Saturday, December 02, 2006

Art Review : Sargent / Sorolla (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid 22/11/06)

John Singer Sargent I know well, mainly as a result of the monograph exhibition at the Tate several years ago. Joaquim Sorolla I don't know at all. Despite their different backgrounds, the artists knew each other well and the parallels between them, brought out in this interesting exhibition (of which, due to the time constraints of the day job, I only saw the first part, missing the continuation at the Fundacion Caja Madrid nearby).

Sargent was heavily influenced by Velasquez, and it was whilst travelling to Spain in 1879 to study him that Sargent first met Sorolla. At that time, Sargent was still experimenting with light and form and heavily influenced by the Impressionists that he had met in Paris. This can be seen in "The Court of Myrtles in the Alhambra". The brushwork is rapid and indistinct as Sargent tries to capture the intensity of light through the fall of sunshine and shadow on the sand-yellow palace.

Soralla chronicled the lives of the Spanish poor living around the coasts. I don't know of another artist who has so accurately caught the difference in blue of the sky and sea of the Mediterranean and of the Atlantic. He catches the lives of fishermen, of fishwives, of prostitutes on a train with a keen eye and with sympathy, and whilst the plein-air composition and loose brushwork are reminiscent of Impressionism, his biggest influences are Courbet and the Barbizon school. This style and subject matter matures, so that by the turn of the century Sorolla is producing the startling beach paintings for which he is best known. The interplay of sea, shadow and the cotton of the loose bathing robes awash with blues and pinks and whites make a wonderfully vibrant, vivid snapshot of a bygone era.

Yet Sorolla was also a portraitist of stature, and it is informative to compare his technique with Sargent. In portraits of men they are both fluid, perceptive. However, no-one can compete with Sargent when it comes to painting beautiful society women (except perhaps Tissot). One would think that such a keen perceptive eye must come from a dedicated ladies' man, but Sargent was probably homosexual.

Undoubtedly the high point of the exhibition is his portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochawe. All concentration is on the face; she is gazing directly at the viewer, her eyes languid. One eyebrow arches not so much quizzically, but ironically. She is used to being the centre of attention, to be gazed upon. Her black hair is piled up over over a long, pale face with just the faintest suggestion of down above generous but restrained red lips. Her dress of white chiffon and silk with a lilac bow is painted much more freely, allowing all focus to fall on the face. It is truly an exquisite work.

It was a pity that time didn't allow for a visit to the continuation or a purchase of the Catalogue (or indeed for more than a quick sprint round the splendid Museo-Thyssen) as this was a well-designed thoughtful exhibition. Double- or triple-headed exhibitions are in vogue currently, and they are a particularly effective way to develop perspectives on Artists which may have never come to the fore otherwise. This intelligent selection contributes to our appreciation of both.

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