Monday, August 26, 2019

Who is Joaquin Sorolla?

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 18 August 2019.

Who is Joaquin Sorolla? As recently as 1989 only a few specialists in Spanish art might have had the answer to that question. Sorolla (pronounced Soroya) became popular in the century between Goya and Picasso and then almost overnight seemed to vanish. Two major exhibitions in New York in 1989 at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art  and at the Hispanic Society of America headquarters in New York City helped revive interest in an artist who had been largely forgotten. And yet less than 100 years earlier he enjoyed world renown showing 500 works at a Paris exhibition in 1906, 280 in Berlin in 1907 and 356 in New York in 1909. There was an attendance of 169,000 at his New York  exhibition in just over a month, in freezing February weather  – a record attendance for an art exhibition at that time. In 1908 when he put on an exhibition of over 200 paintings in London he was described as “the world’s greatest living painter”. While Picasso was burning his canvases to keep warm in a Parisian garret, Sorolla was a feted international superstar. He travelled the world, earning vast sums for his commissions – including a portrait of the President of the USA, William Howard Taft in 1909.

After his sudden death in 1923 Sorolla’s reputation went into a sharp decline.  He was perceived as an anachronism, an artist who painted in the style of the old masters at a time when the world in general and the art scene in particular was undergoing radical change. Picasso had hit his stride and the art world embraced Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Also, Sorolla's later subject matter seemed frivolous in a Europe devastated by World War I and the rise of Fascism.  The exhibition currently running at the National Gallery of Ireland and shown earlier this year (with some minor variations) at the National Gallery in London is his first major retrospective in this part of their world. So only Irish art lovers who have been fortunate enough to have visited the Museo Sorolla in Madrid are likely to be familiar with Spain’s most succulent impressionist and proclaimed “master of light”.

This exhibition is a snapshot in 52 paintings of Sorolla’s career: his early social realist works, his genre paintings, his Spanish scenes, his bourgeoisie on holiday celebrations and his portraits. He established his reputation in the 1890s with his paintings of social themes. Another Marguerite! which set him on his way by winning a medal at a national exhibition in Madrid shows a dejected woman sitting in a railway carriage accompanied by two Civil Guards. She has killed her new-born child and is facing the consequences. The name Marguerite is a reference to Gounod’s opera where the heroine kills the child born after her seduction by Faust. Other works in a similar vein flowed. The pedantically titled And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! shows a badly-injured young fisherman being tended by two older colleagues – the composition echoing classical scenes of Christ taken from the Cross. A notable work from this period is Kissing the Relic – a depiction of everyday life in Valencia. A queue of mostly women in beautifully detailed costumes line up to kiss the relic of a saint held by a priest. Amidst them an altar-boy holds a tray of holy images for sale. Many of these social realist paintings were domestic in scale to facilitate sales to the middle-classes.

Sorolla’s major break-through came in 1900 at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Works from each country were displayed in national pavilions. Sorolla’s monumental Sad Inheritance! won the Grand Prix – suggesting a preeminence amongst his Spanish peers. This painting, which dominates the NGI show perhaps because of its scale, shows a large black-clothed priest assisting a crippled boy into the sea. They are surrounded by a group of naked and clearly handicapped boys. This work will surely cause an atavistic shudder in an Irish audience: the looming black soutane and the naked damaged boys. This was Sorolla’s last big painting with a social theme. It was however a harbinger of things to come. It depicted children playing in the sea which subsequently became one of his most visited subjects – albeit without the dark presence of the priest.

As Sorrolla’s reputation in Spain grew and his fame abroad spread his subject matter grew sunnier. A superficial flit around the NGI exhibition might suggest an artist whose work was dominated by paintings of light dancing off a placid sea and children playing on the beach – the bourgeoisie at leisure. These were the paintings that caused Monet to describe Sorolla’s paintings as “Joyous, in the sunlight above all.” Such works proved extremely popular and provided a lucrative market for Sorolla turning him into a very rich man. He worked quickly, usually in the open air, and if he couldn’t finish a work in a day, or emulate the conditions the following day, he would abandon it. A contemporary critic William E. B. Starkwater described his facility as an artist: “He grasps in a few searching strokes an accidental movement, a fleeting expression, a retreating wave. There seems to be no mistake, no undoing.” Along with these sun-lit renditions of carefree life Sorolla embarked on a steady stream of valuable portrait commissions.

