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. 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 Parañaque), 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.