Art critic discusses role of ‘frenemies’ in art world

Art critic Sebastian Smee discussed love-hate relationships between artists a Pierson Master’s Tea.
Art critic Sebastian Smee discussed love-hate relationships between artists a Pierson Master’s Tea. Photo by Tory Burnside Clapp.

It seems “frenemies” is a term that applies not only to the social dynamics of high school but also to the turbulent friendships forged in the art world.

In a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Wednesday, the Boston Globe’s art critic and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism Sebastian Smee discussed rivalries between artists who are also friends. Hosted by professor Margaret Spillane, who is teaching an introductory English class on art criticism this semester, the talk began with a discussion of Smee’s 2007 book, “Lucian Freud.” In the nonfiction work, Smee explores the volatile friendship between painter Lucian Freud — the psychologist Sigmund Freud’s grandson ­— and the British artist Francis Bacon, who Smee said had a profound impact on Lucian Freud’s work.

After publishing a review of one of Freud’s exhibits, Smee said he visited Freud at his London studio for an interview. The first image that Smee faced upon entering the studio was a “Wanted” poster that featured an image of Bacon — an accurate representation of the relationship between the two artists plagued by affection and antagonism, Smee said.

In his early career in the mid-20th century, Freud focused on precise drawings that required deep concentration, but Smee said that after meeting Bacon, the “element of chance and risk in [Bacon’s] painting” inspired Freud to cease drawing for 10 years and to instead pick up a paintbrush.

“What interested me when I thought about their relationship is the tension between someone for whom making art is a fluid affair that comes with relative ease, and on the other hand, the artist for whom making art is an arduous, laborious matter that involves getting stuck,” Smee said. “When these two temperaments meet they can have an amazing effect on each other.”

Smee explained that although Freud admired Bacon’s charm and audacity, he disapproved of Bacon’s personal choice. Bacon’s older lover would often beat him, and although Bacon insisted he enjoyed the pain, Freud did not understand and the two fell out of touch. Bacon, who is known for incorporating images of carcasses and grotesque renderings of the human figure in his paintings, later become jealous of Freud’s success as an artist.

Smee noted that he has seen this tension in other artists’ relationships, including that of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas.

When Heidi Knudsen, a Yale parent from Wisconsin, asked Smee about possible rivalries between husbands and wives who are both artists, Smee noted the infamous tensions between Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, as well as those between Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Originally from Australia, Smee now lives in Somerville, Mass. Before joining the staff of the Boston Globe in 2008, he worked for The Australian in Sydney.

Comments

  • DocHollidaye

    I was trying to find this book and the cover is at first alarming, but the cute whippet makes up for the initial shock. However, it would be nice if Barnes and Noble allowed a peak into the literary masterpiece for those of us on the fence deciding whether or not to purchase…

  • DocHollidaye

    “Frenemies” is a term I hear far more often today. A little rivalry keeps the blood flowing. However, like everything else it needs to be in moderation.