Sorolla was in thrall to Velázquez. He visited the Prado Museum in Madrid a number of times between 1882 and 1884 and made a series of copies of works there by Velasquez and the other masters. Later on in 1904 he returned there as his fame and consequent portraiture commissions increased. He focused on Velázquez’ portraits and specifically on Las Meninas which was the inspiration for some of his group portraits. His painting The Family shows the most direct debt. His fascination with the artist drew him to England in 1902 purely to view the Toilet of Venus (the Rokeby Venus) at Rokeby Park in Durham. He would view it again in 1908 after the National Gallery had acquired it. So taken was he by the work that he sent a postcard of it to his wife Clotilde describing it as “the most human piece of flesh in the museum.” His gorgeous, lubricious Female Nude in the NGI exhibition shows Clotilde emulating the pose of Velázquez’ Venus. All attendant detail has been removed so the emphasis is on the sensuously presented female form, pretty on pink silk sheets. Sorolla was coy about the identity of the model but the glint of the wedding ring on the model’s finger gave the game away. Goya was another Spanish master that Sorolla referenced. Maria with Mantilla is a clear homage of his predecessor’s Duchess of Alba – although Sorolla’s Maria is decidedly less haughty looking – more 20th Century.

The crowning achievement of Sorolla’s career was a series of paintings called Vision of Spain which was commissioned for the Hispanic Society of America in New York in 1908. These 14 panels were 12 feet in height and 200 feet in combined length. They depicted the peoples, costumes, and traditions of various regions of Spain. Sorolla commented prophetically that the series represented a Spain “on the point of disappearing.” He worked on them continuously from 1912 to 1919 and many believe that the stress of completing them contributed to a decline in his health. He died in 1923 after a stroke at the age of 60 and sadly never saw the murals installed.

There are those who may quibble at the NGI charging €15 to view an artist with whom few outside the art world are familiar. I would point them towards Sewing the Sail a virtuoso painting of dappled sunlight and complex tonalities that emanates a sense of warm community. One of many master-pieces in the show. As we reach the fag end of another dreary Irish summer an hour or so spent in the company of such joyous sun-kissed celebrations of life is a pleasure beyond petty mercantile considerations.

John P.O’Sullivan
August 2019

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Reflections on a Golden Boy

Last Sunday offered some redemption for Seamus Callanan and a generation of Tipperary hurlers that should really have won more All-Irelands - five instead of three perhaps. These golden lads (well some of them) should have won in 2009 when they contrived to snatch a defeat against Kilkenny despite dominating much of the game. They could have won the drawn final in 2014 when only the width of an RCH deprived them of a last-minute point. The comprehensive successes of  2010 and 2016 were followed by disappointing seasons - Kilkenny outmuscled them in 2011 and Galway beat them very narrowly in 2017. People may quibble about the result this year but there’s no denying the quality of their play. Hogan’s dismissal gave them the space they needed to thrive but I feel they were getting on top and would have won anyway - but it would have been closer. And there’s the rub. Over the past ten years or so Kilkenny have won all the tight matches - our wins have been by comfortable margins. I’d prefer to beat them by a point just to disprove the arguments of the likes of Jackie Tyrrell who question our intestinal fortitude. And by the way what a motivational tool Tyrrell’s biography must have been for Tipp management - there was a provocative quote from it in the Sunday Times on the day of the match. Thanks Jackie. Kilkenny have always bought a physical dimension to their games - “bully or be bullied” is Cody’s mantra. First they soften you up physically and then they start the hurling. The way hurling is refereed these days allows them some leeway, and not just with the physical robustness. Tommie Walsh was a master of the judicious push in the back as an opponent rose for the ball - I stood behind him at the 2011 final and watched him at at work. But Hogan’s foul was far from judicious and left the ref no option. The red mist had clearly descended on him after Barrett literally rattled him with a tackle earlier . The replays clearly showed that Hogan’s elbow was wielded with malicious intent. Those who live by the sword do occasionally die by the sword even in hurling it seems.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Portrait of a Yankee

As any regular punter will tell you, a Yankee is a relatively cheap and very speculative bet. You select four horses and back them in a series of doubles, trebles, and an accumulator. For a small outlay you can get a very large return if all four horses win. But there’s the rub – you have to select four winners in a day. This is a task beyond most professionals and one with which even the great Barney Curley struggled in his day. However, you often get a couple of winners and if you back them each way, as I always do, you frequently get all of them placed and make a few bob. But occasionally you do strike gold – I’ve done so five or six times over the years. However, last Saturday was the best result I ever had because of the size of my outlay and the long prices of two of my four selections. Here’s a quick account of my thoughts beforehand and the consequent action. You’ll note reading this that it’s almost impossible to avoid racing journalist cliches when writing about horses. I’ve tried but failed.

