Penman No. 408: Windows on the Filipino Soul

Penman for Monday, March 1, 2021

SOON TURNING 80, the veteran journalist and fictionist Amadis Ma. Guerrero has added another feather to his cap as one of this country’s foremost chroniclers of culture, particularly the visual arts. Less than two years ago, he gave us the splendid book?Philippine Social Realists?(Quezon City: Erehwon Artworld Corp.), where he reviewed ten of the country’s most accomplished advocates of social realism, prompting our own Juaniyo Arcellana to call him “a master of reportage, which he puts to good use in this series of portraits of the artist as Philippine social realist.”

This time, with the launch last week of SYM, Galicano, and PASPI, also published by Erehwon, Guerrero takes on the art of portraiture itself, and the Filipino artists who have devoted themselves to—and distinguished themselves in—this most difficult of artistic challenges.

Say the word “portrait” and what will likely spring to mind for most Filipinos—excluding the “Mona Lisa”—is Jose Rizal looking pensive and noble, as he should, frozen in a print that has become almost obligatory in most government offices (at least until certain Presidents and lesser politicians deemed themselves worthier of that spot on the wall). The older and well-heeled crowd will default to Fernando Amorsolo, who seems to have painted everyone’s rich and famous grandfather or grandmother. The more art-savvy might bring up John Singer Sargent, Lucien Freud, Andy Warhol, and Frida Kahlo. 

Indeed, portraits have served throughout history to glorify the sitters and their families, made to order by the most talented painters of their time, and paid for by the most powerful patrons of that same era. They were, and still are, quite frankly made for money, which usually meant a softer line here and a scatter of stardust there to idealize the hopefully happy subject. Occasionally and perhaps increasingly, they have also been made for love—if not love of art itself, then (to venture sideways into more theatrical territory) of the subjects who became their artists’ muses if not their lovers, such as Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Testorf or Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer.

In his overview of contemporary Philippine portraiture, Guerrero provides us not only with a visual feast of styles and talents but also with—in his own way—verbal portraits of the artists themselves: their back stories, their struggles, and how they came to see and use portraiture as their window on the Filipino soul.?

The title of the book may be cryptic to many, so let’s explain that “SYM” is Sofronio Y. Mendoza, the brother-in-law of fellow portraitist Romulo “Mulong” Galicano, and that “PASPI” is the Portrait Artists Society of the Philippines, Inc., whose members the two masters have mentored. 

In his typically well-wrought foreword, Dr. Patrick Flores notes how important it is that “the story of art that this publication tells does not begin in Manila, perceived to be the center of the solar system of the Philippine art world. It rather unfolds in Carcar in Cebu. This in itself contributes to the body of literature on a species of Philippine art that takes root in and flourishes beyond the metropolitan privileges of Manila.” Carcar was where both Mendoza and Galicano studied at the foot of Cebu’s pre-eminent postwar painter, Martino Abellana, the so-called “Amorsolo of the South.”

Both men have since overtaken their teacher to become mentors to a new generation of gifted portraitists in PASPI, and the book offers glimpses into the life and works of many of its members—Wilfredo Baldemor, Romeo Ballada, Publio Briones, Jr., Carlos Cadid, Wilfredo Ca?ete, Jr., Ariel Caratao, Ramon de Dios, Efren Enolva, Carlos Florido, Alvin Montano, Maridi Nivera, Joemarie Sanclaria, Dante Silverio (yes, the Dante Silverio), and Lita Wells. 

With the exception of the former Toyota coach and long-time art enthusiast, few of these names will be familiar to most Filipinos, although many have attained some degree of professional accomplishment. Some, like Romy Ballada and Boboy Ca?ete, never went to art school (born poor, Ca?ete didn’t even get to high school), but their work is suffused with what matters most in portraiture: character—which, as a fictionist, I take to be the promise of a deeper story beyond the picture. The stylistic range presented runs from the classically posed to the problematic postmodern, but I enjoy it best when the painter takes a break from his or her usual material, such as Galicano’s decidedly anti-romantic “The Sleeping Model.” (The book also explains why Galicano adopted his trademark stripe in his paintings.)

Amadis Guerrero tells well-framed stories of the artists and their passions with great empathy and efficiency, and I hope that he will be commissioned (as this is the only way this will happen here) to do full-length biographies of our National Artists such as Botong Francisco and Mang Enteng Manansala. Also praiseworthy is Erehwon’s continuing commitment to art publishing, and to producing such handsome volumes (this one was designed and photographed by Willie de Vera). A recent winner of Quezon City’s Gawad Parangal for its leadership in the arts, Erehwon and its visionary founder, Raffy Benitez—who has sunk millions into his baby knowing he’ll never get it all back—deserve our gratitude and admiration.?

