The Benefits of Rivalry for Artists: Examples from the lives of Picasso, Matisse, Pollock & de Kooning
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
You’re thinking you need a rivalry like you need Rabies or an IRS audit.
The last thing you want in your life is a new source of competition or criticism.
You have friends.
Why on earth would you want a rival?
Because friends spark ideas, but our creative rivals may leave us incandescent with inspiration and blow us open to our unique genius.
Close, uncompetitive friendships with fellow artists are invaluable.
Yet we need challenge as well as confirmation to grow strong.
The good news is the kind of rivalries that bestow the big boons, aren’t the mud-wrestling-with-lucha-libre-mask- variety.
“The ideal rivalry […] is not the macho cliché of sworn enemies, bitter competitors and stubborn grudge holders slugging it out for artistic and worldly supremacy, writes Sebastian Smee in his 2018 book, The Art of Rivalry.
“Instead, it is […] about yielding, intimacy and openness to influence (256).
A spicy, charged, competitive friendship like a rivalry, teaches us how to fight and surprisingly when to yield, in the service of our art.
“It all comes down to how you interpret rivalry,” said jeweler Barbara Klar. If you put a negative spin on rivalries, you lose, when you see them as valuable, as helping you — you win.”
So let’s make room to consider 7 unexpected things creative rivalry supports us to do, be or have.
1. Creative Rivalry Encourages Reckless Abandon
A good rival can inspire us to tense our muscles and work like mad.
But a great rival can inspire us to let it all go—to surrender our artistic inhibitions and insecurities with seemingly reckless abandon.
But the letting go is not reckless at all.
It’s required for a breakthrough.
For instance, the meticulous young Willem de Kooning was drawn to the Pan-like Jackson Pollock for good reason.
Smee writes: “When he [de Kooning] began to pay attention to Pollock’s intoxicating attitude, his outrageous behavior, and above all his manner of painting, he could see exactly what he was missing out on in his own work.
De Kooning wanted a share of this same feeling—this sense of being in his paintings, unaware of what he was doing.
Pollock’s lack of self-consciousness, the sense of unimpeded, rippling release his paintings conveyed, offered an antidote to everything-all the endless revisions” (309).
De Kooning yielded to the desire to ditch the giant eraser that he had metaphorically strapped to his own back.
And when he cut it free he broke through his old barriers and allowed himself to paint with reckless abandon producing some of his best work.
“Growing as an artist is about allowing,” Klar said.
“If you are brave enough and self-aware enough to admit you are impacted by the art and actions of others—there’s no end to your evolution as an artist.”
2. Creative Rivalry Tells You Your Slip Is Showing
Our rival’s talent or strength in one area often makes us aware of our own weakness in that same area.
Perhaps it’s a weakness we deny or flinch at when mentioned but that we know, deep down, is the obstacle blocking our evolution.
For example, the shy, awkward but meticulous Degas probably helped the dashing, brilliant but sometimes careless Manet, to become more aware of his propensity for occasionally putting things in the wrong place in paintings.
Manet did things like place a right-handed guitar into the arms of a left-handed guitar player (“The Spanish Singer,” 1861) or depict wounds on the wrong side of Jesus’s body in his 1864 work “The Dead Christ.”
Rivals, unlike close friends, can offend us by making us aware of our Achilles heel.
This feels like a root canal without anesthesia when it’s happening.
But if we can pause and not react in the moment, our art may be pushed to evolve to the next level and our soul Salsa dances.
We may not want to make a rival our new best friend, but they can act as one of the best friends our art ever had.
3. Creative Rivalry Can Gift You With Game Face
Rivals can show you that the only way out is through.
Before Klar stood in line to show pioneering NYC jeweler and gallery owner Robert Lee Morris her work at the beginning of her career, she was his acolyte.
But he became a mentor and eventually a helpful rival all because of what happened on a certain Sunday.
“There was one Sunday a month Robert had open days. You would stand in line and get 10 minutes to show him your work,” Klar said. “If he liked it he would invite you to sell in the gallery. I got my courage up and put myself in line with all these amazing, more established artists.
You know that moment you get yourself someplace you’re supposed to go but then when you’re standing there, you’re thinking, ‘oh my god, who am I to be here, in this line with artists of this caliber? I’m insane.’”
“Finally it was my turn. Robert hardly looked up at me, just down at my work. It was so intimidating. Eventually, he said:
‘Well, I kind of like it. If you did X, Y, and Z and come back, we’ll see.’”
“I was new at this so I felt rejected, devastated, depressed…then pissed.
I was walking down the sidewalk mouthing, ‘F%#@ you!’ I got home and started stomping around the studio.
And then it just came to me…this gut check …I said to myself, ‘you know what Barbara? If this is a game, then you’re going to play.’ That day Klar tapped into her professionalism, her courage within.
That Sunday she found her game face—and put it on.
“That event marked the death of my naiveté. I did exactly what Robert suggested. I went back in line on the next open day.”
“He saw my work, clapped his hands and I was taken into the gallery. For the first time in my life, I started selling a lot of my artwork, making real money. I was pumped.”
“I will always credit Robert and that gallery, Artwear, for raising our collective jewelry consciousness.
While I was there we had a good rivalry and he taught me about saleability—that’s an important lesson for a professional artist,” Klar said.
4. Creative Rivalry Helps You Shine Light on Your Shadow
What annoys or elates us about a rival can be a treasure map to help us find our genius.
Carl Jung insisted a trove of untapped personal creativity lies waiting for us all within our shadow.
Psychologists sometimes define the shadow as the disowned parts of ourselves we unintentionally project onto another until we claim them as our own.
Example. Let’s say I work with metal.
