Penman No. 261: High and Low in La La Land

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Penman for Monday, July 24, 2017

 

BENG AND I have been fortunate to have visited many of the world’s major art museums—the Louvre, the Prado, the Met, the Tate, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others—so I was glad for the chance to visit another great one, the Getty, in Los Angeles last week. we were on our way to visit our daughter Demi in San Diego, but decided to stop over in LA for a few days for Beng to meet up with old schoolmates and for me to finally take a longer look at La La Land. In all these years that I’ve been going to the US and passing through LAX, I’d never actually stopped in LA long enough to do the tourist thing and look up at the HOLLYWOOD sign or march down the Walk of Fame near the TCL Chinese Theater.

So when the chance presented itself through Beng’s friend Rose, we dropped off our bags at Rose’s place in West Covina and rode out to do some sightseeing—but first, of the highbrow kind. The Getty and the newer Broad Museum have been on my to-do list, but we had time this time for just the Getty—and I would quickly realize that “just the Getty” was the silliest thing to say.

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“The J. Paul Getty Museum” is actually two places in LA all at once—the Getty Center, a complex on a hilltop in the Brentwood area, and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, which houses the Getty’s Greek, Roman, and Etruscan collections.

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But before we go any further, a word on the benefactor of these palaces of art, Jean Paul Getty (1892-1976), once the world’s richest man, thanks to his daring and foresight in buying a 60-year lease on Saudi oil. Despite his fabulous wealth, he was notoriously stingy, reportedly begrudging his fifth wife the medical expenses for their son who later died, and installing a pay phone at his English villa. When his grandson and namesake JP III was kidnapped in 1973, he dickered and paid only as much ransom as could be tax-deductible, and gave the rest as a loan to his son.

How such miserly men join the ranks of the world’s greatest philanthropists will remain a mystery for psychologists to plumb, but I’ll take it as a form of restitution. Getty had the villa, which fronts his home, built in the early 1970s to house his overflowing collection, but ironically he never saw it, dying in England. The Center, about a 20-minute drive down the beach and reachable by a funicular tram, opened in 1997. Remarkably, entrance to both venues is free; you just have to pay for the parking.

While I prefer modern art—from the utter simplicity of a fish by Brancusi or the melancholy of Hopper’s “Nighthawks”—I never fail to be awed and amazed by the workmanship and luminosity of the earlier masters. The Getty Center’s exhibits of Renaissance and Neoclassical art did not fail to impress. Most stunning of all for me was the work of an artist I’d never even heard of—Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755-1821), whose A View of the Bay of Naples, Looking Southwest from the Pizzofalcone towards Capo di Posilippo, a monumental landscape with an equally kilometric name, displays an uncanny awareness of both the largeness and the smallness of things. True to her art-restorer self, Beng came to within half an inch of many masterpieces, scrutinizing the restorer’s technique, until the guard had to shoo her away.

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The villa, on the other hand, was as much to be visited as an artwork in itself as the pieces it contained. I was mesmerized by the beauty and delicacy of Roman glass, and by the almost contemporary pixilation of the mosaics, but like Mt. Vesuvius towering over Herculaneum—the villa’s inspiration—Getty’s shadow hovered over everything. Not surprisingly, he’s buried somewhere on the premises.

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We left LA for San Diego the next day, but not before indulging my small wish to cruise down Hollywood Boulevard for an encounter with the stars—at least those at one’s feet. While we never got to meet the likes of Gal Gadot or Emma Stone (not even Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson), we did spot several Spider-Men and lesser icons strutting on the street, ever ready for the next selfie. I had the feeling that I was going to meet a galaxy of these superheroes in San Diego, where Comic-con was due to open in a few days. (And with any luck I hope to be able to report on and from that event next week, as I did last year.)

 My readers will understand if I admit that, back in Hollywood, I planted my feet on the star of a reality-TV host named Donald Trump; it was, after all, a sidewalk, with all the stars meant to be stepped on—some, perhaps, more so than others.