Penman No. 404: Delightful Duos

Penman for Monday, January 4, 2021

I CONSIDER myself an interloper if not an informal settler in the world of art, having dabbled in printmaking, married a painter and art conservator, and collected midcentury landscapes. Back when we could travel freely, my wife Beng and I made a beeline for the art museums of whichever cities we were visiting, as eager to enjoy our old favorites (Matisse, Turner, Calder) as to discover new ones (Yayoi Kusama, Judy Chicago).?

Artistic preferences are of course entirely subjective; even within one’s range, and price tags aside, the art you admire may not necessarily be the art you want to hang on your wall and look at every morning. There’s art that you know is important (or at least that’s what the critics tell you) and which you might even be able to understand and write essays about, but which you also know will give you an enormous headache. 

I’ve often remarked in this column about how so much of contemporary art (yes, Philippine art, to which we might as well add Philippine literature) seems unrelievedly dark and depressing—no huge surprise, given our dystopic times. But surely art can do more than mirror or illustrate what we already, profusely, know: life is hard, and often painful and cruel.

That’s why I had to do a double-take when I came upon a painter online whom I’d never heard of (no offense meant) whose works, one after the other, exuded joy, delight, and wonder, and not in a fake-fiesta sort of way. Not since Beng and I encountered the teenage and already brilliant Jason Moss did I feel so genuinely intrigued by the figures that leapt out of this painter’s canvases. The artist’s name was Bayani Acala, and I was curious enough to write him and his wife Karen to ask, basically, how a painter could seem so happy and even serene in such unsettling times.

His paintings almost invariably depict couples in courtship—delightful duos who, if they are not in love, might shortly be. His favorite motifs include music, food, and dance, all things best done with someone else, but nothing too overtly sexual. His faces and bodies are unabashedly Filipino, romantic but unromanticized. Benignly curvy Volkswagen Beetles and Kombis dot his landscapes. When I look at a painting of his, Bayani Acala provokes in me that rarest of responses from a museum-hopper: not a sigh of awe or a pang of sorrow, but a big, wide smile.

Born in 1975 to a family of schoolteachers in Paete, Laguna, Bay grew up immersed in that town’s strong sculptural traditions. Graduating from UST in 1996 as an advertising major, he took a series of jobs as a graphic artist before freelancing. In the meanwhile, he was racking up awards and citations from Shell and Metrobank; the 2000s saw him joining a series of exhibitions, including shows in Singapore, Chicago, and China, and winning more prizes—most recently for sculpture and woodcarving, returning to his Paete roots.

“I grew up watching wood workers,” Bayani says, “not knowing the difference between woodcraft and sculpture. The workers in the shop didn’t allow us to play with chisels, so we played with mud and sawdust and molded them into saints.” Like any well-schooled artist, he admires Chagall, Botero, Munch, Lautrec, Kahlo, and Manansala, but he calls Amang Ibyok Pasawa, a Paete papier-mache folk artist, his hero, and counts the sculptor Angelo Baldemor and painter Gig de Pio among his mentors. (The reference to the Colombian painter Fernando Botero is especially useful; his voluptuous and colorful figures invited charges of triviality, which the artist countered by maintaining that “Art should be an oasis, a place of refuge from the hardness of life.”)

Happiness, Bay says, is essential to his passion; there’s already too much sadness around and he prefers to look past it. His artmaking makes him happy, and so he puts some of that back into his work. He describes himself as a simple man who enjoys biking, playing music, telling stories, and spending time with Karen and their daughter Ava. That may sound too plain and boring to those who expect if not demand agony of the true artist, but I assure you that many tortured artists will find that normalcy a blessing.

(While we’re at this, it’s interesting to note that academic studies have established that—believe it or not—artists tend to be happier than most other people. While the anguished examples of Vincent Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath may stick in the mind, research at the University of Zurich and Vanderbilt University suggests that creatives report higher job satisfaction than other professionals, although they also tend to suffer in terms of unstable employment.)

In Bayani Acala’s case, surely that happiness is owed in significant measure to his wife Karen, a computer programmer who has also taken up painting and with whom Bay has had two exhibitions. She’s the most avid promoter of Bay’s work online, which was how I came across his work in the first place. That makes them Delightful Duo No. 1.