The four horse I selected last Saturday were Mikmak, Indianapolis, Power of Darkness and Victory Day. My thought processes on the four were as follows:

Mikmak: He ran well at Thirsk last time when he hit the front too soon and was caught close home. He loves soft ground and is down to a weight that he’s won at. Also, he did well this time last year. My only negative was that he’s trained by Tim Easterby – a trainer whose horses run erratically, very often not living up to recent form. I rarely back him because of this. However the 12-1 on offer seemed very high so I went ahead. This was by far the most speculative of my selections. In a very competitive race, he ran on stronger than his stable-companion and won by a neck. The ball was rolling.

Indianapolis:  He’s trained by James Given – a small trainer whose horses, unlike Easterby’s, run consistently and often overachieve. Indianapolis had been running well in better races than his rivals but because Given is an unfashionable trainer he was on offer at a very generous 7-1. He was drawn very wide and for much of the race seemed to have too much to do. However he came with a strong late run and got up in the last few strides – my heart going pitter-patter the while. Two up and two favorites to come.

Power of Darkness:  This horse had won his previous race comfortably and was overall a lightly-raced horse who looked to have a lot of potential. He was favourite but the 11-4 on offer seemed generous. His trainer was Marcus Tregoning who doesn’t mess around. He raced at the rear for most of the mile and two furlongs out he picked up and won comfortably. Three out of four in the bag.

Victory Day:  My final selection, and the linch-pin of my Yankee, was trained by William Haggas – another reliable trainer who knows how to land a big race. He had been beaten narrowly in a much superior quality race at York previously and was a strong 7-4 favourite. My main concern before this race was his jockey – Jamie Spencer. He seems a very nice lad but has I feel an unfortunate tendency towards showboating. He likes to drop horses out and come with a late run to claim the spoils close home. This means that he frequently leaves things later than is wise – getting beaten on horse that should have won. Give me Sylvester de Sousa or Andrea Atzeni any day. Anyway as my heart beat faster  Spencer did the inevitable and dropped him out to near last – in a Six Furlong sprint. Fortunately when he eventually got him going a furlong out there was a large gap along the rails and he won comfortably by a length.

But don’t try this at home kids - it’s an occasional aligning of the stars in a chaotic world.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Back to the Curragh

I have been neglecting my live racing in recent times – being more inclined to live in the virtual world of the Racing Post website and the ITV racing channel. I was missing those encounters with the colourful and often deluded characters that abound at racecourses and of course the proximity of the glorious beasts. So an invitation to the privileged sanctum of the Ballydoyle box, hosted by Aidan O’Brien, on Irish 1000 Guineas days was impossible to refuse.

We were a little early so decided to take a detour to the Curragh Camp where I lived until I was nine years old. Since my last visit access by car to much of the town has been restricted but there seemed no problem parking and walking around. After all the notice “military personnel only” hardly applied to me – a former NCO in the FCA and the son of a distinguished officer. I’m clearly not an ordinary “civy”.We checked out our old house, a large red-brick building called McDermot House. The only home I’ve ever lived in that boasted two staircases - one for the servants (Ok the orderly then) and one for the master and his family. It had changed. Parking lines around the house gave the first indication and the sign on the wall “HQ Support Unit” confirmed that it was no longer someone’s home. Apart from stragglers leaving a nearby church after mass, and a few figures jogging on the Curragh plains, the place was eerily deserted. I did not see a single figure in uniform. I know army numbers are down and morale is low but it was still sad to see this once thriving hub of military activity so desolate and deserted. I checked out the tall fire-station where my father had held me over the parapet (a la Michael Jackson) all the better to see the cars racing around the Curragh track that once held major motor races. I also saw the deserted shop outside which my sister Berna’s pram took off on an unplanned journey down the steep hill. I couldn’t find my old school – maybe it’s been demolished and these days the kids go off to Kildare.

