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Paint Brushes at Dawn:

Great Artworld Feuds, Disputes and Rows

Review of the talk by Barry Venning
on September 26th 2018
Barry Venning

“Paint Brushes at Dawn” was the tongue-in-cheek title of Barry Venning’s amusing lecture about feuds, disputes and rows in the art world through the centuries.  When researching this lecture Barry found many instances of major feuds between artists, and eventually narrowed his choice down to five.  It seems that great artists often have passionate, temperamental or egotistical personalities – prone to falling out with their peers in a big way!

Having decided on the title of his lecture, Barry found that at some American universities freshmen do actually have paintbrush fights – but probably for comic effect during rag week!

Three well-documented disputes that Barry considered were - a big falling out of Manet and his agent, Duraty (over a poor review) that actually came to a duel!  Blood was spilt, but Duraty recovered and they became friends again in due course; then there was a very public row between Clement Greenberg (an American Art critic) and John Lattan (a British photographer); then the famous Whistler / Ruskin dispute which ended in a libel suit.  Both men were the losers there, as it cost them both a great deal of money.  But these are the five chosen feuds.

Round One  (Barry used “Boxing” as the theme for his five chosen examples)

Between Fillipo Bunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti (in 16th century Florence)

The beautiful six-sided Baptistry had been built, and one of the three magnificent gilded doors was completed, but sadly the artist died.  A competition was announced for the remaining doors, and both of these artists competed.  Ghiberti won, and Bunelleschi was fuming that his design had been rejected!  For twenty years Florence was divided over the issue, and eventually Bunelleschi left, still in a rage!  However he became a great architect, and when it was decided to build a dome on Florence’s Cathedral, both men competed for the task.  Foolishly, Florence appointed both men to work on it jointly.  They would not cooperate, so Bunnelleschi began the work alone.  When the build reached the start of the dome, he feigned terrible pains, and announced he was dying!  Ghiberti tried, but could not complete the dome, so Bunelleschi made a miraculous recovery, and completed the build.  The artists were never reconciled!

Round Two

John Constable v. Joseph Turner. (in 19th century Britain)

These two great artists were opposite in many ways, but both wanted to develop a British school of art until they fell out.  Both regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition.  One year, Turner showed his large work of “Caligula’s Palace and Bridge in Venice” and Constable thought it was given a better hanging space than his own painting, so he moved it!  Turner was furious!  The next year Constable’s huge masterpiece was hung next to Turner’s much smaller (though masterly) seascape.  Turner added a bright red blob in the foreground of his seascape, a buoy, ensuring everyone would notice his work.  They never spoke again.

Round Three

Andre Breton v. Salvadore Dali. (early 20th century)

Breton was the leader of the surrealist movement in Paris, and Dali joined the movement.  Breton and many of the members became communists, so when Dali painted “the Enigma of William Tell” lampooning Lenin, Breton and his comrades were furious and tried to throw Dali out of the movement.  In the late thirties the Surrealists had to flee to America to escape Hitler.  They were helped by Peggy Guggenheim.  Breton hated the materialist culture of America, but Dali loved it.  He grew his famous moustache (Image is everything) and made a fortune, while Breton refused to even learn English!

Round Four

Ileana Sonnabend and her family v. the U.S. government

She was an American art dealer, and had a long running dispute with the law over a mixed media picture she bought.  It was by Constanti Brancusi and was called “Bird in Space”.  It contained a stuffed, rather manky, bald eagle that had been shot in the 1930’s.  First, they tried to charge customs duty for sending it across America, then the Eagle protection society became involved - demanding the picture be destroyed, then the treasury demanded huge amounts of tax etc., etc., etc.!

Round Five

Banksy v. King Robbo. (21st century)

This is a rather sad feud between two very talented street artists.  They got into a tit-for-tat round of painting over and destroying each other’s work.  Until Robbo (John Robertson) fell, and became ill.  When he died, Banksy tried to end the feud, with a touching piece of work, honouring Robbo.  Sadly, Robbo’s friends overpainted this in anger.

A very meaningful end to the lecture – showing how sour and futile these long running battles are.

Gail Delamare