Penman No. 300: Mysteries of Art (1)

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Penman for Monday, April 30, 2018

 

 

I’LL ASK my readers to bear with me as I explore and try to solve, in another two-part series, some mysteries of art.

Alongside my recent love affair with old books, I’ve rekindled an early and abiding interest in art, particularly in paintings of a certain kind. My wife Beng, of course, is an artist—a watercolorist, a dreamer of waterscapes and landscapes—who’s also an art restorer and conservator, so the two of us have been fortunate to come closer to the works of the masters than most gallery hoppers. And I mean close, as in half an inch away from the tip of one’s nose to an Amorsolo or a Botong or, when we visit museums abroad, to a Rembrandt or a Tiepolo, because Beng can’t resist examining the minutiae of the painting’s restoration, often prompting a frantic museum guard to shriek, “Step back, Madame!”

We enjoy most schools and styles of art, from El Greco and Turner to O’Keefe and Matisse, but—as you can gather from those names I just dropped—our sexagenarian sensibilities might have a hard time cozying up to the likes of Basquiat, whom we could try to understand and appreciate, like we were taking an exam for a Humanities class, but not hang above our bed. (I’ll receive those boos now from my hipper friends.)

I myself have been veering closer, in my creeping senescence, toward something I can only vaguely describe as a midcentury romanticism—an imagined age of innocence before the Second World War, and of optimism after, like the war never happened, like no war could obliterate. Perhaps it’s my form of escapism from the madness of the present, but I’m drawn to landscapes with bamboos rustling in the breeze, to sunsets bursting with fruity promise, to rivers teeming with lilies, to beaches without people. Over the past few months, I’ve been picking up art pieces—paintings and prints—in this old-fashioned mode.

Given my UP professor’s salary, I have to work within a very limited budget, so I collect by sight rather than by name. This means that a painting should enthrall me—I should feel a rush of excitement, or a pang of melancholy, a cry of delight, the minute I see the piece; I should want to think about it again, to have it intrude into the most inconvenient moment of some mundane preoccupation. It might make me want to know more about the artist after—not necessarily before—I buy the painting.

I felt that surge last month when Beng and I drove out on a Saturday to a corner of Pampanga to view three small paintings I had spotted online, being offered by a picker. They were unsigned—so forget finding some mislaid Amorsolo—but they exuded rustic charm, a harking back to a lost provincial Eden. All my seller could say about them was that he had acquired them as a batch with a fourth and larger one, in the same style, that he had sold earlier, and that other one was signed “Serna 1944.” Serafin Serna (1919-1979) was, indeed, a painter of nature, a student of Amorsolo; most significantly, his brief biography online mentioned that Serna often didn’t sign his works. So the tantalizing possibility remains that my pastoral paeans were done by his hand, and they will be so attributed in our home gallery, pending proof to the contrary.

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Not long after, pretty much by the same route (although this one led to a gas station in Para?aque), I picked up two other little gems of the genre—landscapes done in 1957 by Gabriel Custodio (1912-1993), who I was ashamed to admit I knew nothing about until that instant. But again, encountering Custodio (another student of Amorsolo) reminded me of how important it is to scour our backyard for obscure treasures—many hidden, but others in plain sight.

Imagine my exhilaration when, two Saturdays ago, Beng and I attended the opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s fabulous new exhibit, “Fascination with Filipiniana: The Vargas Collection in the Wake of War and the Modern: Manila 1941-1961.” The curator himself, Dr. Patrick Flores, walked me up to one Serna and Custodio after the other, educating me on that key period of transition between the traditionalists and modernists—particularly the fact that the lines between were never that sharply drawn.

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For now this is just a long introduction to build up some credibility for what I’m about to claim, which is a heightened sense of awareness in things artistic, albeit from a strictly amateur perspective. It’s the kind of awareness that allows me to pronounce (at least to myself), “Hmmm, this painting looks nice, but unfortunately it’s a fake, because XX never used an apostrophe when he dated his later signatures, as in ’76 or ’83,” or “How can this be from 1995 when ZZ died in 1986? Besides the strokes are all wrong, they’re way too hurried.”

Next week, we’ll deal with a real whodunit: who did that life-size painting of Rizal and a cohort of Spaniards stored for decades in UP Diliman? I’ll offer my conjecture.

