ON THIS Easter Monday, a kind of resurrection story seems to be in order. A few months ago, I wrote a piece about the late painter Constancio Bernardo, a lost master and pioneer of Philippine modernism whose life’s work was then about to be celebrated with a centennial retrospective at the Ayala Museum. Little did I know that—a few weeks later, and thanks to a chance encounter at a literary festival—I would learn of yet another and largely forgotten hero of early 20th century Philippine art.
The venue was the Taboan Writers Festival, which we held this year in Subic, with closing ceremonies in Clark Field. It was at Clark that I met Josie Dizon Henson—a painter, writer, and community leader who gifted me with a pair of books she had written. One was a study on Kapampangan orthography, of more scholarly interest; the other book, which caught my fancy, was a slim but substantial, privately published volume titled After the Day’s Toil: A Golden Moment in Philippine Art, a biography of her late father, Vicente Alvarez Dizon and an account of his long-lost masterpiece.
Even at first mention, the name rang a bell in my mind. Two years ago, while doing research for a biography of the late nationalist thinker Emmanuel Q. Yap, I had met (at least by email) a painter named Daniel Dizon, one of Manoling Yap’s boyhood friends. Reminiscing on his friendship with the Yaps, Dan Dizon happened to mention the fact that his father had himself been an accomplished artist—so accomplished that he had won over Salvador Dali in an international competition in the US before the war. That amazing feat—and its doer, Vicente Alvarez Dizon—stuck in my memory. More on that Dali story later.
I had never heard of Vicente Alvarez Dizon before, and as it happened, I would not hear of him again until I met his daughter (and Dan’s younger sister) Josie in Clark. Hearing her name, I made the connection to Dan and to her father, and she seemed delighted to learn that I knew something about her father, and brought me a copy of her book. I set the book aside for a more leisurely read, and when that opportunity arose recently, I found myself engrossed by its account of another extraordinary Filipino life.
Born in Malate, Manila in 1905, Vicente graduated with a diploma from the School of Fine Arts with high honors in 1928. His talent got him a scholarship to Yale in 1934, a sojourn from which he emerged not only with his BFA but also with diplomas in Advanced Painting, Museum Administration and Art Appreciation. Back in Manila, he taught at UP, Mapua, and the National Teachers College; for the rest of his brief life, Dizon would become a staunch advocate of art education and art scholarship, tirelessly lecturing on art subjects around the country.
But his finest hour—the “golden moment” Josie’s book refers to in its title—was likely the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939, an ambitious, visually opulent panorama that rivaled the New York World’s Fair that opened the same year on the opposite coast of America.
Within the exposition, International Business Machines, already an industry giant under its founder Thomas Watson, decided to sponsor an international art exhibition and competition featuring artists from 79 countries where IBM did business, including the Philippines. The Philippine pavilion in San Francisco actually displayed two other works by young Filipino masters, murals by Victorio Edades (assisted by Botong Francisco) and Galo Ocampo. But as fate would have it, it was Dizon’s painting that IBM chose to represent the Philippines.
The painting had been Vicente’s thesis project at Yale. Typical of its time in its evocation of a rustic, romantic countryside, the painting depicted a Filipino family—father, mother, son, carabao, and other farm animals—heading for home at the end of another working day. Because he worked on it at Yale, he had to use Caucasian models for his studies, but replaced the faces with their native counterparts in the final work. He apparently took it home upon graduation, because it was in Manila where IBM’s Philippine representative, Kevin Mallen, saw and bought the painting for IBM, which shipped it to America for the competition. When the results were announced, Dizon had won first prize, followed by Spain’s Salvador Dali and by the American Robert Philipps. (Coincidentally, at the other global fair in New York that same year, another Filipino, Fernando Amorsolo, also won first prize for his painting “Afternoon Meal of the Workers.”)
But that’s not where the remarkable story of this remarkable painting and its creator ends. Vicente himself, sadly, would die young and penniless in 1947 at just 42, afflicted with tuberculosis, a condition that, according to Dan, also ravaged the family’s finances. His masterpiece and legacy lived on—although it was almost lost.
In October 1980, the Batangas-born Filipino-American physician, Roger Pine, received a letter at his home in Princeton, New Jersey from a New York art dealer informing him of the availability of a painting with a Filipino theme titled “After the Day’s Toil,” 40 x 53 inches, signed “V. A. Dizon, 1936.” Would he be interested in looking at and possibly acquiring it? The dealer sent a transparency of the painting along.
The painting had last been seen by the Dizons in 1952, when it had been shipped from the US to Manila on loan from IBM for a local exhibition. And then it vanished. Further inquiries produced no leads other than the name of a New York gallery, which had no records of it.
When Roger Pine received the invitation from his dealer, he felt an instant connection to the painting, having grown up in a family of farmers. He knew nothing about the painting, the artist, nor its provenance, but he did know, especially after seeing the painting itself in New York, that he just had to have it. The dealer—who said that he had earlier tried to interest the National Museum in Manila to no avail—let the Pines have it on installment. It was also only in New York that Roger Pine realized that he had found and bought a long-lost prizewinner.
Next came the trans-continental search for the painter’s family—not an easy task in those pre-email, pre-Google days. It eventually took 25 years and a bit of luck—a dinner conversation during one of the Pines’ visits back in Manila—to connect the Pines with the Dizons. In 2006, the two families met, and the following year, two generations of Dizons trooped to Princeton, New Jersey to visit the Pines and to see, once again, Vicente’s painting. It was a tearful but joyful reunion, the kind of happy ending that deserves to be written about in a book. That’s what Josie Dizon Henson has done.
AND WHILE we’re on the subject of documenting Philippine art, let me note that, in celebration of the Filipino woman and of Women’s History Month, the Erehwon Center for the Arts in Quezon City recently hosted “Amazing F,” featuring some of the country’s leading artists, both women and men.
The participating artists included Glenda Abad, Ambie Abano, Yasmin Almonte, Lot Arboleda-Lee, Agnes Arellano, Adi Baens, Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, Romy Carlos, Fil de la Cruz, June Dalisay, Cheloy Dans, Biboy Delotavo, Anna Fer, Brenda Fajardo, Egai Fernandez, Tinsley Garanchon, Ofie Gelvezon, Amihan Jumalon, Joy Igano, Gloria Lava, Lewanda Lim, Vivian Nocum Limpin, Julie Lluch, Eden Ocampo, Annie Rosario, Lotsu Manes, Leigh Reyes, Doris G. Rodriguez, Jonah Salvosa, Anna Vergel, and Vida Verzosa.
Erehwon—located at #1 Don Francisco St, Villa Beatriz Subdivision, Old Balara, Quezon City—is fast becoming one of Metro Manila’s most vibrant art centers, hosting not just painters but also musicians like the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra. The Amazing F show, which ran until last week, was another of its projects to benefit the Erehwon Arts Foundation, which aims to run a residency program for talented but financially challenged young Filipino artists.
It was curated by Erehwon Arts Foundation Vice President June Poticar Dalisay, who said that “AMAZING F is an art exhibit that explores the different facets of the Filipino woman, a complex and enigmatic individual whose roles are varied and endless, affecting every sphere of our personal and public lives. She is warm, sweet, and compassionate, but she can also be can be cunning, feisty, and combative.” Don’t I know that—and yes, June, I stand amazed!