A few days ago the New York Times published “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”, an enthralling narrative piece that took social media by storm. The premise seems straightforward from the onset: one woman (Dawn Dorland) donates a kidney, the other one (Sonya Larson) writes about it in a short story. I’m expecting a Netflix announcement any day now.
There are layers, though. They’re both writers, of unequal commercial success. They’re supposedly friends — at least, that’s what the kidney donor believes. They’re of different races. At least one of them feels morally superior.
The story is shockingly petty and cruel, with high emotional stakes about things of little importance. Basically, it’s the stuff with which our lives are filled, albeit taken up a few notches.
With layer upon layer of meaning stacked into this long well-written piece, depending on your vantage point, you end up focusing on a different aspect than anyone else. And then the debating begins.
For me the central issue of Bad Art Friend is whether artists who use their craft to take down someone else are morally lazy, and whether in so doing, the reflection ends up revealing more about the artist than about the subject. There they are, trying to impose their superiority by using a friend, a loved one, or an acquaintance as someone to depict in a negative way. Depending on their success, the negative portrayal then remains in the public consciousness. And it stings all the more when the subject is a fellow artist.
The New York Times story reminded me of two famous portrayals in art history: Dora Maar as Picasso’s Weeping Woman and Michelangelo’s depiction in Raphael’s School of Athens.
Weeping Woman (1937)
The motif of the weeping woman obsessed Picasso during the Spanish Civil War, being of central importance in his Guernica masterpiece where a crying woman is shown carrying her dead child. It’s estimated that between May and October 1937 — the year the Spanish Civil War broke out — Picasso completed thirty-six artworks showcasing this motif: nine paintings on canvas, twenty-one drawings on paper and card, and six small drawings on matchboxes.
The weeping woman may have been emblematic of Picasso’s anguish in the face of war, but he also had an erotic connection to the subject. It was his muse and mistress Surrealist photographer Dora Maar who posed for Picasso in these portraits.
The most famous out of all these paintings is Weeping Woman, where we see a grief-stricken Dora Maar with tears rolling down her face. The picture is exceptionally well done, in Picasso’s characteristic cubist style at the time. The colors are vivid, complementary, while dramatic lines separate the planes in piercing angles that show us the subject’s multi-faceted pain . You can feel the woman’s anguish as she bites off her handkerchief.
In biblical manner, Picasso claimed that this vision imposed itself upon him, that he painted what he saw, what he perceived:
“For me she[Dora Maar]’s the weeping woman. For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me.”
By all artistic accounts this portrait was a success, and for many decades afterwards the critics associated Dora Maar – an artist in her own right – with the weeping woman.
Legally and artistically you cannot really blame Picasso. He painted what he saw, or what he wanted to see: an emotionally sensitive woman who made herself vulnerable to him.
But something else happened in the decades that followed this portrait. We’ve come to realize how abusive Picasso was in his relationships, whether we’re talking about emotional or physical abuse, and how that took its toll on the women — usually much younger than him — who had the misfortune to love him.
Instead of being an accurate portrayal of Dora Maar, Weeping Woman has now become symbolic of Picasso’s failings as a human being, proof of his sadism and his most callous instincts. By trying to impose his artistic vision on another, Pablo Picasso revealed himself.
“All [Picasso’s] portraits of me are lies,” Dora Maar once said. “Not one is Dora Maar.”
The School of Athens (1509 – 1511)
With his angelic portraits, good looks and widespread popularity, Raphael was the golden boy of Italian Renaissance. Well-liked by his peers, adored by the ladies, a favorite of the Pope — everywhere he went he spread sunshine and warmth. Who wouldn’t want to be him? Who wouldn’t want to be with him?
At the time Raphael was considered on par with titans like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, sometimes winning commissions in direct competition with these two more established artists.
Apparently, Raphael had everything he wanted. Yet at 26 years old, as he was finishing off The School of Athens fresco in the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace — which ended up being his chief masterpiece — he made an odd last-minute change: he added the surly figure of Heraclitus, “the weeping philosopher”, built as a resemblance to Michelangelo.