 

Penman No. 299: Books with Back Stories (2)

 

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Penman for Monday, April 23, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about Philippine-related books I’ve come across online with stories to tell beyond what their pages contained. There was that facsimile of the Doctrina Christiana, for example, signed by Lessing J. Rosenwald, the man who donated the world’s only known copy of the 1593 volume to the Library of Congress.

I also said that quite often, I don’t end up buying the book for one reason or another (usually and predictably financial), but I take note anyway of that particular book’s special appeal. I might leave it on my eBay “watch” list for a week while I mull over whether or not to spend any serious money on it, and then I’ll likely decide that the curiosity value just isn’t worth the cash out or the shelf space, which could go to a worthier recipient.

One of those almost-bought books was William D. Boyce’s The Philippine Islands, published in 1914 by Rand McNally. There was a swell of these books at the turn of the century following the American invasion and annexation of the Philippines, which their writers proudly touted as one of the US’ “new possessions.” Part travelogue, part political tract, these reports from the exotic East not only satisfied the curiosity of Americans who had never ventured out of their home states but also advanced the imperialist agenda. In his introduction (you can read the whole text for free online), Boyce—the millionaire-founder of the Boy Scouts of America—huffed that “It is my belief that if readers will carefully weigh and consider what follows in these pages, they will be aided to a larger view of the value of the Philippines, and realize how unjust and unjust it would be to cut adrift these half-civilized children of nature, trusting alone to luck that they may swim rather than sink in the sea of difficulties that surround the most hazardous of human tasks—self-government.” He was, he declared, squarely against those like Mark Twain seeking “to force these valuable Islands out of the hands of their real owners—the American people.”

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It helps sell books to give your chapters titles like “The Dog-Eating Igorots” and “Blood-Soaked Jolo,” but what drew me to this particular copy was the seller’s note that the book was inscribed to one Rev. Joseph Casey, and signed “Truly W. D. Boyce, S. S. Lusitania Feb 3rd1915.” That was just three months before a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the?Lusitania?in the Atlantic, helping push America into another war. I was intrigued, but in the end, I passed—I already had too many of these triumphal tributes to American imperialism on my shelves, and my $60 could go to better and less aggravating fare.

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More amusing—but also troubling in its own way—was a book I didn’t even know existed: the paperback edition of Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn?(Little Brown, 1947), reissued in 1952 by Popular Library and retitled the The Lost Ones. As if the subtitle “A Surging Novel of Passion and Hate” wasn’t suggestive enough, this paperback sported a racy cover with a seduction scene straight out of a femme-fatale noir film of the period. Blithely (but wisely, market-wise) disregarding the complexity of the relationship between Carding and his wife Lucia, the back-cover blurb goes straight to and quotes the book’s purplest portion:

“’It’s a LARGE bed…’ Rosita smiled wickedly at Carding from the pillow. She wore nothing but a sheer slip, and that was hiked above her rounded white thighs. ‘But I’m married,’ Carding told her, clenching his big hands, trying to tear his eyes away from her. Rosita shrugged. ‘You should have thought of that last night,’ she drawled. ‘Now it’s too late. I could never let you go now, Carding.’ She put a cigarette in her mouth. ‘Bend down,’ she said, ‘and give me a light.’ He got the matches in his trembling hands and leaned far over the bed. Her arms circled his neck like two bands of steel, tumbling her toward him. He was married—but he was a man!”

I also passed on the book, preferring the canonical high seriousness of my first edition, but it was a good reminder that, long before they joined the canon, many books were sold—had?to be sold—as popular entertainment. There’s probably no better example of this than a two-volume, paperback edition of Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, published in Barcelona in 1911 by Maucci, with covers that one would be hard put to associate with Crisostomo Ibarra (the blonde looks particularly unnerving). I don’t know how many copies were printed and sold, but this was just one of many popular editions of the Noli?and Fili?that came out in Spain within a decade or so of Rizal’s execution—his revenge from the grave, when you come to think of it. This colorful Fili, I happily got.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 298: Books with Back Stories (1)

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Penman for Monday, April 16, 2018

 

AS I’VE been chronicling here these past few months, my fascination late in life with antiquarian books and documents has led me to some wonderful, intriguing, and often serendipitous discoveries. And as I’ve been saying, I’m a scavenger, not a scholar, so I will just as likely come across and even pick up junk as I will, now and then, a jewel. My most recent acquisitions have included a gorgeous Atlas de Filipinas?from 1900 in very fine condition, early editions of the Noli?and Fili?published in Spain, a booklet of original sketches by one of the illustrators of Puck?magazine from 1889, an illustrated travel book on Luzon and Palawan from 1887 by Alfred Marche, and a signed first edition of a book by one of my most admired authors, John Updike.

