14 June 2017

Sorolla's letters to Gil Moreno de Mora

On my recent visit to Madrid I had the good fortune of meeting with one of the great granddaughters of Joaquín Sorolla, Fabiola. Due to time constraints our meeting at the Casa Museo Sorolla was necessarily brief. She managed however to show me some of her grandmothers sculptures and slip me a copy of one of three published volumes of  commented letters from the master.

This  Epistolario , volume I,  consisted of the letters he wrote to his life long friend Gil Moreno de Mora.  Gil was a fellow artist Sorolla met in Rome at a time when artists were awarded an educational residence in that city if they achieved certain merit in their youth. Gil however, belonged to a very wealthy family from Catalonia and increasingly left art and occupied his efforts  augmenting the  family fortune which consisted mostly of mines in the province of Córdoba. His position allowed him to do many favors for his talented friend. Sorolla returned these favors later on when he was the one with the ears of power.

I learnt much about Sorolla's daily preoccupations through these wonderful letters. I've always maintained -for my own sake, this is an interested opinion- that artists come in all shapes and forms. Married, single, rich, poor, young, old, kind or vicious. Successful artists are a rare breed despite appearances and they also evade any listing of defining features in their  path to success. Let's set aside for a minute the "hard work"and "persistence" formula which despite being almost an essential ingredient is far from fail-safe,  I am sorry to say.

 These  are some things I learnt from Sorolla's abundant correspondence with his friend:

Measured just in financial rewards, Sorolla was very successful indeed. His first exhibition at the Georges Petit gallery in Paris during the year 1906 produced approximately 300,000 french "ancien" francs after the sale of 75 out of 400 paintings and drawings shipped for the occasion. That is more than a million and a half dollars of today. The apex of his career, which critics place squarely during his first exhibition at the Hispanic Society of New York under the auspices of Archer Milton Huntingon, saw him earn  aprox. 190,000 $ worth of paintings sold  in dollars from 1909. That is 2 1/2 million dollars in today's money. And as if that wasn't enough, it does not take into account the tens of portraits commissioned in this occasion. The portraits could fetch hefty sums. President Taft paid 3000$ for his, almost 80,000$, and that was not a full body portrait. Ok, so he became very wealthy. Moving on.

Art Awards. Sorolla could make a circus tent with all the ribbons and medals. The only insight is that he was quite open about his award anxiety with his friend.  He often asks about the competition and the impression his paintings are causing. Sorolla also earned some national honors like the Legion d'Honeur and St Olof Cross. He was quite pleased with these.

Taft by Sorolla

Who's who. Another measure of success is certainly how many important people Sorolla met and influenced. The artist really got to know the Gotha of the art world fin de siècle sometimes in very close quarters. Of course he met every relevant artist from Spain: from Benlliure and Aureliano Beruete to Francisco Pradilla and Ignacio Zuloaga . He dined with the Royal Family and prominent politicians like Maura and the creamy top of literary Spain. He also enjoyed international appeal.  He showed Zorn the walls of Avila while the hefty Swede drank himself blind with champagne, for example. (Ah, northern tourists...)  He perceived Sargent as the guy to outshine and had some  vague respect for Alma Tadema but none for Tissot. Naturally, he got to portrait many of these prominent figures. The editors of the book point out Zuloaga had some acerbic commentary about Sorolla (while maintaining always pleasant rapport in person) but one could set that aside as mere artists rivalry. After all, Zuloaga mastered the representation of the "black" Spain and felt a certain threat when Sorolla started invading his turf in Segovia with his luminous experiments.

Politics. Sorolla had definite political opinions initially in line with those of Blasco Ibañez, a fellow Valencian and very prominent writer. He was very influenced  by the renovation agenda of  a few progressive intellectuals bent on liberating Spain from its dark mood after all vestige of empire was lost in 1898.  In other words, he was mostly a liberal thinker. Despite this leanings, he kept his opinions to a minimum,  the Royal family was an assiduous and prestigious client after all.  The painter talks fondly about them to his friend. I am not sure if he really held that opinion as Alfonso XIII was very unpopular and became extremely disliked later on due to his African wars. Sorolla was a well informed man in world affairs as he mentions the Russian pre-revolution of 1905 and other international and national events of relevance. Calling him well travelled is  an understatement.

Raimundo de Madrazo by Sorolla

More importantly, the letters go sometimes into details about the work process and paintings. The editors had the foresight of adding some plates of the sketches and drawings Sorolla added to his writing.
Letter fragments and a portrait Archer Milton Huntington.

Shipping & Handling: I simply can't believe the amount of shipping that went on. Hundreds of canvases crisscrossed Europe during the 1900's. Travel must have been a constant for painters and their families since their presence often meant a more favorable hanging at the Salon, a proper frame or an important commission. The exchange of photographs and sketches was necessary. One must reserve some praise for agents and gallerists that had to receive and ship back all these works. Sorolla only had some choice words for the British galleries love of commissions and contracts full of sly clauses. He exhibited at Grafton Gallery in London. 

