National Gallery, London, 18th March to 7th July, 2019


Barbican Gallery, London, 30th May to 1st September, 2019

Reviewed by Jim Burns


On a cold, wet and highly unseasonable June day in London it’s certainly a pleasure to step into the exhibition of work by Joaquín Sorolla, rightly acclaimed as a “master of light,” a description to which the words  “and colour” could easily have been added. His canvases are alive with brightness and warmth.

But who was Sorolla, acclaimed as one of the leading Spanish artists of his time, though I suspect little known in Britain until this splendid exhibition of his work? He was born in Valencia in 1863 and seems from an early age to have been determined to make a name for himself as an artist. When he was in his twenties he went to Paris, where he achieved some success, coming to the attention of critics and fellow-painters. He certainly saw numerous examples of work by a variety of artists, among them the Impressionists, and perhaps absorbed lessons from them. He was enthusiastic about an exhibition of paintings by the realist Jules Bastien-Lepage that he saw.  There’s no doubt, however, that his key influence from an early age was the great Spanish painter, Velásquez.

Unlike other Spaniards who spent time in Paris, he doesn’t seem to have been interested enough to have gravitated to its bohemian quarters in the way that the painters, Santiago Rusinol, Ramon Casas, and especially Pablo Picasso did. There don’t appear to be any paintings by Sorolla of life among the bohemians, and one of a café scene (not in the exhibition) depicts fashionable people in a respectable setting. It’s interesting to note that Sorolla was said to have described the Impressionists as “a plague of idlers” and the movement as “crazy”. 

It’s probably best to see Sorolla in a context of international naturalistic painting that includes John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Anders Zorn, and William Merritt Chase, and to recognise that, as has been pointed out, he “remained true to this personal style – characterised by compositional vigour, loose confident brushwork, and dazzling colouration”. His excellent draughtsmanship was always in evidence.

It’s not being cynical to say that Sorolla clearly had an eye for success, and to this end produced a few pictures that made social comments likely to attract attention and secure “prizes in the major competitions of the day”. There are several examples in the London exhibition and, leaving aside Sorolla’s motives for painting them, they still retain their power and meaning. And They Still Say Fish Is Expensive shows a badly-injured, and probably dying, young fisherman being tended to by a couple of his companions. Another Marguerite, a relatively dark canvas, has a young woman accused of killing her child, head bowed in shame and sorrow, and watched over by two Civil Guards. And there is the moving Sad Inheritance, with its crowd of disabled and deformed young boys accompanied by a priest and splashing in the sea. The inference is that they are the offspring of parents suffering from alcoholism and/or syphilis.

Paintings such as these are not typical, and the walls of the gallery are crowded with beach scenes showing healthy children at play by the sea, fishermen returning with their catch, and well-dressed women relaxing in the sun. All are characterised by an adroit use of light and colour, with the water shimmering off the bodies of the children, the sails on the boats blowing in the breeze, and the sky reflected in the calm seas. I can recall only one painting which is darker in tone and effectively catches the mood and colour of a less-settled day, as the grey clouds gather and the sea is more turbulent than usual.

Sorolla also painted numerous portraits, including quite a few of his wife and children. They suggest that he was a devoted family man and had a close relationship with his wife, Clotilde, who appears in more than one picture as mother and lover. A striking nude study doesn’t name her as the model, but it seems certain that she probably was. It is a painting quite clearly based on the famous Venus at her Toilet (popularly known as the Rokeby Venus) by Velásquez. Many of the portraits were of the successful and wealthy, including royalty, doctors, writers, other artists, and even the President of the United States. They were presumably commissioned and the source of some guaranteed income.

There is a particular large painting that I returned to more than once. Sewing the Sail has the white of the sail dominating the centre of the canvas, while around it several figures are gathered to work on the material and bordering the picture on both sides are a variety of plants and flowers. It is a stimulating mixture of light and colour and detail, and offers evidence of all of Sorolla’s skills. And another large canvas, The Return from Fishing, brilliantly blends men, animals, the sea, and the billowing sail of the boat into a masterpiece of composition.   