On to the Curragh and its splendid new stand. Even though it was a pleasant enough day, the crowds seemed disappointingly small. Our Taoiseach was there for the official opening and he towered over the jockeys in the parade ring - a lot he knows about horses but nice to see him get away from his Kylie side. The Aga Khan was there also.  The new stand is named after him for reasons I am unaware of – perhaps just for his long service and patronage of Irish racing. He always seemed like a decent cove – lacking the haughtiness and froideur of some of the Arab owners. We were led by our sponsors up to the Ballydoyle box. It consisted of two round tables which could accommodate around 16 people. There were a few owners , a sprinkling of the extended O’Brien family, and the great man himself along with his son Joseph, and Pat Smullen who’s married to another Crowley girl . He was extremely attentive  – notwithstanding the fact that he had runners in most races and the favourite (Hermosa) for the 1,000 Guineas. He made sure we were looked after for food and drink and chatted away in the most amiable fashion. At one point he excused himself from our company saying apologetically “I must go and tack up for the next race.” He duly won the big race and his wife Anne-Marie Crowley insisted that we join them in the winner’s enclosure along with the might of Coolmore – John Magnier and his entourage. A treat indeed for a racing fan. Afterwards we all came back for more tea – no sign of champagne or any riotous celebrations despite a win that had enormous financial consequences. In addition to the  substantial prize-money a filly who wins a classic is a valuable stud option. I suppose Ballydoyle and Coolmore do it so often that it’s seen as business as usual. And of course O’Brien famously doesn’t drink. There was plenty of wine there but it seemed no one was interested (except me – but I don’t like drinking alone).

The most memorable thing about the whole encounter was how genuinely self-effacing and modest O’Brien is. And he has plenty of cause not to be so. He could be considered our greatest racehorse trainer ever, with the possible exception of his namesake Vincent. He’s been much more successful internationally than Vincent but the latter operated in an era where travel wasn’t as stream-lined. And of course Vincent proved his versatility at Cheltenham and Aintree as well as the Curragh and Epsom. In later years Vincent developed a certain hauteur which Aidan certainly doesn’t possess. Those who know him speak of his work-ethic and his genuine love of horses – the attendant stuff is to him an irrelevance.

Life above Everything: Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats

A lightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14 July 2019.

Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats never met although Freud claimed to have caught sight of the aging artist near Stephen’s Green in the early Fifties. He was certainly familiar with his work as he once asserted that “Jack B. Yeats is Irish art.” Also, he kept a drawing by Yeats, Dancing Stevedores, next to his bed for over 20 years – a location that ensured it was widely viewed. Freud visited Ireland a number of times between 1948 and 1956 usually with a woman or because he was pursuing one. (One of the latter was Lady Caroline Blackwood, a cousin of Garech Browne, who one suspects he wished he’d never caught.) The artists’ works crossed paths only once during Yeats’s lifetime - in the the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, London. This was the unlikely venue for Forty Years of Modern Art, the inaugural exhibition of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1948. The young Freud had a small, pastel self-portrait in the show and Yeats had a large oil called A Farewell to Mayo. The latter piece belonging to the star-crossed Vivien Leigh, a gift from Laurence Olivier.

Notwithstanding these somewhat tenuous connections, the Freud Project at IMMA enlists Jack B. Yeats to the cause in the exhibition Life Above Everything: Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats. The initial stimulus came from co-curator David Dawson who drew the other co-curator Christina Kennedy’s (IMMA’s head of collections) attention to Freud’s admiration for Yeats. Dawson was Freud’s studio assistant, model, friend and general factotum for the last twenty years of the artist’s life – so he should know. (Freud’s very last painting, Portrait of a Hound, features a naked Dawson and his whippet Eli.) Whatever about its slightly flakey raison d’etre, the exhibition is a delight and affords us the privilege of viewing a large number of outstanding paintings by these two great maverick figures of 20th Century art. And the curators have done an excellent job in creatively exploring the many affinities that can be found, especially in subject matter, when you look across their respective oeuvres. An interesting side show is the fact that seven of the works by Yeats in the exhibition were selected by Freud at various auctions for a friend who was a collector.

