Saturday, December 22, 2007

Book Review: Joaquin Sorolla

I've already talked a bit about Joaquin Sorolla in the post relating to visiting his once-home/studio. I didn't have any books on Sorolla at the time, but always intended to get one. After visiting, I was sold and set about seeing which books were the best. My other half did some research and discovered the book Sorolla by Blanca Pons-Sorolla. It was well reviewed, was new (which is always best when surveying art books) and was written by a relative. By the time we found out about it, it was on "Special Order" on Amazon, you know, where it says it should arrive in a couple of weeks. We placed the order and forgot about it. Over a month later we got an email saying it may or may not come. We assumed this meant it was out of print, and not just ordered in small quantities from the publisher.

I contacted the publisher by email and was informed that, yes, it was indeed out of print. I was also informed that it would remain so for the foreseeable future. We then anxiously scoured the web and found a copy for sale in some New York bookstore, ordered it by phone and got it. I haven't seen it available anywhere since.

I got it, you don't.
Which is all a shame because the book is fabulous. Written by the artist's granddaughter, who is also involved in the Sorolla Museum, it features a wealth of very well-printed paintings and fantastic text. I quite often read my art books, and enjoy learning about their lives and struggles, the hidden parts--the parts I relate to.

In Sorolla's case, it was a wonderful account of one who didn't come from much, worked and studied hard to build on an innate childhood talent and took those things to fantastic heights. His wife, Clotilde, who figures so prominently in his catalog of portraits over the decades, was his steadfast support--he met her fairly young and by all accounts they had a successful and pleasant marriage with no shadow of major problems that can so often be a part of artists' life stories. Of course, with a granddaughter writing the book, it's possible these things were passed over, but I'd like to think it was simply an accurate account.

Sorolla would travel quite often to paint his large canvases plein-air, and when he could he'd bring his family. When he couldn't he wrote letters home to his wife, portions of which are excerpted in the book. It's there that you learn about his struggles in a way only seen these days in blogs...and even then, the letters were intended for private use and so have a greater level of intimacy. In them, Sorolla relates to his wife the beauty of the places he's painting, describing them for his absent wife in poetic tones rarely used these days without people looking at you like you're a nut. As well, he also often relates the utter frustration and sometimes sheer exhaustion of his work. It's difficult to hear him relate to his exhaustion in ways that make it sound like he might've been doing hard labor, but it is a constant theme through his life, and at times he believes his occasional ill health is a result.

Living at a time when many of my favorite artists lived, it was fascinating to read his accounts of meetings with other artists I loved--social gatherings with artists like Lawrence Alma-Tadema and other greats whose books already line my shelves.

In the end, we see another of many artists who are artists to the very end, as he was finally done in in the midst of painting a portrait. The portrait was thus never finished, and is included in the book.

Like I said, the book is out of print. Though there are other books available, which would all be recommended for their art, this is the one I read. I prefer Monographs, but this other one intrigues me as well, since I always considered Sorolla to be the Spanish Sargeant--as good a colorist if not better...although now that I look at it, it appears they're all out of print!

R.I.P. 2007

Have a great Christmas and a safe New Year. Most of you will be playing with new gadgets and with family/friends, so perhaps I'll give the blog a break til 08.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

True Love

A number of weeks back now, while painting the plein-air of Watauga Woods, a friend was watching me paint for a little bit, stopping in here and there during the two hours (and fixing me that lovely coffee that rounded off a relaxing afternoon). I mentioned it was on what normally would have been a day off from a maddening schedule. There I was, my hand further back on the handle of the brush than usual, the brush fatter than I typically use in my illustration, my arm moving at the shoulder in a way that rarely happens in my illustration, the movements faster. I suppose it looked like I was really painting, something that is definitely not the case when I am illustrating. To watch me work on an illustration is a lot like watching community-access television—bring a pillow and your ‘jammies cause you’ll be snoring soon.

She managed to say something that caught me off guard: “You look like you really love what you do.”

I’m sure I mumbled something self-effacing and dumb. That’s my default when I can’t think of anything more clever to say, which is most of the time. Likely it was this more vigorous painting style that gave the impression. To watch me illustrating would have generated the question, “Can I leave now?”

Since then the comment has really stuck in my head for some strange reason. I have spent most days of the past half of my life with a brush in my hand, and making art is probably tied with sleep for number of hours spent doing anything. Do I love making art? Any self-respecting artist will at this point confidently talk about how much they love making art, how it defines them, is a release for their soul or imagination or emotions or whatever. At times I’ll speak this way, too.

But on a day-to-day basis am I experiencing some transcendent joy as I work? I can’t say that’s the case at all. I am not unhappy while working, generally—any unhappiness experienced is usually due to the constraints of time, money and sometimes subject matter, any of which can serve to rob you of the joy you might otherwise really have in taking a painting on with your fullest effort.

Most of the time painting is…painting. I think part of my response at the time was that it was enjoyable enough an activity to warrant spending hours every day doing it. After all, I am not big on spending my time on things I don’t enjoy, and I take that philosophy to sometimes completely selfish extremes. To that response I would add the positive: it’s also enjoyable enough to justify the career choice with all its practical and economic headaches, and to justify the sometimes very difficult self-criticism that results from the drive to improve. I spend the bulk of every waking day painting or drawing, and have done so for a decent chunk of time now. If it wasn’t enjoyable I would have gotten sick of it by now. But it doesn’t feel like love the way that actually being in love feels, nothing at all like that.

Well, maybe it feels more like love does after years of seasoning—pleasant, comfortable and familiar. It simply melts into the fabric of life like a long relationship—you can’t really imagine not painting like you can’t imagine life without that person around.

But art does not feel like a steamy romance, and this was the connotation of the word that came to mind at the time, rightly or wrongly. It has never felt that way. It’s too slow a process and requires far too much time and commitment to feel like that, qualities notably absent from steamy romances, as well. So yes, I suppose in the end it does feel like love, true love, and that I do love what I do.