Penman No. 397: Vision 2020: An Artist Responds to Covid

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2020

WHILE SHE was undergoing therapy for depression, the celebrated American poet Anne Sexton explained why she kept doing what she did: “Poetry, after all, is the opposite of suicide.” That she ultimately and tragically succumbed to her inner demons, like her friend with whom she shared revelations and martinis, Sylvia Plath—is, in a way, almost irrelevant: what matters is that she fought back, and beautifully, leaving behind the luminous corpus of her poetry.

History tells us that this is what many artists do, under great stress and even in the face of direct threats to their lives: they use their art to resist death and annihilation, as if to say “I am here, I matter, and I will survive.” It is, of course, the art that survives, both as a testament to the moment and subject of its creation and as the indelible handprint of its creator, left on the cave walls of Time. The Greek physician Hippocrates put it well in his reminder: “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Life is short, but art is long—art endures, art is forever.

Today in 2020, in the face of a horrifyingly catastrophic pandemic that has brought the world to its knees and claimed close to a million lives, the artist is once again challenged to respond to the global crisis in an intensely personal way, both as an act of self-affirmation and as the inevitable chr0nicler of one’s times. Like a traveler surveying a landscape ravaged by death and disease, the artist seeks to depict not only the obvious carnage and the accompanying cacophony of grief but also the larger patterns and movements of people in a stricken society, as well as the startling efflorescence of goodness and hope here and there amid the suffering.

From the first scientific drawings of the human anatomy onwards, there has been a long tradition of connections and interactions between art and medicine or art and science. Artists have been credited for their uncannily accurate portrayals of disease; reports exist of how dermatologists identified two dozen skin lesions on the subjects of paintings at the National Art Gallery in London, how Caravaggio depicted goiter, and so on. 

But when it strives for or achieves sublimity, art is more than illustration, and rarely is the disease itself the subject, but rather the excuse to draw attention to the responses to it—of the directly afflicted, of the physician, of the family and the neighbors, and of us the onlookers; in other words, of society itself as a complicit agent in the process of infection and perhaps also of healing. 

Indeed, if there is anything that the pandemic has achieved, it has been to force us to think of ourselves as a society, as one organism, the infection of one part of which could lead to the death of all. But despite the political rhetoric of “healing as one,” it has not made us think as one or act as one—yet; we remain as fractious as ever, trapped in feudal modes and mindsets of privilege and power. Death should have been the Great Equalizer, reaping patrician and peon alike, but yet again this plague, like its predecessors, has merely revealed and emphasized the disparities and infirmities that were there all along, with the affluent able to convert the long lockdown into albeit boring staycations and the huddled poor—already socially distanced from their neighbors across the wall long before Covid—struggling to subsist on donated rice and sardines. 

And so the artist steps back to ask: where is the body, and what is the disease? Is it just the intubated patient who is ill? 

In a new exhibit of works that he has prepared for Galerie Joaquin (www.galeriejoaquin.com), the painter Juanito Torres takes us through many of the tropes that the past six months of lockdown have embedded in the Filipino psyche: chiefly, that of the physician as hero and savior, most strikingly portrayed in?“Darating Din ang Bagong Umaga,”?a painting steeped in iconography—the doctor sprouting angel’s wings standing victorious over a demonic virus and holding a cross that also serves as the staff of Asclepius, entwined with his healing serpent. It’s St. Michael the Archangel, treading on Satan’s dragon. In another work, “Lupang Hinirang,” Rizal, Bonifacio and other heroes are dressed as doctors raising the Filipino flag, like the Marines on Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima.?

But most of the other paintings are decidedly contemporary, a dramatically enhanced rendering of the new normal, with citizens wearing gas masks in the most ordinary places, seemingly resigned to their fate.

These are works that clearly demand interrogation, beyond the admiration that their technical excellence will generate. In reaching for metaphor, almost to the point of parody, Torres raises the question of whether we might have overdone the “hero” bit, not because they’re not heroes, but because they may not want to be. As it is, some doctors and medical workers have resisted if not refused the “hero” tag, not out of modesty but because it has become an excuse of sorts, an easy way out for the non-heroes to underperform and lay the burden of saving society on the medical frontliners. The banality of gas masks in everyday life implies acceptance of—if not surrender to—an occupation army. But notably, the frontliners in “Tagumpay,” who toss their medical masks into the air in joyous celebration, are wingless and entirely human—as if to say, this is when we will win, when we can be again as we were, as we truly are.

