Master of Light
Not long after my final round of fertility treatment fails, we go to see an exhibition at the National Gallery. I don't want to stay at home and think about what this means. I believe in forward motion at all times. Like a shark.
The Master of Light is in the basement. Sorolla, the Spanish impressionist, is too dazzling to be hung overground. K and I wander through the gallery looking for the exhibition, through sombre rooms clad in green-flocked wallpaper, walls heavy with gilt-framed canvases. There are Biblical scenes and portraits of people long dead, stiff-looking even in life. From our ground floor location, the sign for the exhibition in the Sainsburys Wing points up to level minus two, which I can't understand, until I trust the signs and follow them only to realise that we have to go up to come down.
"Sor – oy – ya", the woman at the ticket desk, who happens to be Spanish, corrects my pronunciation gently, rolling her "r" at the back of her throat with a trill. I have been mispronouncing his name with my heavy Dublin tongue. As she waits for our payment to go through, she tells us a bit about the exhibition, clearly excited. This is the first major exhibition of Sorolla's paintings in the UK since 1908 and features fifty-eight works spanning his career, many of which come from private collections.
The first room is full of family portraits: his wife with their infant son; his daughters at various ages. Sorolla was a family man, the exhibition guide tells me. I read that phrase again – a family man. It is something I have never heard said about other male artists. Instead, numerous affairs seem part of the territory.
Sorolla's parents died from cholera when he was two years old, and he and his sister were adopted by his aunt and uncle. His early loss is written into his work as he paints his wife and his children, capturing them again and again. His son and two daughters grow from infants to children to adults under his brush. On his canvases, they are immortalised, forever bathed in luminous light. It is like looking at someone's family album, except beautifully, exquisitely rendered. He is part of his paintings too: in one, the awning of his makeshift shelter provides the focal point of one painting set on the beach. Even in his paintings, he wanted to be with his family. I understand this, the longing to be surrounded by one's family unit, to be a part of something that says you belong.
My parents were not ones to catalogue childhood moments in snaps. Photos remained in their paper pouches complete with slippery sets of negatives, stored in a cardboard box kept at the top of the wardrobe in my parents' bedroom. I took them out as a teenager and stuck some of them into a cheap collage clip frame. A family trip to the zoo with cousins, everyone posed in a row for the photo, my brother holding an ice cream cone that is already dribbling down his arm in white ribbons. Me, dressed up for Halloween in a witch's hat and no front teeth. My mother holding my sister in her arms, leaning in to blow out two birthday candles. I, too, was trying to get a grip on the family I had.
The central rooms of the exhibition display his beach scenes where the sunlight is always the central character. Born in Valencia, Sorolla grew up by the sea and much of his work was painted outdoors. All of life is happening on the beach: oxen pull in a fishing boat, children play on the sand, a mother tends to a bare-bottomed child. They invite you in, these paintings – they are intimate, personal.
I linger in front of one painting, Two Boys Moor the Ship, my attention caught by its unusual perspective. A small wooden rowboat is mostly out of shot, only part of the prow making it onto the canvas. Two boys, seen from above, swim naked, their bodies sleek as otters. The light glints off the sea, iridescent, and the surface ripples with motion. I can almost feel the cold silkiness of sea water on my skin and the glare of the reflected light in my eyes.
Looking around the room for K, I go and stand beside him and thread my hand through his.
"It feels alive", he says, looking at the painting. Running along the Beach, Valencia (1908) reads the plaque. Children run along the hard sand of the shore: two girls in billowing dresses, a boy chasing them, caught suspended in mid-air. There is a patch of dark sand on the back of his leg which tells us that he has, until very recently, been sitting or lying on this sand and it has remained caked on his legs. And I know what K means, I can feel it, the thud of hard sand under bare feet, the smell of salty air. We drink it in for a few moments more.
"I like this one", I say to him, steering him gently toward another, a painting of children lying belly down on the hard sand at the shoreline. I can almost feel the runnels of water draining around their prone bodies, the suck and shift of the sand.
My earliest memory of the beach is a family holiday to Greece with cousins, aunt and uncle. Coming out of the sea blue-lipped to be wrapped in huge beach towels grainy with sand. This clamour and mess of family holidays, of wiping sun cream out of eyes, drying between toes, building endless sandcastles, will be someone else's life.
You get to re-live childhood again if you have children – a kind of do-over, the opportunity to create the kind of childhood you had and loved, or, even more seductive, the chance to create the childhood you never had and missed your whole life. Who will feature in our family album, our little knot of two? We are moving further and further away from this, the world of childhood and children and making memories that someone else will carry on. I feel the loss of these boisterous beach holidays suddenly and keenly. Like the tug of a retreating tide, they shift the ground from under me.
It sneaks up on me, this No, this full stop in our fertility treatment. At times when I am least expecting it, it surprises me. It is hard for me to reconcile my inner and outer world. Outwardly, I am a functioning human, visiting an art gallery on a Saturday morning with my husband. Inwardly, the realisation that it is likely that we will never be more than two is still sinking in. It has been a slow drip over time, a slide into No. I can't see the whole of it at once but, slowly, different parts of it come into view.
