly one of the more typical and interesting.
Whether in the area of the fine arts, or virtually any other professional endeavor requiring exceptional skill and effort, the one thing we find they all have in common is the presence of rivalries. They might be professional, personal, social, or involve military, political, or romance--sometimes several, if not all, of the above. More often than not, the most intense rivalries involve men. Some are more or less friendly, while others could only be considered cutthroat. Hitler had his Stalin. Augustus Caesar, his Mark Anthon; Donald Trump his Hillary Clinton (or Barack Obama, take your pick). And those are only in the "political" arena. The term “rivalry” can conjure up images of bitter and jealous adversaries fighting it out, but more commonly (especially in the arts) it can also imply a meaningful and productive relationship borne out of mutual respect if not friendship. In the 19th century, we think of Delacroix and Ingres, and before that, during the Renaissance, the strained civility between Leonardo and Michelangelo.

A truly legendary rivalry, neither of the original works exist today.
True art rivalries, require that the protagonists have something in common. Usually that means working in the same place at the same time competing for the same recognition. This commonality was at the heart of one of the most infamous artistic feuds ever--between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Though there was an age difference of some 23 years (Leonardo was the elder), both were Florentines trained by the finest artists of their times. In 1504, they were challenged to paint opposite sides of the Hall of Five Hundred in Florence (above). On one wall, Leonardo painted The Battle of Anghiari (second image, above), while on the other, Michelangelo toiled over The Battle of Cascina (lower image). Da Vinci was older and more established, having already gained acclaim for the Mona Lisa. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was a brash, ambitious, young upstart. Michelangelo is said to have insulted da Vinci in the street with a snide comment about a giant, bronze, equine sculpture in Milan (that da Vinci had never finished). Leonardo responded in kind, suggesting that Michelangelo’s David should have its penis covered up. The tension between them was so great that neither were able to finish work on the Hall of Five Hundred. The project had to be completed by other artists. In the process, the originals were destroyed, or (in Leonardo's case) possibly covered up by Giorgio Vasari in a subsequent remodeling of the room.

The Bernini-Borromini rivalry is immortalized in Rome's Piazza Navona.
Roughly a hundred years later, during the height of the Baroque era, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini were two of Rome’s most celebrated artists. Bernini was an Italian sculptor, painter, playwright and architect, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. Borromini was an architect with an idiosyncratic style who manipulated Classical architectural forms, combining geometrical rationales and symbolic meanings in his designs. He had an understanding of structure, which Bernini was said to lack. The rivalry between the two emerged when Borromini was working under Bernini in the 1630s. Borromini lacked Bernini's social skills and as a result failed to secure as many commissions from high ranking patrons. Tired of being in Bernini’s shadow, Borromini broke free. Later, in 1644, they clashed over the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, (Fountain of the Four Rivers) one of the great works of Baroque art (lower images above). Bernini's fountain sits in the Piazza Navona directly opposite Borromini’s Sant’Agnese church (upper image, above), standing as a backdrop to Bernini’s sculpted human figures, which seem to mock the church’s features. Many art historians believe that the pressure of this rivalry may have contributed to Borromini’s suicide in 1667.

John Constable versus J.M.W. Turner
In 1832, Constable was putting the finishing touches on his masterwork The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (above, left). It was a painting he had been working on for almost fifteen years, and was about to show it in an exhibition at London’s Royal Academy (top). There it was to hang alongside Turner’s Helvoetsluys (above, right), a smaller, quite dissimilar, painting depicting ships at sea. The two artists had long been wary of each other. Though Constable had praised Turner in public, privately he criticized his rival’s work as being "just steam and light." Before the exhibition, Constable was in the gallery fussing over his painting when Turner, who had been working on his entry for only a few months, saw the two paintings next to each other for the first time. Noticing the contrast in color, he decided his painting needed an extra touch. Turner left, then came back and added a single daub of paint--a simple red buoy in the water. He then left without saying a word. This tiny addition drew huge acclaim for the artist, and stripped the attention away from Constable’s work, which was seen as contrived. Constable was left seething with resentment, remarking after Turner left the gallery, "He has been here and fired a gun."
The battle of the self-portraits.
Undoubtedly the saddest artistic rivalry of all times was the sour relationship between Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Ironically, this rivalry began in friendship. The two artists had long admired each other’s work. In 1888, the ardent idealist, van Gogh, invited his hero, Gauguin, to join him in the south of France in what he hoped would become a utopian artist collective. After repeated requests, Gauguin finally obliged. For two men so much alike in spirit (or perhaps because of this) in living together they argued constantly. Van Gogh, ever the lonely, needing one, became increasingly paranoid that the friend he admired so much would leave. As their relationship deteriorated, the now legendary incident in which Van Gogh cut off a part of his left ear, proved to be the final straw. Gauguin fled the "colony," leaving Van Gogh to be institutionalized (and perhaps indirectly leading to his suicide as well).