We know that that will not be easy, and between now and then we may have to draw and depend on mythologizing and self-enlargement to slay the dragon in our midst. The true St. Michael may be the artist yet, and the true dragon may be even larger than corporeal disease.?

(The physical exhibit will be staged at Galerie Joaquin at the UP Town Center from October 21 to 31, 2020.)

Penman No. 395: Missing the Magazine

Penman for Monday, August 31, 2020

FEW OF us might have noticed, but one of the casualties of the Internet age has been the magazine as we knew it—the general-interest magazine, which usually came out on weekends, often as a newspaper supplement. With the decline in print-media readership and the depredations on economic and social life brought on by the coronavirus, magazines around the world have been shutting down, although of course that decline long preceded Covid. Some survive in vestigial form, or have gone online, but are nowhere near the familiar and colorful periodicals you couldn’t wait to pull out of the Sunday paper.

People my age still remember the Sunday Times Magazine, the Asia Magazine, the Mirror Magazine, and others of their kind—including, of course, the old standalone Free Press and Weekly Graphic magazines. Unlike the specialized glossies of later decades, they had something for everybody, weren’t just trying to sell you something, allotted several pages for serious literature, and were worth saving and passing along. I spent many an hour in the barbershops of Pasig thumbing through the Free Press and imbibing Nick Joaquin’s reportage on crime and politics while trying to figure out the poetry (too abstruse for my Hardy-Boys years) and gawking at the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the society and entertainment pages. 

With martial law and its aftermath, everything became either overtly political or seemingly in denial of anything gone wrong. The age of gadgets was upon us, and we devoured magazines devoted to the minutest differences between July’s and August’s cellular phone. The pretty ladies remained on the cover, of course, but largely as purveyors of dresses or some other thing; the innocence was gone—or perhaps we had simply lost ours in the interim.

My interest in magazines became a bit more professional in graduate school when my professor in Bibliography, an old-school gentleman named Dr. Kuist, told us that he had done his dissertation on The Gentleman’s Magazine, said to be the first publication to call itself a “magazine” (from the French for “storehouse”) in 1731. Despite its title, it was no girlie mag, and contained a gamut of articles of interest to everyone (a copy I have from November 1773 features an ad for “The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook” and articles on “Arguments in Favour of Rolling-Carriages” and “Description of a Machine for Making Experiments on Air”).

Many years ago, sometime in the early 1990s, when my passion for all things vintage began to be awakened, I spotted an ad in the Classifieds of a newspaper offering a stash of prewar magazines for a reasonable sum, and I drove off in my VW Beetle to a corner of San Juan to retrieve them—three or four milk-can boxes of them, all yellowed and crumbling—from a family that would have thrown them away otherwise. They were mainly copies of the Sunday Tribune Magazine from the 1930s, and some copies of the Sunday Times Magazine from a bit later. 

I continued to add to what had become a de facto collection—copies of the prewar Philippine Magazine and Philippine Touring Topics, among others, as well as issues of Tagalog periodicals like Lipang Kalabaw and even a 1911 issue of La Cultura Filipina. I used to put copies of these on my coffee table when I had an office in UP, to surprise and amuse my visitors with—sorry, folks, don’t have the November issue of the Tatler yet, but here’s a travel mag from 1934.

Make that February 1934, when Philippine Touring Topics contained—like most good magazines of the time—a combination of substantial articles, classy advertisements, and a gorgeous Art-Deco cover. Featured were articles on Igorot folklore, Mindanao fashions, Philippine hardwoods, the gypsies of the Sulu Sea, Philippine tobacco, a voyage from Manila to Bali, and celebrity travelers. (As usual, it was the ads I found most fascinating—for the American President Lines, the 1934 Studebaker, and Alhambra cigars.)

My greatest reward in flipping through these yellowed pages is discovering things I never knew about—things not too remote to be ancient history. In my July 4, 1948 issue of the Sunday Times Magazine, for example, is an article on the winners of that year’s Art Association of the Philippines painting competition. The top prize of P1,000 went to the “basketball-crazy” Carlos Francisco (who, says the anonymously catty commentator, is also “an amateur, not-so-good photographer, avid for picnic photos”); P750 for second prize went to Demetrio Diego; P500 for third prize went to Vicente Manansala “by a nose” over the P250 fourth prize to Cesar Legaspi; two honorable mentions—good enough for artists’ materials—went to the stragglers Diosdado Lorenzo and H. R. Ocampo. Elsewhere in the issue is an article on the all-but-forgotten winner of a 1946 contest for the Philippine Independence Hymn, won by a composition of Restie Umali. On the cover is a radiant Rosie Osme?a, being walked down the aisle by her dad the former President, with an accompanying spread on her wedding trousseau.

