~ This essay was part of my application to the Art Academy and therefore a more lengthy read than a blog post.
In early July this year I went to see the *Sorolla - Master of Light* exhibition at the National Gallery in London. I've known Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida’s work vaguely from memory: light-filled Mediterranean scenes, sprawling beaches, Spaniards hard at work. It wasn't until I've dived deeper into the work of a contemporary artist, Shana Levenson, that more of my attention returned to Sorolla's work. She names him as one of her biggest inspirations for her technique of painting cloth, lace in particular.
I was most excited to see in person the magnificent large-format of *Sewing the Sail*. The exhibition was well-attended, so I've resigned to watching it from afar and returning to it later for the close-up. I've returned twice. It is impossible to inhale all the mastery in it in one viewing. The painting shows a small window of sun-soaked beach that can be peaked through the doors. From this a shaded portico opens up towards you and sprawls out the large sail an amiable family is working on. A summery foliage of garden flowers frame the whole scene.
Among the active figures and the crawling plants, it is the sail itself that is the star of the painting: folds upon folds interact with human fingers, gravity and light. The foliage around combined with bright daylight lends its shadow to the drama of the painting. Sorolla’s mastery reveals itself in the heavy fabric. With large, confident strokes he differentiates every fold's direction, curvature and reflected light. Shadows of the plants project on it, causing the whole canvas to move and dance in the Summer breeze. Warm white tones touch cooler bluish ones and paint the landscape of the large sail. A transportation occurred, I am no longer in London.
The room with portraits show darker settings where fashionable Victorian outfits borrow flair to their stoic wearers. There is just enough detail to make you understand the garment, everything else is about the folding, stretching and the fastening around the figure. The facial expressions of people closest to the painter, his wife and two daughters are most interesting to me. While others are undecipherable, his family gaze with complete ease into the viewer. More so, they invite the viewer in. They are posing, but are not posers. They may be observed, but they also observe back. These portraits have a photography quality about them. The gestures are relaxed as if he’d taken a photo while they lounged after dinner, and not sat them for hours for the large portrait. I wonder if Sorolla found inspiration in at the time, groundbreaking film technology.
The following room is a refreshing sequence of beach scenes. Here Sorolla's vast knowledge of the language of light speaks to us. The sea is an unmistakable Mediterranean translucent blue, the exact palette of cold purplish, rich blues and warmer greens that I miss terribly around this time of the year. The sands are so warm and bright under the consistently daylight sun that you might find yourself squinting, only to play it off as an art connoisseur's gaze moments later. Where the sea and the beach touch, you san see careful reflections of the real stars of this show: children at play.
Sorolla's minor figures are sprawled on the sand, they dip in and out of the water and run in all directions. They are fantastically detailed yet never static. The water drips off of running boys’ hair, their wet limbs sparkling in the sand. The girls’ dresses blind you in the sun, their dancing windy folds almost gracing you with the sound effect of the fabric. The skills he employed while painting his family figures are visible here as well - a moment is preserved as if with a camera.
Among these one teenage boy walks in from a smaller painting into your view. Again there is the passing quality of time, as he will obviously pass by the viewer. He is protecting his face with a hat, and gazes almost worryingly onto the beach. You think he is squinting until you realize he is at work. He’s selling fresh fish, spending his childhood making a living. These socially aware aspects of Sorolla’s work makes me imagine him as a kind person. One of the biggest paintings in the exhibition is a heart-breaking beach scene of a group of disabled boys bathing in the sea, overseen by a priest figure. Sorolla said of the painting that it was the hardest to finish, and that he will never paint one like it again.
He keeps his vow and in the middle room I am welcomed by Spanish vistas of Sierra Nevada’s dirty pink soil and bright white tops, stacked on top of each other in receding tones from warm to cool. With these are large figure paintings of Spanish people clad on traditional folk outfits. They are all as if posing for a camera. Their static patience is only matched with their dignity. Proud models hug their vest-enveloped waists, their starched shirts blooming around the arms. A bride is gazing into you below her veil, over her colourful dress.
These monstrous postcards from Spain were commissioned by American clients to fill a whole pavilion with his work depicting the daily life in Spain. I presume this was a daunting task, as he registers in his diary the annoyance with having to work outside in different weather conditions, traveling while continually making excellent work.
The final room of the exhibition returns me to the domestic bliss of the Sorolla family. Their newly affluent Victorian lifestyle is charming me more and more. Living in a seemingly perpetual Summer, this family looks closer than any I’ve seen of the times. Women hold hands while sitting in their garden, a satisfied puppy napping beneath their feet. On these, seemingly growing paintings, his strokes become more varied. Looking up close the marks are all over, in varied thickness and directions, a lot less calculated than the sail one. It is the colour that is layered unexpectedly, overlapping and peeking contrast tones, giving the cumulative effect of a treasured familiar memory.
One of these in particular shows how fast Sorolla started working from life. From an elevated perspective, in *La Siesta* he paints his wife, daughters and a family friend scattered over a portion of the cool lawn in their afternoon naps. The figures are nested in contrasting areas of warm sunny grass and cool tree shadows. His marks are now wild, fluid, painting almost abstract shapes in a modern perspective. Add a moody soundtrack and you would have a Sofia Coppola movie scene. The gentle bucolic existence continues.
On the neighbouring wall I encounter the one painting that transports me in unexpected directions. Enjoying the fruits of his hard work, Sorolla takes his family on more and more luxurious holidays. On one of those days, he paints his wife Clotilde sitting at a French beach, in an elegant sundress of 20th Century. Her elaborate hat obscures her face while her head scarf plays in the wind. For a brief moment I feel as though I'm looking at a Monet.
An item suddenly jumps out at me from her hands: she is holding an honest-to-God camera! A Kodak camera resembling the Nikons hanging off the tourist shoulders I am flanked by in this very 21st Century moment. I stand in awe. Such a simple addition, yet so much has changed. This small wonder he’d gifted Mrs. Sorolla signals a beginning of not only a new era in their family life, but for the whole world. She is undeniably smitten with her new gadget, adjusting the lens, a person with a new interest in her life. Just like her husband, she wants to preserve moments.
I ponder my reaction to *Snapshot*. I was there with them at the beach, but she’s gently returned me into my time. We have a commonality. Suddenly, everything about her is more familiar: a traveler, a person with a hobby, someone depicting and being depicted. I could strike a conversation with her at any moment.
With these thoughts I return to my work. Technology has saturated my life. My memory, my future plans and the people I care for are on my phone. My whole library is on one gadget. My watch tracks my heartbeats and tells me to get up regularly. I am wondering how can I incorporate this chronological quality of tech into my work.
An unsuspecting piece of equipment can put a strong timestamp onto a painting. The large sail sewn by a woman in a traditional colourful shawl tells me I could be in the 19th Century, but in my own country this exact scene would go on until mid-20th Century. Fashions can be deceiving with their cycles of nostalgia. It is the tools we use that drew us into the modern era. Mrs. Sorolla turns to adjust her camera, but the camera turns her into - a time traveller.