Art Review: Sorolla, National Gallery ‘Wonderful Impressionist Paintings’

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Chances are you haven’t heard of Joaquin Sorolla – or maybe that’s mean. Maybe you have heard of him so let’s start with clear facts… I hadn’t heard of Joaquin Sorolla. Certainly not prior to the announcement by the National Gallery that their Spring exhibition would be a retrospective dedicated to this Spanish artist known as the ‘master of light.’

Terrible ignorance, I appreciate, but also a wonderful reminder that even in, what must be, the most popular and most exhibited art genre going – Impressionism – there is still much to uncover, much to learn, and much to celebrate in previously overlook and unheralded artists.

And, my goodness, there is much to enjoy here.

An obvious highlight is the massive Sewing the Sail, 1896, where Sorolla captures half a dozen men and women working on a giant sailcloth beneath the branches on a sunny day in a Spanish garden.

The effect of the light bursting through the gaps in the trees on to the material is spectacular. Sharp thick strokes of brilliant white contrast sharply against the shabbier shades drawing your eyes to the playful patterns the light creates on the sail. And the cast of characters around this vast sheet are captured in the most delicate subtle shades that seems them blend in with plants and flowers around them; the lines between the natural world and the human blurring into harmony.

And all the ruffles and rolls in the material as the team work hard to ensure every section is secure are almost tangible. It is a splendid achievement, this painting.

The other works that stand out are the beach scenes where well-to-do women in their fitted white dresses and parasols battle against the strong winds coming in over the beach from the sea whilst, elsewhere, boys stripped to their trunks frolic in the water and the young girls, more chaste in their summer dresses, race along the shoreline, their energy and life just bursting off the canvas.

These works are gorgeous. In fact, they are so good you wonder how it is you’ve never heard of Sorolla before, or why this is the first exhibition of his works in London for over a century.

Yet, there is a reason why Sorolla is not routinely included amongst the likes of Monet, Sisley and Cezanne – or indeed why he isn’t held up as a Spanish great alongside the likes of Goya and Velazquez – and as you steer yourself away from the glorious highlights of light-speckled seas and linens, it starts to become clear why that is.

Take the impressionism for starters…

Sorolla is not a master of landscapes by any means. He is at his best capturing society en plein air – the windswept ladies on the beach, young boys in rippling turquoise tides – and his landscapes are disappointing in comparison. Colours are smudgy and drab, the interrogation of light and shade largely vanishes, and you are left with dreary seas and hills.

I hate to quote JJ but I notice he said in his review in The Guardian that Sorolla was ‘led by his eyes,’ as in, he painted what he saw. And that’s a great way of phrasing it – even though I’m not sure that, when it came to landscapes, for example, he could even do that too well. But what JJ is getting at is that even in the most beautiful scenes, there’s nothing lurking beneath the surface. There’s no depth to the scene.

Is that a fault? Hmm, tricky. Must art mean something? And how much of the lauded impressionist artworks contain a deeper commentary on the meaning of life? A wider discussion, of course, but the beauty captured in some of Sorolla’s paintings is undeniable, but I get the point. These are languid observations rather than insightful penetrations.

But this is a man who seemed to very much find his niche once impressionism came calling despite the fact that he was an established artist even before he started shortening his brushstrokes and playing with natural light. And it is this jump, almost leap, between the Goya-esque attempts he was making before he found Impressionism that draw the sharpest comparisons with the artistic greats.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Sorolla was all about the social consciousness, just like the Spanish greats who went before him. But though his attempts to emulate his predecessors were acclaimed at the time, they do not, now, necessarily strike you as the work of a great artist.

Take Another Marguerite, 1892, for example. Here. Sorolla replays a scene he witnessed on a train of a shacked woman being escorted to her trial by two armed guards. Her crime? Allegedly the murder of her child. The detailed scene is painted extremely well but it’s literal-ness feels dated and that horror or sorrow you ought to feel just isn’t there. The woman doesn’t seem to have either the shock or terror that you would expect. The finished painting won awards but, to me, it seems more impressive for its meticulous detail than emotional impact.

And the man’s technique I also found a little wanting in some of the paintings where women were wearing the traditional mantilla.

Nobody could paint Spanish lace like Goya; and, add to that, there’s more than a hint of inspiration from the great man’s Duchess of Alba in some of Sorolla’s portraits of women in traditional dress but, inevitably, Sorolla falls short by comparison – his composition isn’t as interesting, the poses are flatter, more two-dimensional, and the lace… Well, it’s always hard to go toe to toe with Goya.

And yet as soon as you take hold of this opinion of Sorolla, that he wasn’t quite good enough, you catch a glimpse of other paintings nearby that challenge you once again. Like Mother, 1895, which is a dreamy scene of billowy cloud-like creams as a mother and her new-born child seemingly floating in a swirl of white eiderdowns and pillows. It’s dazzling and it feels so fresh and modern.

So, it’s tricky. Sorolla is a hard artist to get a grasp of, to fully compartmentalise and pin down. He’s great here and there but not consistently. Which leaves me with this question – is this retrospective of his work worth going to see? And my answer is, unequivocally, yes.

The man’s highs easily outweigh the lows and, for me, some of his impressionist works can easily stand alongside the paintings of the French household names as triumphs. But I also found the development of this man’s style interesting, what lessons have to be struggled with and learnt elsewhere before an artist comes into their own, and how the legacy of what has gone before can suffocate artists at times.

I enjoyed this exhibition very much; it has so much to offer but, simply, it is a terrific examination of an artist few of us will know that much about.

National Gallery, London, to July 7, 2019.

Admission from £14.

Image Credits:
1 Sewing the Sail, Joaquín Sorolla, 1896. © Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro, Venice
2 Strolling along the Seashore, Joaquín Sorolla, 1909. © Fundación Museo Sorolla, Madrid
3 Another Marguerite! Joaquín Sorolla, 1892. © Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Gift of Charles Nagel, Sr., 1894
4 Mother, Joaquín Sorolla, 1895–1900. © Museo Sorolla, Madrid
5 María with Mantilla, Joaquín Sorolla, 1910. © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

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