What’s not to like? When the Internet goes down—and someday it just might—these magazines with their pictures might just be our best chronicle of life and of the Philippines BC (Before Covid).

Penman No. 364: Rediscovering Anselmo Espiritu

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Penman for Monday, July 29, 2019

 

I’M SURE I’m not alone in having some fun tracking the online art auctions held regularly by the Leon and Salcedo houses, if only to daydream about the often fascinating artworks crossing the block. Now and then I dabble in a bit of buying and selling—a chair here, a book there—but mostly I’m a kibitzer enjoying the action from the sidelines.

What I do come away with, even just by poring over the auction catalogues (which themselves will very soon become collectible), is an ongoing education in Philippine art. Going beyond the peso signs, learning about our painters and sculptors and the stories behind specific artworks is a reward unto itself, especially given how the arts media today—driven and sometimes threatened by advertising and PR—devote precious little attention and space to historical subjects.

I love discovering (or rediscovering, since they were already well known to others) masters I never knew about, like Lorenzo Guerrero, Felix Martinez, Isidro Ancheta, and Jorge Pineda—most of them, not incidentally, painters of the kind of traditional, romantic Filipino landscape I personally prefer, as they give me comfort and peace of mind and spirit in my old age. Among their successors who figure prominently in my small collection are Gabriel Custodio (see below) and Elias Laxa, whose pieces I can never tire of looking at across a room.

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For example, just last month, a Spanish auction house featured two remarkable paintings of Marawi by the Spanish soldier and painter Jose Taviel de Andrade (1857-1910), who at one time was assigned to watch over (and perhaps spy on) Jose Rizal in 1887 but who later became his friend, and whose brother Luis served as Rizal’s defense counsel at his trial. The Andrade paintings depict Spanish fortifications and a bridge from the campaign against the Muslim resistance in Marawi—and if not for the auction brief, I would never have learned about and looked up this story of an improbable friendship, and about that campaign. (The two Andrade paintings opened at 8,000 euros and sold for 32,000—way above my pay scale!)

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Yet another painter I just recently came to know about was Anselmo Espiritu, whose name and work I was alerted to by an online acquaintance named Wassily Clavecillas, who shares my interest in old books and artworks. Drawing on some scant references to Espiritu from various books and sources, Wassily introduced me to the fact that Anselmo—whose birthdate remains unknown, but who reportedly died in 1918—was a student of Lorenzo Guerrero, along with his brother Manuel (among Guerrero’s other students was Juan Luna). I’ll let Wassily narrate the rest of the story, slightly paraphrased by me:

“According?to?my?research,?Anselmo?Espiritu?was?once?commissioned?by?the Observatorio de Manila, then managed by Padre Federico Faura, SJ. In 1892 a great earthquake struck Luzon, decimating churches in Pangasinan. The Observatorio commissioned Anselmo to make paintings of the devastated churches, after which he then made serigraphs or silkscreen prints of those same paintings. Sadly the original paintings and their silkscreen versions perished along with the observatory itself during the Second World War, and the only copies of Espiritu’s depictions of the earthquake’s ravages in Pangasinan, as far as I know, have come down to us in the form of offset prints.” (Wassily has a few of these prints, and sent me digitized copies.)

He raised another interesting question: “One also has to ask why the Observatorio and Padre Faura chose to commission Espiritu to do paintings of the devastated churches when photography was already available and even possibly affordable at that time. Why go through the effort of hiring a painter when photos were more accurate down to the minutest detail? Was it an aesthetic decision, in the way that the engravings in Alfred Marche’s book on Luzon and Palawan are prime examples of the engraver’s art?”

He was, of course, referring to Voyage aux Philippines, which the French naturalist and explorer published in 1887 after six years of traipsing around Tayabas, Catanduanes, Marinduque, and Palawan, among other places. I was lucky to acquire a copy of the original Hachette edition a few years ago, which will take me time to digest, as it’s in French (thankfully, an English translation is also available), but the illustrations (like the one below) are indeed exquisite, tending to support Wassily’s conjecture that an artist’s hand can often be more evocative than a photographer’s eye.