Minus the museum labels, much of the work of these two rival artists would be indistinguishable.
The rivalry between Picasso and Matisse is unique in that it represents a fine example of the power to inspire truly great art. Both artists spent their whole careers creating some of the most iconic and influential modernist paintings. Essentially, they spurred one another on by attempting to out do each other. They even went as far as painting the same subject and producing works with much the same titles (above). This profound rivalry was one rooted in admiration. As it grew, so did a mutual respect and powerful friendship. However, when Picasso introduced his mistress, Francoise Gilot, to the elderly Matisse, the sensual artist charmed her so much that Picasso became sexually jealous. He clearly felt threatened by Matisse as a man as well as an artist. Indeed, at times their artistic relationship became heated as when Picasso compared Matisse’s designs for a Venice chapel to a “bathroom.” Yet overall, this rivalry made for an intense friendship. The constant competition ultimately led each painter to push himself to new heights they may not have reached alone.

A rivalry contrived more to sell newspapers than art.
During the Post-WW II period, two quarrelsome art critics, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg, wielded an enormous influence on the New York art world. Together, they engineered a rivalry between the two most colorful rising-star artists of the time, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Greenberg championed Pollock, as the perfect embodiment of his modernist, abstract ideals. Rosenberg, a more existential thinker, vehemently supported de Kooning’s paintings, as coming alive with thick impasto brushstrokes. Despite the contrived nature of this so-called "rivalry" the heated discourse between the rival critics gave rise to new much-needed ways of discussing and interpreting Modern Art. (Rosenberg coined the phrase “action painting.") In a turn of events that entirely shook the close-knit New York art scene, the de Kooning-Pollock rivalry eventually took on an even more visceral and personal tone as de Kooning began an affair with Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress, soon after the artist's death in a tragic car wreck in 1956.

A rivalry between mentor and protégé.
Like that of Borromini and Bernini, Lucien Freud’s relationship with Francis Bacon began early in his artistic career. Bacon was an older, more established mentor, who taught Freud a lot about life and art. Although Freud had always painted portraits, initially they were painted in a fairly conventional manner with soft edges and wide eyes. Freud’s early paintings are strikingly different from the fleshy, thick impasto portraits that defined his later work. Bacon’s loose, bold, and coarse painting style, along with his preoccupation with the space surrounding his subjects, inspired the young Freud. The younger artist later claimed that Bacon's way of painting freely, helped him feel more daring. Bacon’s influence led the emerging painter, who was also a skilled draftsman, to give up drawing entirely for several years. This led to a change in style that alienated many of Freud's admirers. The two artists painted each other with enormous intensity, their highly involved portraits of one another suggesting the two shared a deep and intimate friendship. In the early 1970s, however, for unknown reasons, Bacon and Freud's relationship almost completely disintegrated. They stopped talking, marking the beginning of an unparalleled feud. Even a decade after Bacon’s death in 1992, Freud refuse to discuss his former friend. Yet, there are indications that the bond between the two survived this period. After Bacon died, a small portrait of Freud by Bacon was stolen in Germany. Freud set about making a "wanted" poster for the lost work, much like an act of mourning.

Lucien Freud, 1952, Francis Bacon
(stolen, whereabouts unknown).


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