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(Photo of J. Paul Getty from Celebrity Net Worth; Lusieri painting from Wikimedia.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 259: A Showcase of Cordillera Culture

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Penman for Monday, July 10, 2017

 

I WENT up to Baguio a couple of weeks ago to give the commencement address before the Class of 2017 of the University of the Philippines-Baguio (UPB), and began my talk by reminiscing how, as a young boy, “I eagerly anticipated visiting this city, which used to involve a train ride to Damortis, La Union, before transferring to a bus that would wind its way up Naguilian Road. I recall my nostrils tingling when they caught the scent of pine. In high school in the 1960s, Baguio meant the CMLI, Teachers Camp, marching on Session Road to proclaim ‘student power,’ pretty faces from a school called St. Theresa’s, and a dark and exciting place called the Basement—which some of your older teachers might remember.”

You can find the rest of that speech on my blog at http://www.penmanila.ph—it seems to have acquired a life of its own—but the real highlight of my Baguio sojourn turned out to be a visit to the new Museo Kordilyera on the UPB campus along Gov. Pack Road.

UPB, you have to realize, is unique among UP’s campuses in that it sprawls all over a hilltop, so that anything you build on it has to adapt to its challenging topography. When you think of what the builders of the Rice Terraces had to do, you get an idea of how creative and adaptive UPB’s architects have had to be to maximize the use of its property, keeping aesthetics in mind as well as safety, in this earthquake-troubled city.

UPB Chancellor Ray Rovillos, himself a historian and one of UP’s most capable administrators, had offered to take us on a personal tour of the new museum the day after graduation, and Beng and I happily took him up on it. The three-level Museo looks little more than a glass box with a few exhibits at ground level, but it’s when you take the stairs going underground that your jaw falls at seeing what UPB’s combination of careful scholarship, administrative commitment, and sheer perseverance has produced.

Formally opened last January under the administration of then UP President Fred Pascual, the museum draws on the curatorial work undertaken by Professor Emeritus Delfin Tolentino, Jr., Prof. Victoria Diaz, archivist Cristina Villanueva and museum director Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores.

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What immediately catches the eye, of course, are the life-size representations of various indigenous people in full tribal dress and gear—so accurately researched, Ikin would tell us, that some people in the community didn’t even know their ancestors had worn them. Going over the intricate weaves and beadwork, Beng and I exchanged stories with Ikin about similar objects we had seen deep in the bowels of Chicago’s Field Museum. While part of the museum’s mission is the visual showcase for the public, an equally important aspect is the scholarly research it hopes to engender. Century-old artifacts are kept in cabinets, yet to be studied, and donations from collectors are welcome to deepen the museum’s holdings.

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A Ford Foundation scholar at Oxford University, Ikin had published a landmark study titled Tattooing Ink, Tapping Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society, North Luzon, Philippines (Quezon City: UP Press, 2013), the culmination of a long fascination with the practice and origins of tattooing that began with an encounter with an old woman in Baguio’s market almost 30 years ago.

A corner of the museum is devoted to books published by the UP Press and by the Cordillera Studies Center, which has established itself as the most important source of expertise in its area. Prominently displayed are the three excellently written and produced monographs that accompanied the launch and opening exhibits of the Museo Kordilyera: Batok (Tattoos): Body as Archive by Analyn Salvador-Amores; The Indigenous, In Flux: Reconfiguring the Ethnographic Photograph by Roland Rabang; and Jules De Raedt: Life Works, Lived Worlds by Victoria Lourdes C. Diaz. Anyone wanting deeper insights into the ways of the highlands would do well to consult June Prill-Brett’s Tradition and Transformation: Studies on Cordillera Indigenous Culture (Baguio City: Cordillera Studies Center, 2015).

Worthy of commendation for the museum’s modern but welcoming design is Architect Aris Go and the 90 Design Studio team that has been helping Chancellor Rovillos and UPB make the most of their limited space—a service Aris has also extended to UPB’s new and handsome Science Research Center, another fine example of environmentally adaptive architecture.

The UPB people were eagerly awaiting the visit of one of the country’s most fervent advocates of indigenous culture and arts, Sen. Loren Legarda, which was planned for mid-July. Knowing the senator’s passion for all things Filipino, I urged Ikin and Chancellor Ray to secure further support from her for the museum and its adjoining auditorium, which will host many conferences on indigenous culture in the years to come.