His friend Gil became a de-facto agent in Paris for the painter. He seems to have been trusted with everything, from letting him pick the frames in France so as to reduce shipping weights and cargo bulk to demanding payment from galleries and even, in one occasion,  edit a canvas by folding one whole figure out to aid the composition. Sorolla not only approved the change, he cut the figure out. The painting in question is below: "Trata de Blancas", a rather benign glimpse into prostitution.

"Trata de Balncas". Sorolla. From his costumbrist period early on.

Thought process. Hidden among the worldly affairs of travel and family are some insights into Sorolla's creative process. He liked Winsor colors, who knew?  What was he aiming at, what inspired him, what did he expect from a painting and how did he go about composing one. Little snippets punctuated by delicious sketches and instructions. In contrast with the snobbery of today's curators and conceptual artists, Sorolla comes across as almost too adroit. He likes the sun, the play of light, the flow of fabrics, the beach and the scenery.  "Send me a winged Victory" he begs his friend.  Hard not to see the influence of he helenistic statue on the fabrics flapping against sun and wind..... what a direct and yet original take. It's what makes him happy. Commissioned portraits are a pain but pay the bills, oh well. Family portraits are a labor of love and it shows. He probably created the greatest family album ever, I'd say.

Museo Sorolla. Observe the Nike sculpture sent by Gil from Paris.

Family life. Sorolla was an orphan and was adopted by his uncle and aunt. He repaid  them by supporting them till their last day. But he was a married man as well and nary a letter is written where he doesn't mention his Clotilde or his kids, Joaquin, Maria and Elena; often  worrying about their health and fevers which must have been a lot scarier then than they are today. One reads about plagues of cholera and flu sweeping all over Europe.  During WWI , Spain remained neutral. Mostly because the King had allegiances to both sides. The press in Spain had no qualms about reporting flu outbreaks but the foreign press kept quiet about their own for obvious reasons. That's how the "Spanish Flu" came to be by the way. The more you know...
Sorolla was  most definitely a devoted family man. There you go, no need to embrace bachelorhood. But oh boy, is the right partner ever SO important.

The wife of the painter, Clotilde  (detail)

"Walk in the beach" Museo Sorolla

Work, too much of it: He says it. He feels the pressure. Sorolla worked hard. Clotilde also worked hard dedicating herself to the household while her husband painted and enduring long trips along with the master.  They moved often to ever grander premises. Sorolla loved his hometown of Valencia and says so very often. There he found his most original and sun drenched compositions. Conversely, he disliked Madrid where he had to live for business reasons  and yearned for his Valencia beaches. His last residence in Calle Martinez Campos was an example of traditionalist architecture, clean lines and luminous interiors.

My sketch of Sorolla's house. Watercolor.

The constant movement of clients, canvases and studio accoutrements must have been a tad much. One interesting datum, Huntington initially commissioned a mural of the History of Spain. It was Sorolla's idea to make instead a frieze showing Spain's peoples. He did this, not to defy Huntington but to have the chance to gather  true and natural inspiration from travelling around the peninsula. If one must judge against his Columbus portrait for example, it was a genius stroke. Shortly after finishing the huge commission for the library of the Hispanic Society  (2 million dollars of today) Sorolla had an hemiplejic attack at the youthful age of 56. The work  had taken its  toll. His friend Gil kept writing letters,  increasingly commiserating with Clotilde and less directed towards his fading friend. Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida  never painted again and died in Cercedilla on August 1923. Pace yourselves fellows.

"Ayamonte, fisherman's catch". Murals at the Hispanic Society, NYC.

20 March 2017

Living the way you paint and viceversa.

I recently read a couple of books on mindfulness. One of them was "The Power of Now" by Eckhardt Tolle. I am not a fan of inspirational gurus of any kind and regard  books like "The Secret" as actually very harmful  since they guilt  readers into believing their thoughts  are the sole obstacle between them and a notion of success that looks like a brochure for a cruise to the Bahamas. But I admit I fall for the catchy titles and read these books looking for practical advice (and I am disappointed 99% of the time).

"Roses for a snow day" 10"x10" oil on wood

Over time I've come to realize that I am only happy and fully 'mindful' when I paint. At least to a degree that  other activities won't reach. I get lots of painting ideas while at work;  I am constantly framing street scenes or fruit bowls in the kitchen into possible pictures. I don't try to figure out the "why" or the "for what purpose" any more.  As long as no amount of hours spent painting or in art-related activities feel like work, I just know it is my 'calling'.

And yet I become quite agitated when people in the street tell me I should feel "blessed" or that I should be lucky with such a "gift".  You know where I am going with this. I thank them. These comments are well meaning. It is a "gift" of some sort. Some may dismiss calling it a 'gift'  because  they "worked hard  at it" but saying that sounds  a bit desperate for recognition of their toils.  There is nothing wrong with admitting you were driven by something else beyond a duty to perform.