As much as possible, I seek out books that have some connection to the Philippines and its history and culture. If possible—and when I can afford it—I choose the first or earlier editions, signed by the authors, to establish some personal connection to the work at its very origins. It’s a fancy fetish, for sure, more than anything; you can often legally download the entire text for free online, and gain as much scholarship from that file. But there’s nothing like holding a book that the author himself or herself held and even scribbled his or her name on with a fountain pen (or a quill pen, in the case of my 300-year-old volumes with marginal notations in fine sepia ink). It returns you to how personal the act of writing and publishing can be, in this age of e-books and PDFs.

A few weeks ago, for example, I jumped on a book that turned up in Texas, a 1948 facsimile copy of the 1593 Doctrina Christiana, the very first book printed in the Philippines (a personal encounter with which I reported on here four years ago, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC). Facsimiles are interesting but generally passed over by collectors—you can still get a facsimile of the Doctrina?locally for P250—but this one had a very special value. Not only was it published by the LOC very soon after the book (the only copy known to exist) resurfaced in Paris after the war and was donated to the LOC, proof that the LOC knew exactly how rare it was; but this copy was inscribed in green ink by Lessing J. Rosenwald to George L. McKay. Rosenwald happened to be the book collector who acquired the Doctrina?and donated it, along with many other rarities, to the LOC; McKay was another well-known bibliophile. So this copy shows—against a suggestion I’d heard that Rosenwald didn’t know what he was buying—that Rosenwald prized the Doctrina?highly enough to gift its facsimile to his collector-friends.

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That Doctrina?facsimile has joined my collection, but another outstanding book didn’t, just when I thought it would. I’d won the bidding for a first edition, with dust jacket, of William Pomeroy’s The Forest?(International Publishers, 1963). This is the book that, whenever I’m asked “Which book has influenced you the most?”, I give as an answer. It was my reading back in high school of this American GI-turned-Communist guerrilla’s lyrical and moving account of his time with the Huks in the mountains of Luzon that inflamed me to join the nationalist movement. Pomeroy met and married the Filipina Celia Mariano; they were captured, imprisoned, and later led a long life of exile in the UK, where they died not too long ago in their 90s. I already had a first edition of The Forest, but this copy was inscribed by Pomeroy to their friends Bill and Ranjana Ash—another storied couple, dedicated Marxists whose lives are well worth Googling. Sadly I later got a note from the seller that he could no longer find the book in his shop, and refunded me. What a loss!

Sometimes I don’t buy the book, but take note of some very interesting details about it. For example, I came across a work on Philippine fisheries, “Bangos Culture in the Philippine Islands,” taken from an April 1929 issue of the Philippine Journal of Science. It was co-authored by Albert W. Herre and Jose Mendoza, two pioneers in the field. But the bookseller noted that “This copy is unique in that the primary author, Albert W. Herre, has crossed out the name of the second author, Jose Mendoza, on the credit line of the first page, and written alongside it, ‘This name [Jose Mendoza] was added and my paper altered after I had sent it in for publication, all without my knowledge. Herre.’ On the second page, Mr. Herre has crossed out the second paragraph (‘Description of the Bangos’) with a few pen lines (it is still very legible) and written alongside, ‘Added without my knowledge or consent. Herre.’… given that the primary author made the aforementioned annotations, it appears that he donated it to Harvard (and wanted to make sure that Harvard understood that he was the real and only author).” Are we looking at an example of professional jealousy in the sciences?

More on these discoveries next week.

