Penman No. 317: Bringing the Minor Masters Home

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Penman for Monday, August 28, 2018

 

I’VE WRITTEN a few pieces recently about my self-assigned mission of finding and bringing home, from various sources overseas, masterpieces of Philippine publishing and literature, from early texts in Spanish to travel books about the Philippines and first editions or first publications of notable literary works.

This week I’m going to extend that to another burgeoning interest of mine—the recovery and repatriation of Filipino art pieces abroad, particularly those of painters who may never have quite achieved the status of a Juan Luna or Fernando Amorsolo, but whose works have their own charms to recommend them.

I may be luckier than most art fanciers in that I happen to know someone who restores the masters, so I get to see more than my fair share of Manansalas, Ocampos, Botongs, Magsaysay-Hos, and Luzes, up close, warts and all. But unless I win the Nobel Prize, I’m never going to own one of these masterworks, so I’ve learned to moderate my ambitions and aim for something both significant and reasonably attainable within a professor’s means.

Those goals crystallized for me when I attended, some months ago, an exhibit titled “Fascination with Filipiniana: The Vargas Collection,” curated by my friend and fellow UP prof Dr. Patrick Flores, who walked me through the show and pointed out how interesting (and not quite so seamless) the transition was between tradition and modernism, sometime in the past midcentury. I could see the tensions between the two, occasionally manifesting in the same artist’s earlier and later work (I don’t recall that he was in this Met exhibit, but Constancio Bernardo, who left the Philippines as an ardent follower of his teacher Amorsolo and came home a committed modernist, much to Amorsolo’s dismay, provides a good example.)

Many of the paintings on exhibit belonged to the school of “Mabini art,” a term often and unfairly used in the pejorative sense, suggesting cheap art done in haste for the tourist market. Indeed there’s a lot of that (and the purposes may not have changed; they’ve just become more pretentious, pitched toward buyers with deeper pockets), but these pioneering Mabini artists were talented in their own right, persistently romantic in a time of gloomy realism.

I was particularly drawn to the work of Gabriel Custodio (1912-1993), another student of Amorsolo and Fabian de la Rosa. I had earlier acquired two small paintings of his from the late 1950s, restful vignettes depicting rice fields and bamboo groves. The Tanza, Cavite native had produced larger seascapes that I admired, but the art market had caught on to him and I couldn’t possibly afford him at auction—at least not here.

I’ve long been convinced that in the United States—languishing in bedrooms, barns, garages, and resale shops—must be scores of Filipino art works brought over by American servicemen and diplomats after World War II and the Vietnam War, surfacing only recently with the passing of these veterans and being disposed of at auction by their heirs.

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A few months ago, a large painting by Custodio, about 2’ x 3’, turned up in, of all places, a Goodwill Store in Spokane, Washington—and I happily snagged that, and rolled it up in a tube for bringing home to Manila when I visited the US last month. Characteristically, Custodio signed it front and back, dated 1966; I’m calling it “Tanza Shore” in honor of his hometown and of its economic and cultural affinity to the water.

It was also on that trip when I secured and repatriated two other smaller but no less interesting pieces. One, shipped out of the East Coast, was an oil painting of a tree at sunset, more than anything an evocation of mood, an impressionist play of mauves, pinks, and oranges. It had been done by Jorge Pineda in 1937 and was still in its presumably original frame; the browned and crusty paper backing was beginning to crumble, but I plan to preserve it that way, as it bears the sticker of its framer: the Henry Schultheis Company, well known framers and gallery owners in New York City (Schultheis died in 1948). Pineda (1879-1946) himself was no mean painter, having won a prize for his work at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and later becoming a teacher to Amorsolo.

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The third piece I brought home—sold by an antiques dealer in Connecticut—caught my eye not just because of its subject but also because of its symbolic use of color. It’s an oil-on-paperboard depiction of Filipino farmers harvesting rice—pretty typical enough, and unremarkable of itself. But this work had been done by one P. T. Paguia in 1945, at the end of the war and in a season of new hope—a patriotic optimism exuded by the red, blue, and white in the dress of the woman bearing a?bilao?of fruits in the foreground, echoed by the other farmer and the brilliant sky. (Patrick Flores reminded me that Amorsolo had done a similar work in these colors, Palay Maiden, in 1920.) Sadly I could find nothing on P. T. Paguia, except a reference to Pedro T. Paguia being the illustrator of a 1952 book by Ramon Tapales, Singing and Growing for the Primary Grades.

