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'Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light' Review - The National Gallery

18th March – 7th July 2019

Standard Ticket - £16 Monday – Friday

£18 Saturday – Sunday


It is no surprise that the National Gallery’s exhibition on Joaquín Sorolla is entitled Spanish Master of Light, he is indeed the master, transcending even national boundaries. Light catching certain figures or objects creates an evocation of Christ, or at least deeply Biblical allusions to everyday scenes painted, such as Kissing The Relic and And They Still Say Fish Is Expensive!, exploring light as another character or entity. Those objects or figures who bask in light might be reminiscent of heaven elucidating figures of importance, and yet the brilliance of a devoted woman’s headscarf, or the glint on the forehead of an injured fisherman, seems by no means an idolatrous take on scenes of human life that Sorolla was dedicated to depicting.

Joaqín Sorolla, 'A Rose Bush At Sorolla's House', 1918-19 © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Sorolla’s ambition throughout his career is potent throughout the exhibition – shown through the grandeur of his paintings, the evocations of Christ, and luxurious depictions of materials such as satin, many of which he depicted on vast canvases. His own belief in the trajectory of his artwork is mirrored in the grand spaces he filled and varying subjects he chose to undertake. It is ironic perhaps, then, that this is the first exhibition of Sorolla’s work in the UK since 1908, diminishing his importance on an international scale. However, it would be sheer ignorance to consider this as a reflection of his artistry; it is merely an indictment of the art world within the UK, rather than a slight on his ability, grandeur, and transcending artistry. Uncovering Sorolla, an albeit revered artist in Spain and many other countries, to a new, potentially uneducated audience, to which I myself fall into regarding this artist’s oeuvre, is the direction in which art should be heading. We should have opportunity to surround ourselves with the finest that art has to offer, not only the old masters or one’s firm favourites, no matter how wondrous and perpetually relevant. There is always more art, in more corners and crevices, for us to explore and discover. The ambition and potential that drips even from the earliest of his works is shown also through Sorolla’s fluctuating styles – he does Goya, Velázquez, and Whistler, yet with nuance and subtlety, rather than guache imitation fuelled by ego and misguided desire for fame.

Joaqín Sorolla, 'Types from Salamanca', 1912 © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

This ego, which Sorolla seems to cast aside with his allusions to predecessors, is exemplified also by his devotion to detail. Drawing not only upon abstract concepts of an image, but instead focusing solely on what he can physically see, shows that his eye itself possesses a lens of beauty and grandeur; my eye would never see such luxury, such vivid vibrancy at first glance. Not only can we see allusions to predecessors, such as Velázquez, within his works, Sorolla regales his audience with nods to Assisi in Clotilde in a Black Dress, a stunning portrait of the artist’s wife ,which was snapped up almost immediately by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York following a major exhibition at the turn of the century in the United States. What followed was patronage and significant support from Archer Huntington, which included Sorolla being requested to produce paintings for the Hispanic Society of America in New York City, which totalled fourteen murals known as The Provinces of Spain. Sorolla’s exploration of modest Spanish life, far from the image of his wife basking in pink satin which he depicted in Female Nude in 1902, exemplifies his versatility, combined with the desire to paint what he sees, to paint real life, no matter how seemingly luxurious or not. It is in these paintings that he seems to re-train his eye to remove a focus upon colour and vibrancy, in order to more accurately depict the true cultures and lives of the figures he paints.

Joaqín Sorolla, 'Strolling along the Seashore', 1909 © Fundación Museo Sorolla, Madrid

The depiction and mastering of light continues on from his portraits and vast canvases showing satin-esque materials, to a collection of works curated in this exhibition into a room entitled Sunlight and Sea, including Sorolla’s perhaps more famous paintings. The brilliance of light not only emanates, but burns through the canvas, as the viewer finds it almost difficult to gaze directly at the paintings themselves; they exude the opalescence of the sun. We are automatically aligned with Sorolla, we see his view – his difficulty in focusing on the subjects of his painting, such as the water that glistens so brightly in Afternoon at the Beach in Valencia. By his own admission, Sorolla notes that he ‘only approaches the truth of’ the sun when trying to depict it. However, the only truth I see in this retrospective of his works is that Sorolla's art exists not on the periphery, approaching the brilliance of the sun, but instead firmly at the apex of dazzling greatness.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor

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