Besides the ube jam and peanut brittle at Good Shepherd—and, of course, the splendid art exhibits and architecture to be found in the Bencab Museum on Asin Road (Bencab has donated some of his most important pieces to the UPB museum)—Baguio visitors now have another must-see stop on their itinerary. The Museo Kordilyera is open Tuesday-Sunday 9 am-5 pm for a nominal entrance fee. For more information, check out its Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/upbmuseokordilyera/.

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Penman No. 212: A Lovely Place to Be

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Penman for Monday, August 15, 2016

 

IT WAS a few Sundays ago when I joined a group of artists and friends for lunch at a place that has to be on the must-see list of any Filipino art lover, especially those within driving range of Antipolo. We had been invited for lunch by Dr. Joven Cuanang, whose Pinto Art Museum we had visited once before, but this time it was the founder himself who was going to walk us around the place, so we all looked forward eagerly to meeting him and having a chat.

For those who’ve never heard of it or never been there, the best way to describe the Pinto (people, including myself, have been heard pronouncing it as PIN-to, but it’s really Pin-TO as in “door”) is to call it an art complex—mostly gallery, but also museum, restaurant, theater, library, and, apparently, research center. It’s also, quite simply, just a lovely place to be, with its buildings and galleries set on seemingly terraced hillsides leading naturally from one to the other, offering spectacular panoramas of the metropolitan skyline from every high point. Not surprisingly, it can get very busy on weekends, with as many as a thousand visitors streaming in through the gate (admission fees range from about P100 to P200).

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The Mediterranean-styled complex has that pleasing, thoughtfully curated ambience, the visual and sensory assurance of a well-managed experience. But of course, it wasn’t always so. The place began as a rough and weedy wilderness, which a young but visionary Dr. Cuanang bought up, patch by patch, more than four decades ago. “I started in 1972 with 1,000 square meters,” he reminisced. “Real estate prices fell after martial law and I was gradually able to acquire more land in the area.”

After EDSA, Joven fell in with a committee of prominent Antipolo residents and community leaders eager to spearhead the town’s cultural renaissance, but the good doctor soon decided to go it alone after an unpleasant brush with government corruption. He must have seen art and nature as the best cleansing agents, and he began supporting a posse of local artists, buying their work when they needed cash. Those artists later became the Salingpusa group, which considers Pinto its physical and spiritual home. “We didn’t have much then so the artists first exhibited their work by hanging them on a clothesline, and that practice became known as Sampayan,” said Cuanang.

Today that clothesline spans six buildings spread over 1.2 hectares, operated by the Silangan Foundation for Arts, Culture, and Ecology. Designed by Tony Leaño, the buildings blend effortlessly into the landscape, which is no accident because they were built around natural objects like the huge rocks that dotted the hillside. “We observed three principles in designing the place,” Cuanang noted. “First, don’t cut any trees. Second, follow the landscape. And third, minimal maintenance.”

As much as possible, Pinto’s buildings also employ natural ventilation, a notable exception being the air-conditioned library (where I was secretly pleased to find a couple of my books on the shelves). You’re never too far away from being reminded, however, that human whimsy is at work on Nature here, with oversized sculptures of mythological figures such as Icarus, Sisyphus, and Ariadne scattered about the greenery or soaring on rooftops.

While some come specifically for the scenic grounds, which are often rented for wedding shoots, most visitors flock to Pinto, understandably, for the art, which represents many of the most vibrant and brilliant works of our younger if lesser known artists. “You won’t see a single National Artist here,” Dr. Cuanang said, smiling and gesturing at the paintings and sculptures around him. “I keep my Bencabs at home!”

It’s refreshing and encouraging, in a way, not to see the usual parade of Amorsolos, Manansalas, Ocampos, and Botongs on display, and instead to find works by the likes of Elmer Borlongan, Jason Moss, Plet Bolipata, Tony Leaño, and Rodel Tapaya—at no diminution of quality, as these names could well be those of the National Artists of tomorrow. Salingpusa’s breathtaking 40 x 12-foot mural “Karnabal” is arguably the centerpiece of collection.

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Despite the plenitude of art offerings at Pinto and his obvious passion for art, Dr. Cuanang won’t think of himself a collector, the kind who spots and buys fine new work on the cheap for future profit. “I’m not here for the business,” he emphasized. “Too much art and discussion about art today is centered on the market.”