Life drawing, chalk on grey paper
In the back of my head,  however,  I also argue with the idea of a "gift" because it has no donor and it is incomplete. Shouldn't this great gift come as a package deal?  Attached to other gifts like marketing prowess and a great business sense? May be even a degree of recklessness?  If there was an intelligent cosmic force (ok, a God) willy nilly granting gifts and pushing you to be an artist, wouldn't that force (inner or outer)  provide some 'extras'?  A bit of luck and savvy to overcome obstacles? In other words, if you call art making a 'gift', you are a paycheck away from calling it a curse as well.

"Nelson Square" 8"x10" oil on canvas

 This "gift" idea leads directly to a giver. It's hard to explain art in merely anthropological or evolutionary terms. (That doesn't mean there is no biological root to art, I am sure there is). But why would one persist in a behavior so void of profit and so full of  grief, the grief of not being able to make it a career for whatever cause or "reason". So against the ropes and seeing time pass by,  I'll go ahead and admit it, I have been giving God a lot of thought lately. Why grant a gift that can't be opened? Why call it a gift any longer? Why do it at all if there is a diminishing chance of making the work  match the calling? And isn't this just putting the blame elsewhere because is too painful to blame oneself?

Mostly because I am an atheist and  everything tells me there isn't such a thing, these thoughts seem idiotic. But there it is. The  Judeo-Christian-Islamic  touchy grouch who lashes out at anyone who recoils from his buy-now, pay-later  immortality plan is not even in the picture here. Or any other version female or male or animal of capricious forces beyond our understanding. I am talking about the inner impulse that drives artists. Whether it is Gods or genes or guts, I don't care.

There's a story from the Bible that seems appropriate:

It's the "Jonah and the Whale" story or at least my take on it. I liked this book from the Bible when I was young because of the visual appeal of the prophet living inside a whale (whales have tiny throats and can't swallow a man by the way. Another coin in the Bible's jar of lost logic).
"St Jerome"

The poet León Felipe, exiled in México,  introduced me to the notion that Jonah could be a metaphor for the person with a vocation in general and the artist in particular.  Jonah doesn't want to 'want' to be an artist,  he wants a comfortable life being and X-Ray technician or a tax accountant.  But God demands he shares his gift . And so Jonah runs away and escapes to  get a job in New Zealand as a crew set decorator, mistakenly believing  it might satisfy his artistic calling. Most of his fellow men agree having a calling is a luxury for trust fund babies anyway. Jonah would rather die than give up his job safety.
"Vancouver Alley"

In the Bible, Jonah manages to convert Nineveh but gets no reward except scorn. See,  he sets out to be a "prophet of doom" like the good lice-infested bearded ones of yore, and it so happens that the gullible people  (this time, what are the chances?) decide to change their wicked and fun ways and  dress in ashes and dung. Oh, goodie.  His whole life is a forced service to his gift and it brings him, personally,  no reward. He is the Bible's tragic clown. Job at least got back his camels when  God decided to wager on the strength of his faith with good ol' Satan.

Sure, there's a lot of worse fates than being a clown but what's the lesson here? That you should go along with your calling even if you know it is not going to be easy or even successful.  At least you'll be a LOT less tired from fighting against it.

In other words, f***  it. Just paint, sculpt, dance or make balloon animals. It's what you are meant to do. Just do it any which way you want, with a job, without a job, with cancer, in the kitchen, with chalk or ink or piss.

St James Church, Crossroads, Haworth
Pendle Stained Glass Ltd. 1999

Many artists are firm God believers and I have seen first hand  the results of having an unwavering faith of some sort. I've met mostly Christians of several ilks, catholics,  mormons, etc... that set out to make a living in art at a young age and succeed with kids and wife in tow. I've also seen other artists inspired by other faiths including the much taunted "faith in oneself" (talk about tautologies, you are the one believing in it). The key word here is they do have "faith", a belief that cannot be faked when you are really gambling your career success on it. One has to respect this and I do envy it to a great degree.
Art and faith almost require the same strength of conviction against  a void. 

 To mention just a few artists informed by their faith : Daniel Keys, John Burton, Tony Pro, ,Jeremy Duncan,  Josh Clare and many many others.

 If you know many artists, you know "gift packages" are also indeed very rare. They do exist.  Artists that were born in artist families do better. Artists that found or worked with generous mentors do better, succeed earlier, spare themselves a lot of mistakes. Exposure to the business of art making  seems like a better route than any schooling. I am just guessing here and interpolating from many random observations. I am always surprised at the amount of artists that are sons and daughters of artists. Sure, a great number of  artists succeed despite having none of the above and even less advantages than others. Talent can break many barriers.