Whether by established or obscure artists, these paintings from decades ago bring me joy and relief from the vexations of our time. Of course I could resell them, but frankly they probably won’t make too much, and just looking at them makes me happier than wondering what they may be worth, which I suppose is what amateur collecting should be about. Call them escapist, but they fortify my spirit by reminding me of the need to fight for beauty and plenitude for all.

 

 

Penman No. 316: Big Stories in Little Books

IMG_7566.JPGPenman for Monday, August 20, 2018

 

AMONG THE 50 pounds-plus of books that I carted home from my last visit to our daughter Demi’s place in San Diego, California, was a mini-stash of small leather-bound books that most people would probably ignore had they turned up in a yard sale. In a time wedded to the notion that bigger is better, small books attract scant attention, the impression being that they can’t have much to say.

To be honest, I didn’t know the size of the books at the time I ordered them; either I wasn’t looking too closely at the description, or was distracted by other features. My first reaction upon seeing them might have been disappointment, expecting to receive heftier volumes, especially given their topics, history and geography. But as soon as I opened them and began reading, my complaints melted away.

First, a short note about book sizes: publishers and librarians generally go by descriptions that range from the folio, the largest standard-sized book at about 12” x 19″, to the sexagesimo-quarto (or “64mo”) at 2” x 3″. Most books we buy today fall into the octavo (6” x 9”) or duodecimo (5” x 7-3/4”) category. My small books are octodecimo (4” x 6-1/2”) and smaller. (Miniature books—indeed, whole miniature libraries, one of which Napoleon was said to have carried to battle—have a fascinating history.)

The first little book I’d like to share with readers is Vol. II of Mavor’s Voyages and Travels, published in London in 1796. (For its age, its looks almost new, the leather supple and unmolested, except for wear at the corners, and the paper is bright and crisp.) The book offers contemporaneous accounts of the voyages of the great navigators and explorers of the 17th?and 18th?centuries—Drake, Cavendish, Raleigh, Van Noort, etc.—and they brought me back to my boyhood readings of these travels and their marvelous discoveries.

I haven’t finished the book, but so far I’ve found one reference to the Philippines, from Joris van Spilbergen’s voyage of 1614-1617:

“On the 6th?of January 1616, they landed on one of the Ladrones, and reached the Manillas the 9th?of February. On the 5th?of March they received intelligence of a fleet, consisting of twelve ships and four gallies, manned with two thousand Spaniards, besides Indians, Chinese, and Japanese; which powerful armament was intended to drive the Dutch out of the Moluccas.”

More gripping is this episode from the round-the-world voyage of Willem Schouten and Jacob La Maire of 1615-1617, described elsewhere as “the greatest Dutch expedition into the Pacific Ocean,” a voyage mean to find a new route to the Spice Islands and Terra Australis, today’s Australia:

“They left the coast of Sierra Leona on the 4th?of October; and next day, about noon, were surprised by a violent shock given to the lower part of one of the ships. No adversary appeared, no rick had been encountered; but while they were amused with this phenomenon, the sea began to change color, and a fountain of blood seemed to surround them. This sudden alteration of the water was no less astonishing than the shock they had sustained; but of the cause of the both they were equally ignorant, till they reached Port Desire. There, in careening the ship from the strand, they found a large horn, both in form and magnitude resembling an elephant’s tooth, sticking fast in the bottom of the ship. It was a firm and solid body, without any cavity or spongy matter in the middle; and had pierced through three very stout planks of the ship, and raised one of the ribs; penetrating at least a foot deep in the timbers, and about as much more appeared outside. The incident on the coast of Sierra Leona was now explained. It was clear that some monstrous tenant of the deep, of unknown species, having made a rude assault on the ship, was unable to withdraw its weapon; which, breaking in the attack, occasioned such an effusion of blood as to discolour the surrounding ocean.”

And Port Desire? Could a port be better named, from the viewpoint of a sailor months at sea, suffering from scurvy and all manner of loneliness and discomfort? (The port, now named Puerto Deseado, still exists in Patagonia in southern Argentina, and was visited by Charles Darwin on the Beaglein December 1833.)

Another small book comes from 1822, and it’s in French: Le Tour du Monde, ou Tableau Geographique et Historique de Tous le Peuples de la Terre. These “tour du monde” or around-the-world books were popular in the 19thcentury; I’ve chased after them out because they promise exquisite engravings, and this one didn’t disappoint, with hand-colored illustrations of life in Tahiti, Java, the Sandwich Islands, Peru, and Patagonia. No Philippines here, but since it’s the sixth volume in a series, I’m pretty sure the Philippine version will turn up soon.