What truly interests the Harvard-trained neurologist, who still practices medicine after serving for many years as medical director of St. Luke’s, is wholeness of mind, body, and spirit, which he hopes to promote through the Pinto Academy of Arts and Sciences, a complex of facilities in a corner of the compound that comprises a large indoor theater, an amphitheater, a library, a function room, open decks, and gardens.

In a manifesto of sorts, Cuanang explained that “In medicine, healing is currently dominated by pharmaceuticals and technology, oftentimes to the detriment of the wholeness of a human being: mind, body, and soul. This perception is pervasive in our society. Fortunately, new knowledge in neuroscience research is affirming that the Arts and Sciences are in fact interconnected and mutually useful in preserving our wholeness, and together are powerful in the relief of our maladies.” The Academy, he added, “was built to promote conversation across disciplines to create, innovate and to pursue activities that celebrate this thought.”

The bridge between medicine and art, he pointed out, is neuroaesthetics, a branch of study that fascinates Dr. Cuanang. One of its chief proponents, Dr. Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania, poses its main concerns thus: “What in the brain triggers aesthetic experiences? And how does knowledge of basic brain mechanisms inform our understanding of these experiences? These questions are at the heart of an emerging discipline dedicated to exploring the neural processes underlying our appreciation and production of beautiful objects and artwork, experiences that include perception, interpretation, emotion, and action…. Neuroaesthetics is both descriptive and experimental, with qualitative observations and quantitative tests of hypotheses, aimed at advancing our understanding of how humans process beauty and art.”

It’s a lot to think about, for sure—but there’s no better place to ponder the glorious if sometimes dark mysteries of the human imagination than Joven Cuanang’s hilltop sanctuary.

Pinto Art Museum can be found on Sierra Madre Street in Grandheights Subdivision, Antipolo, and is open Tuesdays-Sundays, 9 am-6 pm.

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Penman No. 209: Coming: An American Museum of Philippine Art

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Penman for Monday, July 25, 2016

 

AS YOU read this, I’ll be winging home with my wife Beng from California where we’ve spent the past two weeks engaged in a pioneering project that should bring the best of Philippine art to a broader American audience, if ongoing plans work out over the next few years.

Have you heard of the American Museum of Philippine Art? Probably not, since it’s still something of a pipe dream, but some people on both sides of the Pacific are blowing very hard on their pipes to make it happen. Those people include businessman Raffy Benitez, president of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Arts Center, and University of the Philippines professor and art expert Dr. Reuben Cañete, who developed the idea late last year after Erehwon’s successful involvement in a binational mural project at Chicago’s Field Museum sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through Dr. Almira Astudillo-Gilles, a Chicago based Fil-Am writer and cultural advocate.

I reported on that project in this column last November 25, noting the warm response received by the participating Filipino and Filipino-American artists for their works—two murals, one at Erehwon and another at the Field—depicting the flows of Philippine culture and history from pre-Hispanic times to the present.

That positive experience encouraged Raffy and Reuben to conceive of a bigger and more enduring project that would bring Philippine art even closer to Americans—not just the huge and broadly dispersed Filipino community in the US, but the American public at large. Raffy and Reuben noted that the Mexicans and the Chinese, among other immigrant groups in America, both had their art museums, but that Filipinos—among the largest and fastest-growing minorities in America—did not.

Reuben recalled the long tradition of Filipino artists going over to the US to study and to work—such as Guillermo Tolentino, Victorio Edades, and Alfonso de Ossorio, among others—and observed that while strong cultural ties remained between the two countries, the connection was overwhelmingly one-way, with Philippine art (and music and literature, for that matter) being little known and appreciated in the US.

“In this age of globalization, art is now a global commodity that is exhibited and collected by various international venues, such as Art Basel Miami. Philippine Art, both in its historical as well as contemporary manifestations, must now be aggressively promoted in the United States, which is a major area of collection and promotion of global art,” Dr. Cañete would say in a concept paper on AMPA.

Karlota I. Contreras-Koterbay, a prizewinning Fil-Am sculptor and Director of the Slocumb Galleries at East Tennessee State University, agrees, writing that “There is a rich and dynamic art practice by Filipino-Americans in the US. However, there is a huge discrepancy in the visibility and recognition with regards to the idea and form of ‘Philippine Art’.