Skills, though of a different kind, can be observed in the abstract paintings by Lee Krasner in the large exhibition of her work at the Barbican. Her sense of colour is as strong as Sorolla’s, even if employed in a non-figurative and non-naturalistic way. But the exhibition provides a fairly comprehensive survey of Krasner’s output, and there’s no doubt that she certainly had enough draughtsmanship skills when studying with Hans Hofmann in the 1930s, though she was even then turning in the direction of abstraction. Some well-drawn nudes, and others with a leaning towards Cubism, stand out.

I suppose it’s inevitable that anyone considering Krasner’s work will think of her in connection with Jackson Pollock. She wryly comments on this in the informative short documentary film that accompanies the exhibition when she describes herself as Mrs Jackson Pollock. And it’s a fact that once she met Pollock, and they married, she devoted a great deal of her time and energy to looking after the alcoholic painter and furthering his career.

Krasner was born in 1908 in Brooklyn, and knew when she was fourteen that she wanted to be an artist. She spent time at Washington Irving High School, the only one in New York which had an art course that accepted girls. She later also studied at Cooper Union, the National Academy of Design, and as noted earlier, at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts. She always had an independent frame of mind (years later, she famously fell out with the influential critic Clement Greenberg when he attempted to persuade her to change her style), and was never completely happy with the teaching in any of these establishments, saying that the Academy had “a sterile atmosphere of…..congealed mediocrity”. She also perhaps resented the judgement by Hofmann when he remarked that her work was so good “you would not know it was done by a woman”.

The fact that she was overshadowed by Pollock for so long distracted attention from her as an active artist and totally fascinating person. It’s instructive to read Gail Levin’s Lee Krasner: A Biography (Thames & Hudson, 2019) which covers, in great detail, her involvements in the late-1920s and the 1930s when she mixed with many young artists in New York, worked for the WPA, got caught up in the political ferment of the time, and participated in strikes and other events. Although radical in many way, she was never a member of the Communist Party, and someone who knew her in those days described her as a Marxist of the Trotskyist persuasion. Her political concerns are not expressed in her paintings, however. 

It isn’t true to suggest that Krasner gave up her own work when Pollock’s reputation began to grow. But the world of the Abstract Expressionist artists in the late-1940s and the early-1950s was certainly male-dominated, and it’s only in recent years that women who were involved in the new movement have been written about in detail. Individual books about Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, and others, have appeared, and Mary Gabriel’s large Ninth Street Women (Little, Brown and Company, 2018) offers a wide survey of the participation of women painters in abstract expressionist art.

Looking at Krasner’s paintings as represented in the Barbican exhibition it did strike me that some of them from the 1940s and 1950s seemed to show the influence of other artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. But without close reference to their dates, it might be that Krasner was paralleling what they were doing and not copying it. I have to stress that the possibility of similarities only occurred with one or two paintings so I may be doing Krasner something of an injustice by suggesting that she was being influenced. On the other hand, she was someone inclined to move quickly from one idea to the next, and there is nothing essentially wrong with artists selecting useful avenues of expression to explore from what is taking place around them.

Krasner’s real breakthrough occurred after Pollock died in a car crash in 1956. It was something that affected her, even though the marriage had been showing signs of strain and Pollock had openly flaunted his mistress. She had worked through her traumas by the 1960s, and her canvases began to open up in terms of both size and themes. With abstract paintings of this kind one doesn’t look for the likelihood of a possible identifiable object or even a meaning so much as for colour and a sense of rhythm and design. It’s a mistake to assume that the swirling lines of a Pollock or Krasner painting point to a lack of control.

I recall someone saying years ago that, when he looked at one of Pollock’s better paintings, he wanted to say, “Jackson’s dancing”. and I think the same could be said about many of Krasner’s later works. They have the kind of rhythms that incline the viewer to want to move with the paintings. They are probably more thoughtful and calmer than Pollock’s canvases. but never come across as static or lacking expressiveness. It is sometimes said of this sort of abstract art that it can incline towards the merely decorative, but the best of Lee Krasner’s work transcends such criticism and becomes a joyful experience of balance and beauty.