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Espiritu would go on from that commission to become a celebrated painter in his own right, winning medals for his works at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where the likes of Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fabian de la Rosa, Juan Arellano, and Isidro Ancheta also exhibited. His nephew Oscar (1895-1960) also became an established painter.

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Two paintings of barrio scenes by Espiritu sold last month at a Leon Gallery auction for substantially higher than their opening bids. They came out of a private collection in Spain—or I should say, came home, which is one great service these auctions perform, even as newer Filipino artworks now cross the seas with the growing and well-deserved popularity of Philippine art. I’m happy just to watch this majestic traffic go by.

Penman No. 359: Retrieval and Repatriation

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Penman for Monday, June 24, 2019

 

CHATTING WITH a friend about my growing collections of old books and paintings the other day, it struck me how so many of my Philippine-related items were sourced abroad, mainly from the US, Spain, and the UK. In other words, these materials left the country one way or the other ages ago, and are only now being repatriated by those like me who pick up other people’s throwaways with a gleeful passion. And beyond just wanting to acquire some new old thing, we collect with a special mission—to find, retrieve, and restore valuable or at least interesting pieces of Filipiniana, so they can be enjoyed by another generation of Filipinos.

I have friends who have the kind of checkbooks and connections that allow them to score and bring home stray Lunas and Hidalgos from some obscure Spanish estate or farmhouse. I’m glad that players like them exist to compete with the high rollers at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, but I’m clearly not in that league, so I look for far more plebeian objects: books written by Filipinos or about the Philippines, and paintings by Filipino artists.

The books are far more plentiful than the paintings, of course. At the turn of the 20th?century, following the American occupation of these islands, there was great publishing interest in accounts of America’s first imperialist adventure, as well as in depictions of life in the new colony. Easily the most available antiquarian books you can find on the Philippines will have to do with that period, sporting triumphal titles such as the large two-volume Our Islands and Their People?(1899), War in the Philippines and Life and Glorious Deeds of Admiral Dewey?(1899), and Under MacArthur in Luzon or Last Battles in the Philippines?(1901). My best acquisition in this department is the huge, elephant-folio-sized Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines?(1900), which has superb illustrations, but quite frankly, as a Filipino reader, I find the propagandistic prose barely tolerable, with only my indulgent humor to carry me through passages deploring our “numerous piracies and cannibalistic feasts.”

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I’ve had more fun and a deeper sense of satisfaction tracking down the foreign publications of our literary masters like Carlos Bulosan, Manuel Arguilla, Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, and Bienvenido Santos. Like many writers of their generation, they saw publishing in America as a form of validation, and while we may argue today that we needn’t look to New York for approval, you can’t deny that surge of pride when you see those names in, say, a 1953 issue of Partisan Review?alongside the best of the West.

It was, in fact, my discovery of an issue of Story?magazine from the early 1930s some 30 years ago, when I was a graduate student in the American Midwest, that fired up this enthusiasm for retrieval and repatriation. That issue contained the Baguio-based Sinai Hamada’s iconic story “Tanabata’s Wife,” and I had the pleasure of presenting his family with that copy years later. I would stumble on the odd book about Dewey and his exploits at antique malls for 50 cents, and bring that home. In Edinburgh years later, I found a postcard of Filipino women, and turned that into a story titled “We Global Men.” Sometimes you just have to look very closely; scanning some antique documents being sold online, I spotted a reference in a 1578 travel book to “von der Spanier mache in den Philippinischen Insuln,”and was able to pick that up for a few euros.

Most delightful have been the paintings that I’ve come across on eBay and other auction sites—among them, a purplish treescape by the great Jorge Pineda from 1937; a patriotically themed harvest scene by P. T. Paguia from 1945; a moonlit near-monochrome by Cesar Buenaventura from 1956; and a Cavite seascape by Gabriel Custodio from 1965. Probably brought over to the US by American servicemen or by tourists looking for souvenirs, and less regarded by their next owners, these artworks turn up like flotsam on the shores of eBay (or shopgoodwill.com, where the Custodio appeared, being sold out of a Goodwill store in Spokane). And how do I know they’re not fake? The answer is, I don’t, not until I actually have and see them, but then I’m a poker player, and quite used to going all-in on a solid hunch. (The Pineda was a tricky gamble, but it’s the original frame from the period—with the seal of the well-known but long-defunct frameshop in New York—that provided the validation).