“The Philippines is the second highest Asian country whose citizens migrate to the US. The Filipinos have a long, complex history of immigration and residency in America, yet ‘Philippine Art’ is not as accessible nor recognizable in popular culture nor in the global art world. This statement does not claim that there is lack of talent nor creativity; on the contrary, there are thriving communities of artists, art groups and cultural workers who are making a difference in their respective locales, as well as receiving recognitions for their work in the field of arts.”

To take the first steps toward turning vision into reality, Raffy, Reuben, Beng, and I flew to LA to meet up with some prominent Filipino-American community leaders and artists to set up a foundation that would start the spadework on the museum. The American Museum of Philippine Art Foundation, Inc. (AMPAFI) was formally launched July 12 at the Holiday Inn in Diamond Bar, California, in a day-long meeting attended by a couple of dozen participants from all over the US.

Raffy Benitez will serve as chairman and president, and Reuben and I are joining him on the board, but we know that this project can’t be run from Manila, so the directors will also include art curator Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, physician Jose Botor Regullano, and engineer Ricardo Real Almonte. The officers include Fil-Am standouts Rafael Maniago, Art Zamora, Sal Budz Floriano, Rosie Vinluan Muñoz, Connie Buenaventura, Daniel Gutierrez Bassig, Dennis Martinez, Bobby Halili, Jess Española, Jun Sison, Ninette Tenza Umali, Ernan Ebreo, and Bernadette Escalona-Cooper. During the launch, a group of Fil-Am Artists headed by Paeng Maniago also rolled out a mural that they had executed to celebrate the occasion.

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We all realize that this project will take many years, enormous resources, and tremendous effort and optimism to realize. (Being Filipinos, we expect a lot of naysaying, and I’ve been Raffy’s chief buzzkiller whenever I think someone needs to pull his feet back to earth, but I have to admire the man’s guts and what he’s done at Erehwon, which you can preview here: http://erehwonartfoundation.org.) The museum as Raffy and Reuben envisage it is a mini-CCP, with enough spaces for exhibitions and performances (and even classes in Pinoy cooking), and the renowned architect Conrado Onglao was motivated and generous enough to contribute a prospective design for the building. That may be years down the road, but in the meanwhile, AMPAFI is taking early and doable steps toward building a countrywide arts community—a virtual museum, as it were—in cooperation with other groups such as Bernadette Escalona-Cooper’s Silicon Valley-based Global Artists’ Creative Collaboration for Empowerment (GACCE), whose leaders also attended the launch.

Karlota reports that “Our first two official projects are: ‘Nandito N Ako’ by 11 emerging Filipinx artists from the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and possible community mural headed by NY-based artist Art Zamora with the Phil-Am organization and ETSU organized by Slocumb Galleries in the Northeast. This will be early October 2016 in time for Filipino Heritage Month. Also on the same month on the West Coast is the proposed Indie Film Showing in LA by special committee on fundraising head Ernan Ebreo. Both are curated programming for awareness campaign and fundraising efforts.”

(Wait a minute, did I read “Filipinx?” Indeed I did—and this trip was the first time I encountered the term myself, which seems to be gaining currency among young Fil-Ams, who define “Filipinx”—which I’ve heard pronounced as “Filipinics”—as an effort “to make the community more inclusive—we changed the O in ‘Filipino’ to an X to remain gender-neutral and recognize all genders that exist in the Filipinx community. There’s apparently been a lot of debate on this issue, which we’ll deal with some other time.)

The AMPA website is up at http://www.ampafi.org. Contributions and donations are, of course, very welcome, but more than that, we need goodwill, prayers, and strength of spirit to see this vision through. Mabuhay at salamat sa lahat!

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Penman No. 130: Museums and Musicals (Part 1)

Penman for Monday, January 5, 2015

 

IF THERE’S anything in America I keep returning to—aside from the flea markets and antique shops—it’s the two things I consider to be among the country’s prime cultural resources: its museums and its musical theater.