Penman No. 297: A Witness Speaks

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Penman for Monday, April 9, 2018

 

I WAS very honored to receive a response to my recent column-piece on “Writers in Wartime” from no less than Dr. Benito Legarda Jr., the eminent economist-historian perhaps best known by contemporary readers for his harrowing accounts of the atrocities committed by the retreating Japanese forces in Manila at the closing days of the Second World War. Titling his message “Writers Under Compulsion,” Dr. Legarda pretty much confirms what I observed, but with the kind of authority I couldn’t possibly lay claim to. A teenager during the war, he also adds a couple of personal vignettes. (Previously, Dr. Legarda and I had corresponded on another topic of mutual interest, the French adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere, whose very colorful account of his Philippine sojourn Legarda had introduced in a 1972 edition.)

This may sound like an academic discussion, especially to young readers who know or care little about what came before them, but the question of how writers respond to the challenges (and opportunities) of authoritarian regimes is actually a very timely and practical one. Dr. Legarda ends his comments with a pointed reference to martial law, but we all know that authoritarianism didn’t end with Marcos or martial law. And it’s one thing when you’re writing at the point of a Japanese bayonet—but is it much different when you take the bayonet away and replace it with a balled fist? Here’s what a witness to war had to say:

The predicament of writers working under an authoritarian regime is brought out by Jose “Butch” Dalisay in an article, “Writers in Wartime” (Philippine Star, March 26, 2018). In this column Dalisay describes the conditions under which writers worked during the Japanese occupation.

They had to toe the Japanese propaganda line of Japan as the liberator of Asian people from Western imperialism, the exemplar of nationalist governance.

Dalisay examines the December 1943 issue of the Philippine Review. How did writers comport themselves at the time? Were they cultural collaborators?

Dalisay did not know those writers himself and did not know their inner convictions but as one who lived through those times, I can say that the editor, F.B. Icasiano or “Mang Kiko,” was reportedly a collaborator and disappeared after the battle for Manila.

Other editors, all working for the Manila Shimbun Sha (the only publisher permitted), were Vicente Albano Pacis, Angel? Anden, and Jose Luna Castro—all respectable journalists who had to make a living.

It was not difficult for fiction writers like Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera to avoid the propaganda line by writing Christmas stories. This was also easy with Juan Collas’ translation of Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adiosand Jovito Salonga’s commentary on the language of the Constitution.

A friend of my youth, Isagani A. Cruz, in a different issue wrote a poem in praise of Rizal. Later, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court he? would be known as the most elegant prose stylist in the Court.

For the fictionists Dalisay notes the sharp and painful transition to the darkening of the times.

Not so the essayists who could not avoid mouthing the Japanese propaganda line. One was educator Camilo Osias, author of the prewar Philippine Readersseries and future Senate president, who argued for a sound eclectic choice as Japan had done in its cultural borrowings and emphasizing the precedence of the State, of social interests over the individual.

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Osias once escorted my mother home from a civic meeting, and at? our front steps asked my father if he was willing to send me to Japan on a scholarship. My father flatly turned him down. “I see I’m barking up the wrong tree,” he said.

Osias’ ideas were general enough to avoid being tagged propaganda; at most they might be qualified as political adjustment. Not so Luis Montilla, national librarian, who wrote fatuous praises for Japan as a guide and regenerator of true Orientalism, realizing Rizal’s supposed dream of re-Orientalizing his people.

Dalisay withholds judgment on this matter considering that it was possible for some Filipinos to regard the invading Japanese as liberators, after centuries of the white man’s rule.

But as one who lived through that time, I remember the Filipinos regarding themselves as better than the Japanese, who had cruelly ravaged Manchuria and China. They were certainly not looked on as liberators by a people who were already on the eve of full independence.

Perhaps the writer’s dilemma of the time was best expressed by a leading Filipino writer?? in Spanish, Don Pedro Aunario, who told my uncle Jose “Pepito” Legarda who worked at the Shimbun Sha with him, “How fortunate you are that you don’t?have to write for a living.” Yes, writing for a living under an authoritarian regime meant suppressing one’s own opinions and parroting those of the rulers. Writers would experience this again under the Marcos dictatorship. (Images above from pyswarrior.com, photo of Dr. Legarda below from ateneo.edu)

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Penman No. 296: My Past as a Printmaker

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Penman for Monday, April 2, 2018

 

EVERY NOW and then I get a reminder from somewhere very far that, at one point in my past, I led a very different life and might have gone down another path altogether.