Of course, much of this information could be available elsewhere at little or no cost; you don’t have to buy an 18th-century book to see what it says, with websites like Project Gutenberg providing the full texts free of charge. But I choose to read not just for information, but for the romance of it—and there’s nothing like holding the very same book that a solicitor or a milliner would have sought for news and entertainment two hundred years ago.

There’s actually a few more small books in the pile, but we’ve run out of space, so I hope I’ve said enough to pique your interest in these tiny packets of wonder.

Penman No. 315: A Qwerty Quartet

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Penman for Monday, August 13, 2018

 

I’M NOT really a typewriter collector (not like my friend George Mamonluk, whose noodles I patronize to help build up his stable of vintage typewriters and fountain pens), but I realized this past week that I can’t resist a classic when I see one, even when I can barely squeeze it into the budget or, just as critically, into my man-cave.

Surely space and money aren’t foremost on the minds of such fanatics as the 4,677 members of the Antique Typewriter Collectors FB Group—not to mention Tom Hanks, who is to typewriters what Jay Leno is to cars. In fact, Tom—who has hundreds of the machines, including his dad’s Underwood—recently wrote a collection of short stories, published under the title Uncommon Type?(Alfred Knopf, 2017, 405 pp.) in which a typewriter appears in every story, and he provided the foreword to the collector’s must-have, Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing?(Chronicle Books, 2017, 208 pp.)

I’m not quite there yet; I just have four typewriters hanging around—but what a Qwerty quartet they make. I haven’t really used one for everyday writing since the late 1980s, when I began the draft of my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, on an Olympia Traveller that I’d carried with me to grad school in the US. I began using computers around 1992 and never looked back. But I’ve never lost my fascination for these mechanical wonders, and even observed their sad demise in my July 11, 2011 column, “Requiem for the Typewriter,” in which I noted the shutdown of the last typewriter producer in the world, Godrej and Boyce, in India.

My oldest one is a black Corona 3 from 1922, and in many ways it’s also the most amazing, as it’s a portable whose carriage folds over its keyboard, and opens up like a clamshell. I remember spotting that Corona on the counter of an antiques mall in San Francisco; it had just arrived and hadn’t even been put on the shelves. When the manager flipped out the folding carriage, I was bewitched (here insert the Ping!?of the carriage), paid the asking price, and hand-carried it home.

I also have another shiny black Royal “O” portable, which a check of the Royal typewriter database online shows was produced in 1937. I can’t recall where or from whom I bought this very handsome model, but it was one of two fine old machines that I brought back from the US, one of which I gave to my friend, the poet Isabel Banzon Mooney. When the UP Faculty Center burned down in April 2016, I thought mine had gone up in smoke in my office across Isabel’s as well—until, just a couple of weeks ago, I looked under my bed, and there it was!

The third of the lot is a pristine white Olympia Traveller de Luxe, a classic of the ‘80s and a clone of the one I’d brought with me to the US (a gift from my mentor Gerry Sicat), which had rusted away. I loved that portable so much that I always hankered for its replacement. I found this one on eBay, and had it shipped all the way from London; surprisingly, it arrived at my doorstep without a scratch, at minimal cost.

As you might have guessed, I’m leading up to a thesis here, which is that these machines were meant to roost with me—particularly my most recent find, an Olivetti Valentine, a favorite of collectors and an icon of 20thcentury pop art. Designed by Ettore Sottsass and Perry King, this orange-red typewriter (released on Feb. 14, 1969, thus the name) looks like a narrow plastic wastebasket with a handle—until you flick two rubber clasps and pull out the portable within.

It’s well worth Googling to see the whole machine and case and to get the full story. Cynthia Trope of the Cooper Hewitt Museum explains its appeal thus: “Sottsass chose to use a bold Pop?red plastic housing to show that the Valentine was intended more to appeal to writing for recreation rather than work. He said his design was ‘for use in any place except in an office, so as not to remind anyone of the monotonous working hours, but rather to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country or to provide a highly colored object on a table in a studio apartment. An anti-machine machine, built around the commonest mass-produced mechanism, the works inside any typewriter, it may also seem to be an unpretentious toy.’”

My friend and fellow Apple fanboy Leo Venezuela had told me about this unpretentious toy a few months ago, and it was burning a hole in my head (as it would in my pocket). I was this close to ordering one from Sweden, when one magically popped up late one night in a local online sales forum. So this late-sleeping bird caught the worm. “You’re lucky,” said the lady who handed it to me the next day. “I had twenty callers after you.” (Note to self: now sell a few old books and pens.)