I casually disparage a rival artist for not soldering but only cold joining her metalwork, leaving it beautiful but raw looking.
Thing is, if I paid more attention to my own inner dialogue I might see I’m talking trash about her because deep down, the shadow part of me I don’t admit to, longs to experiment with raw pieces myself.
I think it was a cross projection of shadow that fueled the rivalry between Matisse and Picasso.
Both geniuses allowed themselves to alternately annoy and elate the hell out of one another for at least 18 months around 1907.
Matisse’s work was concerned with “ wholeness, stability, and calm,” while Picasso was happy with the “splintered, aggressive and jagged,” writes Smee.
Many artists would never hold that hot cauldron of conflict for 18 minutes never mind 18 months.
But by holding the tension of their opposites for over a year and a half, Picasso and Matisse got to the bottom of what they wanted to say in their art.
In my opinion, their allowing for shadow resulted in two sets of transcendent work that disrupted art history.
“If you’re afraid to allow, and be vulnerable and admit you are excited or even occasionally envious or depressed by the work of another,” Klar said, “you stop your own evolution as an artist.”
Artistic rivalries prompt helpful internal as well as external debates.
5. Creative Rivalries Whip Up Wild Idea Salads
The Café Guerbois was a mecca for artists and served as a debating floor for Cezanne, Manet, Renoir, Emile Zola and other writers and artists with passionately opposing viewpoints in the 1860s.
Monet said this about his time there:
“Nothing could have been more interesting than those talks, with their perpetual clashes of opinion. You kept your mind on the alert, you felt encouraged to do sincere research, you laid in supplies of enthusiasm that kept you going for weeks and weeks until a project you had in mind took definite form. You always left the café feeling hardened for the struggle, with a stronger will, a sharpened purpose, and a clearer head.” — Claude Monet
Clashes of opinion with a rival keep our mind salad zesty, curious and stimulated.
Rivals inspire us to join the party but they do the equally important job of showing us the door.
6. Creative Rivals Show You The Door
Klar’s jewelry rival Morris eventually went on to great success.
“He was a real kind of observation in how it could be for me.
“Like, you sell your line to Home Shopping Network or QVC and then eventually sell your company, become a millionaire, have stuff made Thailand or Mexico or wherever you’re going to go,” Klar said.
“That at one point in my career was a real option but it just didn’t fit with who I am. I didn’t have that kind of personality and I realized for me it was more about the art and the Zen of creating.
I know it might sound clichéd but jewelry in my world is about…love. I didn’t really get a big thrill out of the millionaire route,” Klar said.
Yet following her heart led to her own Soho galleries, clients like Annie Lenox, Lena Horne, Joan Jett, and Bill Clinton, and enduring satisfaction springing up from her ever-changing line of personal work.
Sadly, great rivalries have expiration dates.
Avoid lingering in rivalries that no longer inspire you. Eventually, they stop being a catalyst and start becoming an obstacle to growth.
Warning: Toxic Rivalries
Certain rivalries can be toxic from day one.
“There are rivalries that can go beyond the realm of “challenging” and are in actuality destructive to participate in, writes psychologist Dr. Christian Jarrett.
“Rivalries should be handled with care.
Guard against obsession and if the competition is doing you no favors, cut free and focus on your own game.”
Honor your gut when it tells you who’s not a good candidate for a healthy rivalry.
“I don’t want to say it, because I happen to want to see the good in everybody,” Klar said, “but some artists are just addicted to creating chaos, you eventually learn the hard way—that those people have to be avoided.”
7. Healthy Creative Rivalries Kick Resistance To The Curb
You can’t facet the diamond of your artistic genius without working your ass off.
And you can’t work your ass off if resistance is kicking it.
Rivalry is one of the few forces that can kick resistance’s ass to the curb.
“Resistance by definition is self-sabotage,” writes Steven Pressfield in his book The War of Art.
This self-sabotage often takes the form of avoiding our work in our own special ways. (One of my fave forms of resistance is manic clutter clearing done while listening to endless audiobooks on obscure aspects of ancient Rome).
“If you’re struggling with motivation,” writes Jarrett, “it’s even possible that the introduction of a little head-to-head competition could be just what you need.”
“A certain amount of opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against, not with, the wind.” — John Neal, 1850
If you liked this post you might like to read my post on O’Keeffe, Dali, Rachel Carson, van Gogh, Hopper & Matisse, Beatrice Wood, Diane Arbus & Frida Kahlo.
Or check out:
PS: But What about Female Rival Artists?
This article sprung from my reading of Sebastian Smee’s powerful 2017 work The Art of Rivalry in which the author describes four charged friendships that changed the history of art.
Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas
de Kooning and Jackson Pollok
Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud
You may have noticed Smee neglected to include any women artists in his book.
This is unfortunate because we would benefit from reading in-depth stories of great women artists whose professional differences with colleagues were viewed as epic rivalries (as opposed to “catfights,” romantic jealousy or envy as they sometimes are).
In his intro, Smee addresses leaving women out of the text by explaining there weren’t any rivalries including major women artists during the modern art time period he focused on.
I found a few.
My imaginary new book:
The Art of Rivalry (Now With Women Added)
How the friendship/rivalry of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt impacted impressionism.
The beneficial challenges sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore set for one another.
What photographers Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon derived from their creative rivalry.
I’d also love to read about beneficial rivalries between artists of color.
Know of other art, music or dance rivalries?
Let me know about your experience with rivals.
Are there artists you’d like to learn more about?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
A more polite form of this article was first published in Professional Artist Magazine in 2016.
This post is dedicated to Steve Wood and his wife Teddy, two great people who taught me about support, community, and good sportsmanship in academic endeavors. Thank you.