Sorolla's Way With Sunlight. The rise of modernism blunted the career of this talented turn-of-the-century painter, but a lush international restropsective is finally helping to change all that

FOR most of this century, Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) was known to Americans (if he was known at all), as the outstanding representative of the reactionary Spanish painting tradition against which Mir'o and Picasso had rebelled. He was perceived as one of the ``bad guys'' of recent Spanish art, much as Sargent and Chase were viewed as America's ``villains'' during early modernist days. He was considered a perfect example of how far wrong a youngster of even brilliant talents could go if he refused to accept the vision of the ``new.'' Now, however, thanks to ``Joaquin Sorolla: Painter of Light,'' the IBM Gallery of Science and Art's retrospective of his work here, that perception should be radically altered. The show's 100 paintings and oil sketches amply indicate that Sorolla was a painter of remarkable accomplishments. For this improved understanding, we have the San Diego Museum of Art and the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, in Valencia, Spain, the show's co-organizers, to thank.

Interestingly enough, his first American exhibition, held in New York in 1909, was a smashing success. It attracted 160,000 visitors, 30,000 of them in a single day, and led to a period of great popularity and critical acceptance in the United States. Unfortunately, however, modernism was on its way in, and, as it began to capture popular and professional attention, America's enthusiasm for Sorolla's bravura style drew to an end.

Although short-lived, his success in America must have come as no surprise. Acknowledgement of his exceptional abilities had begun at the age of 21, when he won a national painting scholarship to the Spanish Academy in Rome. From 1890 on, he exhibited in many of the art centers of the world, consistently winning medals and awards, and slowly but surely building an international reputation for his canvases in the French realist style so popular at the time.

Around 1900, however, his work underwent a significant change, largely because of his newfound fascination with the dramatic effects of strong sunlight on people and places. He was particularly successful with depictions of sun-drenched beaches, many of which included children at play, and with landscapes that, after 1904, became increasingly Impressionistic.

Although he has occasionally been labeled an Impressionist, close scrutiny of his work fails to substantiate that interpretation. More important, he himself denied the label, as have various experts, including Edmund Peel, the curator of this exhibition. Nevertheless, the term ``impressionist'' applies, as long as it is used descriptively. After all, few painters during the past century put as much time and effort into capturing the impression of bright sunlight playing upon a variety of surfaces as he - and none, Sargent included - was more successful.

Sunlight, in fact, could almost be identified as his primary subject. We need only glance at ``Noon at Valencia Beach'' to understand that it was the harsh glare of light on water that attracted Sorolla to this scene, not the three boys playing in the ocean. And the same is true of ``The White Boat,'' in which two young boys are almost lost to view as they swim within the blinding reflection of a small boat anchored nearby.

Light also dominates ``My Wife and Daughters in the Garden'' and the sun-drenched ``Under the Awning,'' both of which bring light and color to such high-pitched intensity that it takes a moment to recognize the forms of the women depicted. More traditional but no less impressionistic is ``The Rowing Boat,'' without doubt one of his most powerful works and one that gives the lie to those critics who complained that he was good at rendering ``effects,'' but weak in matters of pictorial structure and form.

A discussion of Sorolla's work that doesn't point out what a magnificent landscape painter he was does him a grave injustice. ``Gardens of the Alcazar of Seville in Winter'' is, quite simply, a breathtaking piece of pure painting. It, alone, would stamp him as a master landscapist - but then so would the more conventional ``Gardens of the Alcazar'' and the sun-struck ``Farm in Alcira.''

Of special interest are the 30 very small and rapidly dashed-off apuntes, or oil sketches, that were executed to capture the effects of light and movement. They, alone, prove Sorolla's worth, for they demonstrate the extraordinary range of his sensibility and the flexibility of his formal imagination. Some obviously were painted in less than 10 minutes, yet almost all demonstrate amazing clarity and grace.

Only one of Sorolla's paintings struck me as false - his portrait of King Alfonso XIII in Hussar's uniform. If everything were as trite and superficial as this, one would have to conclude that his bad reputation was merited. However, that most assuredly is not the case.

After closing at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art (590 Madison Avenue) May 13, this excellent show travels to the Saint Louis Art Museum (June 23-Aug. 13), and to the San Diego Museum of Art (Sept. 9-Oct. 29). Its final destination is the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Valencia, Spain (Dec. 2-Jan. 28, 1990).

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