If there are twenty people in this country who know what an Olivetti Valentine is, then I’m in trouble. That sounds like serious competition—but didn’t I say I wasn’t a serious collector, yet?

Penman No. 314: Sourcing the Pinoy Crowd

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Penman for Monday, August 6, 2018

 

ART CRITICS often like to write about the Pinoy penchant to fill up vacant spaces—our horror vacui, evident in everything from our front yards to our jeepneys and desktops. And when there’s nothing to fill up a nice big void like an empty hall or open street with, heck, we fill them up with our own bodies, to form a healthy crowd.

We Pinoys usually don’t think too much about being caught in a crush at the LRT, the ballgame, or the rally. Indeed, students of crowd psychology will point out that while they may be uncomfortable, crowds can also generate positive synergies, and that even in the most seemingly unruly mob, an inner logic eventually emerges and prevails.

But we also know that crowds can turn ugly and deadly pretty quickly, as the stampedes that every and then convulse English football show. Even much less than that, there’s nothing funny about people fainting in a queue or in a surging mass of bodies desperate for one thing, whether it’s a glance from a rock star or a little slip of paper that could be a ticket to a first-rate college education.

All this was on my mind last Monday as I dealt with one of my busiest days as a school administrator at the University of the Philippines, where an estimated 40,000 people converged at the Office of Admissions in Diliman in one day to submit their applications to take the UPCAT, UP’s entrance exam, in mid-September. To wrap your head around that figure, Diliman has 25,000 students on a normal day. But my guess is that at least half of those 40,000 were anxious parents taking a day off from work to accompany their kids.

It was actually the extended deadline for students of private high schools in Metro Manila (not public as erroneously reported—a lot of fake or unverified news went out that day and after, and a woman presenting herself as a network news reporter even urged the crowd to chant for an extension as her camera rolled). As a torrent of tweets soon reported, the lines kept growing longer, tempers flared, and panic seized more than a few people in the area. The media calls came soon after, and—as UP’s equivalent of, uhm, Harry Roque—I spent the rest of the day and part of the evening fielding questions.

Did we expect the size of the crowd? Well, yes and no. The surge in applications was unprecedented—in years past, we’d get something like 80,000 applications; last year it was 103,000, and this year, our estimate runs to about 167,000. What accounted for the sudden bulge? Free tuition, for one, and K-12, for another. (The actual number of qualified exam takers could be about 20 percent less, and the admission rate—those who “pass,” although there’s no fixed passing grade—about 17 percent of all takers, which is a function of UP’s carrying capacity.)

We did see that coming, but I guess what we didn’t anticipate was how many students (and/or parents) would choose to appear and line up in person, rather than avail themselves of other less stressful options clearly stated on the application webpage—to submit applications online, or by mail or courier, or in bulk with the help of their school. (UP provided the extra option of a drop box when it saw how large the crowd was.) That was probably because queuing up guaranteed—if all your papers were in order—a test permit at the end of the line. But that also meant that the line could take all day.

So we Pinoys are seguristas, willing to sacrifice comfort for the certitude of paper in hand. We still mistrust electronic processing, and can’t wait a couple of weeks to know our fate. I went onsite to see for myself what was going on, and was told by one exasperated guard that “They won’t listen! There’s a drop box right there, and we’ve told them they can courier the forms, but they’d rather line up for hours!”

You’d also have to wonder why Pinoys like to wait for deadlines to do the inevitable; July 30 was already an extension from July 27, and applications had been open for three weeks. But to be fair to the students and their parents, it wasn’t entirely their fault to have waited so late in the day to submit their papers. Some told me that their high schools had held their papers up; some were charging rather stiff fees for handling UPCAT forms.

And was there a class factor at play? When the turn of the public high school applicants came, the huge crowds dwindled, and the lines got shorter—and far fewer parents appeared, because they probably couldn’t afford a day off, or trusted their children to fend for themselves. Things moved more smoothly.

There are lessons for everyone to be learned here—by the students, by the parents, and by us, most of all—and we’ll continue seeking ways to ease procedures for everyone in the years ahead. Eventually, I foresee a time when all submissions will be made online, like visa applications—something we can’t enforce until every Filipino has access to the Internet, and overcomes his or her mistrust of information technology. Until then, we’ll all have to learn better crowd management, provide lots of water and Portalets, exercise patience, take the media brickbats, and soldier on.

Maybe this was a crowd that didn’t really need to be there, but on the other hand, and to put it positively, it was a stark visual reminder of the intensity of our people’s aspirations for a good college education. The best way to disperse it long-term would be to meet those needs, in UP and beyond.