I didn’t know about Joaquin Sorolla before the Spring 2016 exhibit in Munich, but he sure was at the right place at the right time – Spain, early 20th century – Picasso, Miró, Gaudí, Dali.
Sorolla’s signature traits would seem to be regional subjects (Valencia beach), moments of everyday social life, and the way he captures the light on canvas.
What’s interesting to me is how the three signature traits integrate. Although regional beach scenes and the social life transacted thereon seem a natural fit, this isn’t entirely intuitive. Most beach landscapes track toward the eternal beauty, or the gigantic power, of nature, whereas the art of social realism is something entirely different, something historically specific. Sorolla’s beach scenes combine the sublime aesthetic with the aesthetics of realism, giving an eternal sheen to the turn-of-the-century Spanish fishmonger or the crippled kid on the beach.
The human interest is undeniable, but the real aesthetic value comes from the light. The way Sorolla catches the light is both realistic and transcendental, giving a luminosity, or in some paintings a sparkle, to the bodies and waves alike, grounding the mundane to some larger, more universal form of beauty.
Luckily for us, Sorolla allows us to isolate the third element (light) from the other two elements (social realism, regionalism) in his female nudes and domestic scenes.
Here we can see how the light plays around the body, without the thematic interference of the sea or social realism. Here we see the light providing a kind of satiny halo for the figure at rest. Here we see the figure herself captivated by the light, reaching toward it in a posture of reflection, or perhaps comparing the shine of her ring to the shine emanating all around her in her pillowy retreat. But here too there is realism (by today’s standards you might say the body – the thighs, the lifted hip – has a decidedly unphotoshopped quality). And yet the light gives the overall composition a beauty – or if not a beauty, a value – that transcends that of the photoshopped models slicked on to today’s magazine covers.
So with the female bodies and interior sets, as with the beach scenes and everyday activities of turn-of-the-century Valencia, Sorolla’s compound signature is the way he uses light to infuse something eternal and sublime into the aesthetic of realism. That’s my conclusion, and I’m sticking to it. Or changing it, if I feel so inclined in the future.