Fyodor Dostoevsky famously noted in The Idiot that “beauty will save the world.” In the two years that have upended people’s lives as they used to be and reminded everyone that the relative sense of safety felt during the last decades was an illusion, the Russian author’s calling resonates deeply within. It is precisely in times like these that one should strive to seek beauty in the most expected, or unexpected, of places, and art is perhaps the most immediate source of comfort.
Among the ramifications of visual art, most people are familiar with French Impressionism, and the likes of Claude Monet or Pierre-Auguste Renoir, with their unmistakable style. Yet Impressionism is far from isolated to that country or period of history. Less known is the Spanish movement that infused the initial French themes with more Iberic ones, such as a ubiquitous presence of light. This theme is immediately visible in the works of a master of said movement, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, whose exhibition opened in Palazzo Reale in Milan at the end of February and will be open until the end of June.
Sorolla was born in Valencia in 1863, a particularly fervent period of art history. Like many others before him, he did not immediately discover the style that would cement him on the Olympus of artists. Indeed, his initial works featured darker themes, because he believed these would be more appreciated. Sorolla eventually became enamored of the blinding Mediterranean light, in part due to Italian travels, which became the topos of his opera. This mingled with classical themes and gave him a similarity to Lawrence Alma Tadema, even though Sorolla became a more prominent artist in his era. For the first time, many decades later, it is possible to admire his creations on Italian soil.
Upon entering the exhibition at Palazzo Reale, the initial feeling is quite different from expectations: the rooms are dimly lit, and the red walls transport to a dimension that resembles another planet more than a summer day by the sea. With a moment of patience, though, it becomes evident that this is a stylistic choice meant to exalt the works exhibited there. Indeed, attention is tunneled towards the paintings rather than the surroundings.
After the author’s self-portrait, visitors are presented with one of Sorolla’s masterpieces, Sewing the Sail. With soft and, at the same time, ardent colors, a group of individuals is pictured sewing a sail. The light outside their room is intense but seems to soften as it enters and lays itself down on the canvas. This single chef d’oeuvre is sufficient to appreciate, and become fond of, the author’s style. Walking through the next whereabouts, the scenarios recount a story of serenity, tranquility and pure marvel; even if the themes of light, water and people repeat themselves, the works are never monotonous, as each has variations in composition or lighting. Particularly impressive is a portrait of Sorolla’s wife by the sea, where the painter’s mastery blended her white dress with the landscape, giving an impression of movement but also stability.
Occasionally, the vivid colors and light are intermingled with darker tones. One painting strikes as being deeply ominous: children with poliomyelitis bathe in rough waters. Personally, this served as a reminder that, however tempting it may be, to only focus on bright matters means to avoid unescapable components of our lives.
Joaquín Sorolla’s exhibition at Palazzo Reale is a novelty in the Italian cultural landscape, and this reason would be enough to justify visiting it. But it is much more than just that: it is a profound exploration of the productions of a prominent artist, in all its nuances, and a testimony to the splendor of the Mediterranean, the classical topos and light itself. For anyone who loves this sunny part of the world or feels the need to metaphorically escape to the ocean, this exhibition is the right place to start.