Last month I received a message from a gentleman in England, asking me if I knew the artist of a print he had acquired, an etching of a water buffalo with a bird perched on his back, dated 1974, titled “Katuwaan Lang,” and signed by a “j y dalisay jr.” I received similar inquiries from two ladies in the States back in 2008 and 2015, who both sent me pictures of prints I hadn’t seen in decades.

Yes, I told them all, once upon a time I worked as a printmaker, and it happened this way.

In January 1973, I was arrested by the military for alleged subversion—I was 18, a college dropout, and a fledgling reporter for the Philippines Herald?and Taliba—and was thrown, along with a couple hundred other inmates, into a detention camp somewhere in what people now smartly call Bonifacio Global City. Back then it was just the Ipil Rehabilitation Center, a repurposed Army barracks enclosed in barbed wire.

Among my fellow detainees—aside from the likes of Jojo Binay, Orly Mercado, and Zeus Salazar—was the artist Orlando “Orly” Castillo, who organized an Artists’ Group which conducted sketching sessions and painted and sold little souvenir items to our Sunday visitors. Not knowing how long we were going to be detained—I for one was never arraigned or tried in court, although I was interrogated and beaten up—I signed up with the group, having done a bit of drawing since grade school.

As it turned out, I would be released after seven months (“Go pack your bags, we have nothing on you,” said the officer). Instead of returning to school in UP—which I found deathly quiet and unconducive to learning—I sought out Orly, who had been released earlier, and joined him and a group of new friends at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio and gallery at 1680 Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita, Manila.

It was really little more than a big box at the far end of a lot, but it housed an etching press, and I learned printmaking on that press just by watching the regulars going through the motions of coating zinc plates with asphalt “ground,” drawing their designs on the ground, soaking the plates in a bath of nitric acid, inking the plates, and printing copies of the artwork off them under the rolling press. I looked over the shoulders of people like the late Manolito Mayo, Tiny Nuyda, Joel Soliven, Bing del Rosario, Fil de la Cruz, Ronald Veluz, and Emet Valente. (Yes, most of the regulars there were guys, although Petite Calaguas, Adiel Arevalo, and Ivi Avellana-Cosio would also come by.) Sometimes Bencab dropped in, and I was very happy when he remarked kindly on one of my etchings of a boat in Romblon harbor.

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I did etchings like everybody else, but my preferred technique was drypoint, which meant scratching and digging the design straight onto the zinc plate with nothing more than the needle of a compass. My fingers would get so sore they nearly bled, but drypoint lent the work a certain delicacy of line that you couldn’t get with nitric acid. For inspiration, I turned to the pages of E. S. Lumsden’s 1926 classic The Art of Etching, a copy of which I still keep.

I became a printmaker for a while, not just because I loved the craft and the company, but because I was jobless. Selling prints in bulk to a dealer who sold them framed to US servicemen sustained me through that lean season. The prints sold for maybe just 15 or 20 pesos each, but a few hundred went a long way then.

At some point I won an honorable mention for the drypoint print of a farmer, and served as Vice President of PAP under Lito Mayo—not for any abundance of artistic talent (I was way too conservative to amount to much), but, I suspect, because of my way with words, a facility I have found useful to this day. But inevitably life’s other challenges caught up.

It was at the PAP where I met my wife to be, a pretty girl named June, and I courted her with letters handwritten with a Mars Lumograph and, of course, a drypoint portrait I made of her. A few months after we met, we were married—but not before I managed to find a more stable job, at my mother’s insistence, this time as a writer for the National Economic and Development Authority, just around the corner.

The PAP has long left J. Bocobo and all I have from those days is a small album of about a dozen stray prints, but I still feel a surge of fraternity whenever I meet Bencab, Tiny, Ivi, and the other true masters of the art. I like to think that I’ve ported over my sense of imagery and detail to my writing. We can always hope that here or elsewhere, in whatever form, the art will survive the artist; ars longa, vita brevis. (That’s my grandmother Mamay below, in and etching with drypoint and aquatint.)

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