Both artists were figurative painters at times when representation was passé.The exhibition hangs together by exploring certain figurative themes and subjects they had in common. These include self-portraits, double portraits, figures in landscape, windows, and horses. Freud scores heavily in the self-portrait department. The Yeats work is a stilted graphite image of the young artist posing by an easel. Nothing is being given away here. In contrast we get two wildly varying self-portraits by Freud. One in his early flatter style shows an idealised portrait of a handsome and rather cruel looking young man. The other, Reflection 1985, painted in thick impasto depicts a sinister and energetic Freud – right out of Dorian Grey’s attic. The two artists intersect most obviously in their love of animals – especially horses. It’s interesting to see that of the seven Yeats paintings selected by Freud at auction, four of them feature horses. The Flapping Meeting would certainly have resonated with him. Freud might have viewed human flesh with a jaundiced eye but when it came to animals his affection shines through. Look at the loving portrayal of the sleeping whippet in Double Portrait, its paw draped over the girl’s arm. There are two paintings of horses by Freud in the show, although one (Skewbald Mare) seems more an exercise in tonal contrasts than the study of a horse. He painted dogs more frequently probably because he could work with them in his studio – Freud was a very studio-bound artist. He had a fraught relationship with horses in other ways - going through through vast amounts of money feeding a largely unsuccessful gambling habit. Yeats grew up amongst horses on his uncle George Pollexfen’s property in Sligo. They featured in his work throughout his career and the exhibition shows the transformation that took place in how he represented them as he moved from his illustrative style to the looser and expressive style of his later career. His early horses are seen going about their workaday business, hauling goods, transporting passengers, or at the races. In later years they become less prosaic and are transformed into symbols of freedom - manifestations of spirit and energy. Compare the working horses in The Ballina Car with the magical, mystical creature in On the Way to the Sea. The exhibition contains many fine examples of Yeats’s treatment of horses  and it allows us to test Frank Auerbach’s claim that “Yeats’s are the best paintings of horses ever made.”

If one were to find fault with what overall is an immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition it would be at the inordinate number of grim-faced Irishmen on display. Presumably these were included to emphasize Freud’s love for Ireland and all things Irish. Many, such as Two Brothers from Ulster, seem stricken by what can best be described as sitter’s ennui. Freud labored long and painstakingly over his work and a sitter without a rich inner life may have struggled not to look pissed off. Man in Silver Suit is another example, or the miserable duo in Two Irishmen in W11. Although the latter work is redeemed by the view of Freud’s hinterland in West London from the large window. There are two portraits of Donegal Man in the show, probably one too many. This is no ordinary Donegal man but the high-profile property developer Pat Doherty, a man not unknown to NAMA. He runs Harcourt Development and was responsible for the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. Doherty paid £4.5 million for the two paintings. A painting of Doherty’s friend Andrew Parker Bowles (a director of Harcourt Development) by Freud fetched €28 million in 2014, so this is one piece of speculation that the property tycoon need not regret. While Freud’s later portraits are all-too-human, slabs of flesh, Yeats goes more for character and expression. Compare Freud’s Irishmen with two works by Yeats in the basement area of the gallery. The Rogue shows a young man lounging luxuriously in a bar, a pint of stout beside him and an expression that shouts out “untrustworthy”. Useful shows a boxer sitting in his corner and his expression tells us he’s clearly in command of the fight.

The title of the exhibition comes from a letter to Yeats from Walter Sickert in which he described Yeats’s practice as pursuing “life above everything”. He roamed the country with his ever-present sketchbooks drawing inspiration from all around him and preserving what he saw in watercolours, notes and drawings.  He depicts people and animals in the midst of life – in action. Freud in contrast paints arrested life. There is also a costive, enclosed, feel to a lot of his paintings. He admitted as much describing his work as  “purely autobiographical – it is about myself and my surroundings”. This difference is made explicit in Dead Cock’s Head and in his superb death-like Portrait of his Mother Sleeping. Contrast these cruel almost lepidopterous works with the joy and energy in Yeats’ truly wonderful painting Left, Left, We Left Our Name on the Road. Get up to IMMA and see for yourself.

John P. O’Sullivan
July 2019