The Turner-Constable opposition in the new Turner exhibition at the Tate puts the Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones in mind of other artistic death matches. (He’s also got a book coming out next year on the subject.)
Competition is at the core of European high art. In the ancient world, Greek painters like Zeuxis and Apelles were constantly competing to paint the most eye-fooling piece of fruit or the thinnest line. The legends of these antique rivals helped to inspire the fanatical individualism of Renaissance artists, whose rivalries were so intense that they led to tales – some legendary and some shockingly true – of violence and vandalism, even murder.
- the 16th-century goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini stabbed a competitor to death – and got away with it, such was the fame and glory of artists.
- The rivalry between Matisse and Picasso, for example, has been the theme of several books and exhibitions. Picasso was definitely in the Turner league for sheer competitiveness. He didn’t just take on Matisse; having established himself as leader of the avant garde before the first world war, he had no intention of making way for younger artists. In paintings like The Dance at Tate Modern, he absorbs surrealism’s interest in sex and the psyche, but totally outdoes surrealism as art.
- Picasso never gave up competing. As an old man Matisse was happy to say he had been overtaken by young Americans like Jackson Pollock. But Picasso criticised their work and insisted on his supremacy. Of course, Matisse was only pretending to give up. In reality, his late paper cutouts, like Tate Modern’s Snail, are defiant challenges to American abstract art. Great artists can’t help rivalling one another. It seems to be in the molecular structure of art, as we have known it, since the Renaissance.
Was Turner the Most Competitive Artist of All Time? (Jonathan Jones/Guardian)