There was talk among friends of a shared holiday with their children. We have done this before and enjoyed it, but now, at this point, it is too painful. I am not ready yet. I am not sure that I will ever be ready again. To be faced with what I don't have – family life with children – is too much. Still, I feel like a bad friend for refusing. Like I am isolating myself from those who love me. I grapple with the conflict, but I know that, deep down, I can't. I don't want to.
I linger in front of one of the paintings, Young Fisherman – a close-up of a boy walking the beach with his basket of fish for sale. His wicker basket, held against one side of his body, casts a shadow on his chest. It reminds me of summer drives out to Howth to buy the catch of the day straight from the fishermen. My brother and I in the back seat playing noughts and crosses, using our fingers as a stylus to write on the velvet car seat, dragging nails against the grain. My mother would wind down the window to smoke, and as soon as we got near to Howth the briny smell of fish would turn our noses.
"Ew, Daddy, it smells!" Our complaints were forgotten as we were released to buy ice cream while my father bought fat prawns, pink-shelled with beady black eyes, wrapped in newspaper, and whole fish lying on an open grave of ice.
My touchpoint for childhood will not change. The only link I have now to childhood is my own. Without my own child, godchild, niece, or nephew my reference point for childhood is historical. I find that I have nothing to contribute to conversations around children. I have only my own memories, or sometimes that of my youngest sister. First words, first days at school, the funny things children say... Whole interactions with friends, work colleagues, acquaintances, are now based on the exchanging of this information. I have nothing to say.
The final room has a huge canvas of his wife and adult daughters in their garden. Sorolla's wife Clotilde was his confidante, his muse, the love of his life. His paintings are a love letter to her; she features over and over again: resplendent in a black, wasp-waisted dress, she stares down at me from her spot on the staircase, in bed with their newborn infant, both swaddled in a sea of white linen. Later, she is captured helping their small daughter over rocks on the beach. He wanted her around him always. When Sorolla was away travelling for his painting, he wrote letters to his wife which survive today and provide a record of their love. "I paint, and I love you. And that's it", he wrote, his two loves simply stated.
Loving is not simple during fertility treatment. Not only is there the emotional and psychological toll of treatment and the endless cycles of hope, there is also the biological effect. Mood swings are a commonly listed side effect of the drugs, though the neatly sanitised term doesn't capture the intensity of those moods. This last cycle has been hard. There were days when it felt like rage was the only thing keeping me going. There were the usual irritants of course: commuting, delayed trains, annoying work colleagues, and a whole host of other things that I hadn't noticed before. A memory of my last blow-up comes back to me. K and I were having dinner, and the sound of his eating – the wet slap of food against tongue, of lips working, teeth tearing – set me off. Before he had even swallowed, his fork hovered at his mouth, awaiting entry. Shovel, chew, swallow, repeat. And his knife faced the wrong way, blade up – how did he not notice? I looked away but the rising swell of irritation built to anger. Pushing back my chair, I scraped my plate into the bin, appetite ruined by rage. My eyes landed on a newly opened bottle of hot sauce, when I knew perfectly well that there was an open one in the fridge. Furious, I grabbed the bottle and stomped into the living room, only wishing the distance were longer so that I could make the most of this most triumphant of stomps.
"What did you open this for?! This is just typical of you... You always do this..." and off I went.
K looked up, caught unawares in this sudden missile attack. "Sorry, sweetheart, I didn't check."
This infuriated me further. "Didn't check!" I had a way to go before I ran out of energy for this combat, like a windup toy, twisted to the end.
"Em, do you think this might be the hormones?"
"Well, that would be handy, wouldn't it? Make it not your fault! Not everything is about the bloody hormones." And I stomped off, on the hunt for inanimate objects to get angry at.
But it was, of course. He was right. I can see that now.
In the final room of the exhibition, I sit on a bench, soaking it all up, and waiting for K to finish in the other room. An older couple beside me discusses the technique and composition of the large canvas in front of them. I watch them covertly, momentarily more interested in them than the exhibition. I have never studied art. I cannot discuss it from a technical or historic knowledge base, but I have become a student of observation, a calculator of other people's happiness. It has recently started to dawn on me that not having children means not having grandchildren, which is self-evident of course, but still something I had not fully considered. Do they have grandchildren? I wonder, looking at this couple. Do they look happy? It must be a particular joy to have grandchildren, to feel a tie to future generations. My friend, who has recently become a grandmother, confided that she surprised herself with the strength of her reaction to the birth of her granddaughter. She was wholly unprepared for the deep pull of it. "He's a part of me", she said simply.
K comes to find me, ready to go. As we leave, there is a quote from Sorolla on the wall beside the exit: "We painters can never reproduce the sunlight as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it."
It echoes in my brain: only approach the truth of it. That's all I can do now, approach the truth of my reality. The words in my head and these words on the page can't really capture these feelings. All I can do now is approach the truth of it, imperfectly, clumsily, in the dark.
I am left with this as I ascend the stairs with K, back up into the daylight.
This article first appeared in the magazine Lunch Ticket. Sue Hann is a psychologist interested in the interplay between psychology and creativity. Her work explores how psychology and art both try to make sense of the universality of pain and suffering. She is a London Writers Awards recipient 2019-20. She is the winner of the Diana Woods Memorial Award 2020. Her work has been published in print journals such as Popshot quarterly, and in online journals such as LunchTicket. You can find her on Twitter here: @SYWrites.