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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Joaquín Sorolla

Joaquin Sorolla, Hispanic Society of America, Washington Heights, New York
It's strange how our attitudes regarding certain types of art content have change in the past hundred years or so. Today, if an artist were to paint a whole series of nude children frolicking unashamedly in the sun soaked surf along a seashore, slithering like suntanned eels across the wet sands, he or she would likely get arrested for purveying child pornography. At the very least the artist (especially if male) would be suspect as a closet pedophile. Never mind the fact that the children depicted are pre-teens and in no way sexualized, except maybe in the mind of the beholder. Even if the painting style is so loosely impressionistic that few anatomical details are noticeable, whole groups of homophobes would likely rise up in an outraged outcry. The Spanish artist, Joaquin Sorolla, roughly a hundred years ago, painted quite a number of such scenes. They were a far cry from being anywhere near his total, lifetime output; and in general, depicted what was considered standard swimming attire (for young boys especially) at that time and that place (Valencia). Seldom, if ever, do we see nude boys and girls swimming together in any of Sorolla's paintings (except, perhaps, in the case of toddlers). The artist seems most interested in depicting the sleek, slender, slippery beauty (below) of his preadolescent figures; all of which serves to underline the differences in attitudes various cultural societies observe regarding the nude body, especially as to age.

Children on the Beach, 1910, Joaquin Sorolla
Sorolla's Children on the Beach (above), from 1910, is a prime example. Despite being fairly broadminded on the subject, and the fact that I suspect most of my readers are as well, I still thought long and hard as to whether to include it here with Sorolla's other works. Near the bottom are one or two others falling into the same category. They're not child pornography by any standard and only the narrowest minds applying the broadest definition, would even consider them obscene. Personally, I don't even consider them in questionable taste. Yet, initially at least, I felt uncomfortable in displaying them. The differences in art now and art then has to do with the fundamental change in the legal definition and acceptance of the sexualized nude figure in American culture as the "baby boom" generation came of age in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, along with this maturing of attitude as to artistic nudity (and that less so) came the emergence of child pornography. As a result, this latter correlation lingers just below the surface judgment of even the most sophisticated art appreciator.

Joaquin Sorolla, maturing as a man and as an artist over more than thirty years.
To further understand this phenomena, one needs to know and understand the artist. Joaquin Sorolla was a child of the 19th-century, born in 1863. He was not just a mostly 19th-century painter, but a painter of Valencia, a eastern costal community on the sun-drenched Mediterranean, and today the third largest city in Spain. Unfortunately, most Americans think of the area only for its oranges. Very well, to get that association out of sight and out of mind, it's true, Sorolla painted The Orange Seller (below) in 1891. It's not one of his better paintings, but the very juicy, thin-skinned, thoroughly seedy, Valencia orange is one of the world's better oranges; though it originated in hybrid form in southern California, USA, around 1860. And so far as I know, its association with Valencia, Spain, is one of name only.

The Orange Seller, 1891, Joaquin Sorolla
Joaquin Sorolla's association with Valencia goes far beyond one of name only. One might go so far as to say his art is the heart and soul of his native region. His paintings center not only on the seashore and its naked native munchkins, but on its fishermen, its (adult) natives, its warm, dry landscape, its agrarian society, and its deeply Catholic religious heritage. One of Sorolla's earliest major works, Father Jofré Protecting a Madman (below), came in 1887, shortly after his first sojourn to Paris. There he was exposed to Impressionism, which became his primary painting style for the remainder of his life.

Father Jofré Protecting a Madman, 1887, Joaquin Sorolla
Seville, the Dance, 1915, Joaquin Sorolla
Having been to the Valencia area of Spain just this past spring, I can affirm that it was one of the most colorful in all the Mediterranean region. Sorolla's Guitar Players, Valencia (below), from 1889, reflects not so much what I saw but the lively, innocent world in which Sorolla lived and painted before the political and revolutionary torment which plagued Spain during the early 20th-century. Similarly, Sorolla's Seville, the Dance (left), from exactly one-hundred years ago, is rife with native color and native colors. Moreover, it's only in a gallery setting that we get some kind of handle on the impressive scale of Sorolla's murals as seen in his work for the Hispanic Society of America Museum in Washington Heights, New York (top).
The Guitar Players, Valencia ,1889, Joaquin Sorolla
Sorolla also painted portraits. Among them are one of his daughter, Maria Painting in El Pardo, (below), from 1907. She is shown amid a light, bright, swirl of pigmented brushwork painting in plein air. The work is fascinating both for his lively Impressionist handling of paint, as well as the clothing travails painting women had to endure at the time. Below that, we see Sorolla's American friend, patron, and fellow artist, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Did anyone really get all decked out in white, three-piece suit and tie to go about painting in the wilds of Eastern Spain?

Maria Painting in El Pardo, 1907, Joaquin Sorolla
Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911, Joaquin Sorolla
Despite having seen and discussed all the various painted works of Joaquin Sorolla, it's hard to drive from ones mind the lingering images of the playful young boys and girls for which Sorolla, unfortunately, may be best known. They linger, partly because of their freshness and adolescent beauty, as in Sorolla's Children on the Seashore (below), from 1903, but also because, today, in America at least, we're so unaccustomed to seeing young children depicted in the nude (in Europe, not so much). Even in seeing Sorolla's playful The Bath, Javea (bottom), from 1905, and despite the circumstances depicted, and the fact that the painting is some 110 years old, it's hard for our narrow, naughty, 21st-century minds to get past the reality that it is, in fact, a painting of a naked child.

Children on the Seashore, 1903, Joaquin Sorolla
The Bath, Javea, 1905, Joaquin Sorolla


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