I’m one of the few Australians living here in Madrid and know first-hand that finding a home away from home is a stabilising necessity for expats. Museo Sorolla, the former home of Spanish painter, Joaquín Sorolla, is like a second home. It’s a place of solitude but also of consolation (I know all too well the distinction between being alone and feeling lonely).
Sitting on a mosaic-tiled bench beneath a canopy of palm fronds and foliage dappled with light, I feel more at home in Sorolla’s garden than anywhere else in Madrid. As an artist, I can also identify with Sorolla’s world, a place far removed from its business-like, urban surrounds.
Museo Sorolla is for me and I assume for many others, the most elaborate and intimate display not only of an artist’s body of work but also of his unconcealed personal life and surroundings; in the full sense of the word, his home.
The intimacy of Sorolla’s gallery rests on the fact that most of his paintings are of his family. Yet, although subjective, we can still relate to his works precisely because they are so sentimental and human. We can look upon Sorolla’s family as if they are our own. I instantly thought of my own sister when gazing at a painting of Sorolla’s two infant daughters. With naked backs turned to us, the two small girls look out to sea, standing knee-deep in glittering water, and holding hands in a causal, natural manner typical of siblings who are close in age.I was also drawn to ‘Madre’, a large, predominantly white picture plane from which emerge the resting heads of Sorolla’s wife and child. Close up, two serene faces are seen to blend seamlessly into foreground and background through the artist’s soft, flowing brushstrokes which unify rather than demarcate the figures and their surrounds. They float within an ambiguous sea of shimmering, pearlescent white.
Stepping back however, the figure’s initially ambiguous context subtly arises. As if one’s eyes are adjusting to an interior cloaked in darkness, nuanced detail visually evolves and develops. Delicate, incremental tonal gradations and colour notes shift and consolidate to reveal a cushioned bed in the corner of a day-lit bedroom. The white is in fact not white at all, but rather an accumulation of scintillating colour – blues, greens, neon orange, yellow, off-white, silvery greys; what could be described as fluorescent white. This shift in detail is a testament to Sorolla’s deft handling of hue and half-tones, which, from afar, vitalise the expanse of white with an almost photographic realism.
By contrast, a painting hung opposite, entitled ‘Siesta’, also a portrayal of rest, is far bolder and cruder in its execution. Four female figures lie on an undulating bed of electric-green grass. Like in many of his paintings, Sorolla excludes the horizon and develops the whole scene at ground level, vertically tipping it as it were up towards our eyes. This forced perspective creates an intimate vantage point that draws us into the same space of his figures. More concerned with the effects of light itself, the work is dissected by slices of bright light and fragmented, abstract shapes suggesting rather than specifying flesh, shadow and movement. Frenzied, spontaneous brush strokes evoke an intense sensation reminiscent of the artist’s anxiousness to capture a fleeting moment of sun-drenched slumber.
The richness of Sorolla’s inspiration and subject matter dramatically unfolds once you reach the estate’s central room. Illuminated by a sky-lit ceiling almost nine metres high, the oversized bohemian interior is filled with an abundance of paintings – this time of a more diverse subject matter than is shown in the previous two rooms, along with an eclectic display of the artist’s personal possessions: a collection of giant leather books, oriental ceramics, textiles, unfinished sketches, paintbrushes and crinkled paint tubes, a well-used palette, Rococo mirror, engraved wooden tables, velvet-cushioned chairs, stone busts, decorative pill boxes and fans, photographs, and a 19th century day-bed to top it off. Just being in the space is overwhelming intimate.
But there is also an eeriness and nostalgia to the space, which reminds us not only of the artist’s presence, but also of his permanent absence. If you look carefully enough, you’ll find dead leaves scattered about the room, encircling his palette and peeping out of porcelain, that Sorolla himself had gathered from the garden outside. We feel at the same time in touch with and estranged by Sorolla, whose private space we are both invited into and inevitably excluded from. After all, what was once an inhabited, lived-in space is now a thoroughfare for viewers, a museum. As if echoing the paintings lining its walls, the room is a joyous, vivid, and deeply personal distillation of a time that may be remembered but not relived.
A wide, wooden staircase connects the central room to the upper level of the house where the family’s sleeping quarters used to be. Architecturally alone, the house is interesting: from the staircase landing you can peer through panoramic windows to the house’s interior, a previously invisible row of paintings, and beyond to the garden outside. All physical features of Sorolla’s environment feed back to each other, with his paintings serving like painterly mirrors to their integrated surrounds. The simultaneously eclectic and unified nature of the exhibition is what also makes it such a worthwhile and stimulating experience.
The same bronzed figures and spiralling rosebuds that the viewer sees on their way into the house feature in the form of canvases layered with buttery pastel hues. In ‘El Rosal’, a tangle of yellow roses dangle like jewelled regalia across pale, sun-bleached colonnades. The illusion of reality created by Sorolla’s expert impressionistic style, which deals in visual impressions of colour and light rather than pedantic accuracy of form, is here most obviously demonstrated. Only one of the countless roses shown is painted in full detail. The surrounding flowers and foliage disintegrate into disparate shapes and indeed colour that is progressively abstract. Green vines flow out peripherally into violet tendrils, just as individual petals disperse outwards in short, sporadic daubs of paint.
This abstraction and flurry of brush stokes causes Sorolla’s paintings to pulsate with a vital pace and energy. Sorolla himself said, “I could not paint at all if I had to paint slowly. Every effect is so transient, it must be rapidly painted.” And yet what makes his posthumous home so alluring is the juxtaposition of the ephemerality of moments in time, indeed of life, and the preservation, that is, the freezing in time, of Sorolla’s world. If you haven’t yet visited the gallery, it’s about time you did.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 9:30- 20:00, Sunday and public holidays 10:00-15:00
Cost: Free Saturday after 2pm and all day Sunday! Otherwise €3, or €1.50 reduced price.
Harriet Levenston is an Australian-born writer and artist who is deeply curious about human expression in both the Arts and the everyday. She has a background in philosophy, fine arts and languages, and is currently exploring psychology. When the time is right, she intends to write her first novel.