I’m not the only person on the hunt for these lost treasures, so they don’t necessarily come dirt-cheap, and shipping poses special challenges, but holding them in your hands after they’ve crossed decades and thousands of miles brings a matchless thrill. Like Filipinos themselves—the Ulysses of this age, global wanderers who inevitably come home—these pieces best belong where they are loved.

 

Penman No. 351: The Fake, The Good, and the Beautiful

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Penman for Monday, April 29, 2010

 

AS I’VE mentioned before, I’ve taken to collecting a bit of Philippine midcentury art over the past few years. You won’t see any Amorsolos, Kiukoks, Botongs, or Ocampos on our walls, because I simply don’t have the kind of loose change you need to bring home even one of those dazzlers. But I take pride in having put together a small but decent gathering of works mainly by Amorsolo’s students and juniors—typically pastorals by such gifted painters as Gabriel Custodio and Elias Laxa, depictions of a lost landscape that relax me and remind me of a time when—to use a phrase brazenly stolen by its opposite—the true, the good, and the beautiful prevailed.

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Someone I know had the unfortunate and rather embarrassing experience of trying to help a friend dispose of some masters’ paintings—excellent examples of their kind that the friend had bought years earlier in good faith—through an auction house. The auctioneer was initially delighted to receive the works, but upon closer inspection raised small but troubling questions about the pieces (as they were of course obliged to do, with many millions and their reputation in the balance). Eventually the works had to be pulled out because they simply couldn’t be authenticated, which is one short and polite step away from saying that they’re, well, probably fake. They could look good and even be beautiful, but at the end of the day, they’re still fake.

This reminded me of the controversy that followed a big university’s mounting of a retrospective show of one of its most distinguished alumni, only to be told that a few of its prized exhibits were somebody else’s handiwork.

Ironically, I have to sheepishly confess to being taken in by a seller purporting to sell an old painting by this very same master at a bargain price—which, being new to buying art, I jumped at, after examining all the visual and physical evidence before me. The style was correct, as was the subject, including the little tell-tale touches that artists tend to populate their signature works with. The corners of the painting were thick with dust and the natural accretions of age. I knew there was a 50-50 chance I was being taken for a ride—the seller was offering no guarantees, no certificates of authenticity, so I wasn’t going to get my money back—and I hemmed and hawed for a bit, but it was finally the dust that suckered me into a deal; if I didn’t take it that minute, someone else would, so I might as well gamble. I was elated for a few hours, and then I began to do more visual research online, until I began to realize, with a crushing certainty, that I’d just bought a fake, because of one small but vital detail that the painter had gotten wrong (which I’m not about to divulge here, and which I’ve since spotted in other offerings of the same artist).

Even more ironically, of course, I’m married to one of the best art restorers and conservators in the country—but she can’t, doesn’t, and won’t authenticate artworks, knowing both the scholarship and the science required to do the job properly and credibly. The problem isn’t only that Certificates of Authenticity (COAs) can sometimes be too easily secured or bought from less than stellar sources, but also that COAs themselves have been faked. (If you can do a reasonably good copy of a masterwork, it shouldn’t be too hard to fake a piece of paper and a signature, right?)

With all the big money sloshing around in the art market these days, it’s easy to see how and why art forgery is also a booming sub-industry, going by what I’ve seen and heard out there. A persistent story that’s made the rounds is that of a warehouse-sized factory where an artist who’s made a name for himself, in his own right, has been assisted by apprentices in churning out fakes.

To be fair, it’s been going on since at least Michelangelo, whom scholars point out indulged in a bit of forgery himself, copying older works and passing them off as originals—an act generous critics would call a “triumph over antiquity.” You can read the full, fascinating story of history’s most notorious (or, to put it another way, most talented) art forgers here: https://bit.ly/2eWwQhI.

I wish we had a repository of artists’ signatures, organized by date or period. I’ve had good luck doing research online, where auction houses keep visual records of well-known artists’ works and sales figures. But proper authentication has to go beyond signatures and gut feel.

One friend closely related to a National Artist wants to set up a scientific laboratory for professionally authenticating art works, so that we don’t go simply by sight or the word of the artist’s relatives and friends. This could involve, among others, undertaking a chemical analysis of the materials used, comparing them to data stored in a bank that will also have to be, of course, set up and maintained. You’d think that this idea should fly easily among gallery owners and art patrons, but you’d also have to wonder how willing some people will be to subject their collections to microscopic scrutiny.