This Greek philosopher, notorious for his bad mood, scorn for his rivals and his creed that everything is in flux, is shown center to left, in deep contemplation as he writes down his thoughts. Sitting at the base of the staircase with a block of marble on which he leans and uses as a desk, Heraclitus looks isolated in this scene packed with dozens of animated fellow philosophers who are discussing their ideas amongst each other. The ink bottle on his makeshift desk sits precariously on the edge, as if it’s about to fall: everything is changing, nothing lasts. As it happens, none of Heraclitus’s written words have survived. His works are lost forever.
Heeey, what is this voodoo trick you’re playing, Raphael?
Some called Heraclitus’s addition a tribute, for why would a sweet angel boy like Raphael mock the Great Michelangelo? But let’s just call it what it was: highbrow Renaissance trolling.
The rivalry between these two artists had started several years prior, when Michelangelo began losing commissions to Raphael. Michelangelo — always straightforward and intense in his passions — hated Raphael’s guts and he wasn’t afraid to make his feelings known. What Raphael felt about Michelangelo, remains somewhat unknown, as he had to keep up his affable persona at all times. There are some stories, however, that he actively tried to sabotage Michelangelo behind the scenes.
The first such instance of sabotage was for the tomb of Pope Julius II, commissioned by the Pope himself in 1505 and assigned to Michelangelo. The artist spent nine months in Carrara choosing marble, only to return to Rome due to lack of funds and be told that the project couldn’t continue. Furious, Michelangelo fled to Florence, which led to an increasing rift between himself and the Pope. There’s reason to believe that the Pope’s sudden change of heart came at the influence of Raphael and his close friend, architect Donato Bramante, both of them favorites of Julius II.
It was actually Bramante who convinced the Pope to let Raphael paint frescoes in his private quarters, one of them being The School of Athens.
The second instance of Raphael’s interference was when Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel. As accomplished as he was as a sculptor, Michelangelo’s painting was not his strongest skill, and he never overcame this weakness. Not to mention that he had no experience with painting frescoes.
His paintings look clunky and contrived, with a heaviness that he must have transferred from sculpting. Yet that heaviness works wonderfully for mythic biblical figures who carry the world on their shoulders. And that is why, after he reluctantly accepted Julius II’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo found the strength to rise to this herculean task. One wouldn’t be able to tell when looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which draws crowds each year, how insecure Michelangelo felt about his painting.
There are rumors that Raphael and Bramante again meddled with this commission. Being sure that Michelangelo would either refuse or be unable to complete it — and therefore remove him from the Pope’s graces — the two artists asked Julius II to hire him.
In Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari recounts the maneuver as follows:
“His rivals hoped to confound him, for by taking him from sculpture, in which he was perfect, and putting him to coloring in fresco, in which he had had no experience, they thought he would produce less admirable work than Raphael, and even if he succeeded he would become embroiled with the Pope, from whom they wished to separate him. Thus, when Michelangelo returned to Rome, the Pope was disposed not to have the tomb finished for the time being, and asked him to paint the vaulting of the chapel. Michelangelo tried every means to avoid it, and recommended Raphael, for he saw the difficulty of the work, knew his lack of skill in coloring, and wanted to finish the tomb.”
I can almost picture Michelangelo driven by hatred through all those gruesome years of painstaking painting, looking upwards with his eyes bulging out, his neck bent backwards, his hand stretched vertically for hours on end, and driven by a single thought: to not let Raphael win.
I know what you’ll say — that Michelangelo and Raphael were not really friends, so why would the Heraclitus depiction matter anyway? I think it’s because once you get into these deep-seated rivalries, the passion of hatred is as strong and intimate as the passion of a romance, if not stronger. Bringing these personal feelings into one’s art — to showcase how the other is deficient or to reduce their complexity to one negative trait — is bound to hurt the artist in the end. Whatever happened between Raphael and Michelangelo, history is now on the latter’s side. Meanwhile the meaning of Raphael’s crown jewel, The School of Athens, is muddied by his questionable last-minute depiction of Heraclitus.
The Bad Art Friend is one of those phrases that is bound to stick around for a while, meaning different things to different people. It’s a reminder that we’re only human after all, and the line between artists and their private lives is increasingly narrow. But, most of all, the Bad Art Friend is a note of caution in using other people as props in one’s craft.