As we should’ve learned from the days of Michelangelo to this age of Twitter, the truth may not be beautiful, and what looks good may not be true.

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. 302: A Happy Refuge

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Penman for Monday, May 14, 2018

 

 

THESE PAST few weeks and months have been fraught with loss and sadness, given the passing of many friends and personages in the arts community—National Artist Billy Abueva, National Artist Cirilo Bautista, architect and heritage advocate Toti Villalon, writer Jing Hidalgo’s daughter Lara, and, most recently, poet and inimitable punster Ed Maranan.

It’s in times like these that we seek refuge and relief in what amounts, for many if not most of us, to another realm of life, if not life itself—the world of art. Being inherently transcendent, art has a way of lifting us up and moving us away from often sordid and prosaic reality, reminding us that as ugly as the world can get (often the very subject of art), beauty exists and endures, like love, in the most unlikely places.

And sometimes beauty can be so sublime that it will not only take your breath away but cause you to smile, and even break out in wild laughter. I remember one such moment of sheer exhilaration from about eight years ago when I stepped out of the train in Sta. Lucia station for my first sight of Venice on a bright summer afternoon, and everything was as it would have been in a painting by Turner or Canaletti—not just the canals, gondolas, and cupolas, but the people and the pigeons, the thrum of the vaporettos and the bells of the bicycles darting past me. At that instant, all I could do was laugh, my joy tempered only by the fact that I didn’t bring Beng with me (four years later, on our fortieth anniversary, I made good on a promise and did just that).

Two events in this first quarter of the year provoked a similar response in me.

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The first was a free, open-air concert given last March 23 at the Amphitheater in UP Diliman by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of resident conductor Dr. Herminigildo G. Ranera. The idea was hatched between Cultural Center of the Philippines President Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso and UP President Danilo “Danicon” L. Concepcion. Nick’s a seasoned actor and director and longtime cultural advocate who took charge of the CCP last year with the view of bringing that venerable institution closer to the masses. Danicon, who had also just marked his first year in office, wanted something fresh and inspiring to happen on campus to buoy people’s spirits up and spur cultural appreciation in the community. Backstopping both was former UP Diliman College of Music dean and tenor Ramon “Montet” Acoymo, who helped put a program together for the PPO in UP.

The brief was simple, but surely a nightmare to execute: bring the PPO’s 58 members to the backside of Quezon Hall facing the amphitheater, where graduations are usually held, fill up that sprawling space with people, and have the PPO perform a program of light classics that everyone could relate and hum along to. Oh—and find sponsors to foot the bill, to do away with tickets and invite even slipper-shod retirees and children to enjoy the music on the grass, under the stars.

And that’s exactly what happened. Like magic—with pieces ranging from the William Tell Overture?and Les Miserables to Star Wars?and Despacito—the PPO serenaded the spillover crowd and proved, once again—despite the turmoil and clamor of politics—that music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, as the poet said. Thank you, Nick, Danicon, and the PPO for the rare treat—and folks, await a Yuletide reprise, which is being planned out as I write.

My second moment of wonderment came when Beng and I stepped last week into the new (and still ongoing) exhibit of painter Fernando “Mode” Modesto at the downstairs gallery of the Globe Tower in BGC, care of the Hiraya Gallery. Titled “Bliss from Bygone Days,” the exhibit celebrates “euphoria, delight, and rapture,” but I didn’t need to read the liner notes to know that. I felt it the minute I paused in front of a painting like “Khartoum”—a lemony depiction of two angels playing with a ball, and my favorite of the lot alongside “Bali,” a blue sky streaked with orange and yellow. They’re paintings you could stare at, smiling, for hours.

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I’d known Mode since the mid-1970s when I hung out at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio in Ermita, and he was an enfant terrible?shocking matrons with his paintings of airborne phalluses. He still shocks today—but with an exuberant wit, a brazen intent to make the viewer smile and be happy despite the tribulations of life in the age of tokhang. Even when he uses black, Mode’s subversive humor pops up, insect-like.

I often ask my writing students, “Where’s the humor in our fiction? Why is every damn story I get a self-obsessed and anguished one of defeat and despair? Sure, life sucks—but I already know that. Can’t you bring me somewhere we haven’t been—like a happiness I can believe in?”

That’s where I thought I was when I stepped into Mode’s works; too bad I had to step back out into the world again.

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.