Both are, at heart, forms of popular entertainment. While museums are arguably more educational, the first American museums, we’re told, began as collections of curiosities that attracted entrepreneurs like the showman P. T. Barnum, who bought up bizarre objects and juxtaposed them with such live attractions as bearded ladies and exotic animals. The American musical, on the other hand, descended from burlesques and operettas imported from Europe, livened up by chorus girls and minstrel songs, until (notes theater historian Mark Lubbock) Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern came up with Show Boat in 1927 and refashioned the musical as a play unto itself, beyond the pastiche of production numbers that it had been.

I suppose I should be adding “major-league sports” to this list. The NBA is, after all, one of America’s biggest exports, with a global cultural impact that extends far beyond the ballgame itself. As a graduate student in Milwaukee, I spent whole Saturday afternoons enjoying double-headers at the baseball park, and I once cut a class in Shakespeare to watch Michael Jordan pull off a last-second three-pointer to beat the hometown Bucks (and despite being Bucks fans, we all stood up and cheered). And then there’s Hollywood, America’s mammoth fantasy machine.

But sports and movies can now be had on satellite TV and even your iPhone. Museums and musicals—I’m thinking Broadway and off-Broadway here—are still best experienced live, despite the likely availability of much of the material online or on DVD. Many Americans themselves apparently agree. A 2008 article that came out on National Public Radio reveals an interesting statistic: the total combined attendance for all major-league sports (basketball, baseball, football, and hockey) that year was estimated at around 140 million, against the estimated attendance at American museums, pegged at 850 million.

I landed in Washington, DC on my first American visit 35 years ago, and I’ve been returning to the Smithsonian Institution ever since, looking at but never tiring of the same old things: Abraham Lincoln’s hat, George Washington’s dentures, the Hope Diamond, the Space Shuttle, the giant squid. Every pilgrimage to the Smithsonian (and, in London, to the British Museum) transforms me into a wide-eyed boy, seized by the collar and shaken into speechlessness by the majesty of history.

On this last sojourn, as I reported last week, a visit to the exhibition of historic signatures at the National Archives Museum proved to be one of the highlights of our museum-hopping. But we visited other equally arresting exhibits, most notably the MacArthur Memorial Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

I’d always been fascinated by this monumental figure—who, like many monuments, came with more than a deep fissure or two. I was born too late to appreciate him as the liberator of occupied Philippines, but I’d always nurtured a vague memory of going to the Luneta as a boy to see him, one 4th of July, a day of floats and big horses. I later suspected that memory to be false, until I confirmed, online, that MacArthur had indeed made one last sentimental journey to the Philippines in July 1961, when I was seven.

Norfolk seems an odd place for a MacArthur Memorial; it’s a Navy town, and he was an Army man through and through, and West Point—where he had served as superintendent—would have been far more logical. But his mother’s family was rooted in Norfolk, and Douglas himself would have been born there had not his father Arthur, himself an Army officer, been assigned to Little Rock, Ark., where Douglas was born in 1880.

Some things surprised me at the MacArthur museum: first of all, the discovery that it was also his and his second wife Jean’s resting place. The first thing you notice upon entering the memorial, flanked by rows of flags from various campaigns (Bataan, Corregidor, Leyte, Lingayen, and Manila are prominently cited), is the sunken crypt in which the two tombs lie side by side. Second, I was struck by the number of Philippine items and references in the place—perhaps logically so, because even Arthur himself had been a general in the forces that occupied Manila in 1898.

Third—although I should have expected this—there was absolutely no mention of Isabel Rosario “Dimples” Cooper, the Scottish-Filipino actress who became Douglas’ girlfriend in between his marriages (his first wife, Louise Cromwell Brooks, had been a socialite). A fourth discovery was of interest only to this hardcore fountain-pen collector: the famous Parker “Big Red” Duofold, already an iconic pen when MacArthur reportedly used one to sign Japan’s surrender papers with on the Missouri, turned out to be a smaller lady’s version loaned to him by Jean.

There were recordings of his speeches, and I listened closely. MacArthur spoke famously simple words. His “I shall return” pledge ranks among the most familiar of rhetorical refrains; less known but equally moving was his farewell to West Point, two years before his death in 1964: “When I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.” But the verbal simplicity came out of a complex man, one who could fearlessly take on what he saw to be the communist colossus (and be sacked for his perceived recklessness in Korea by President Truman) but who was, by many biographical accounts, a mama’s boy.

It was, all told, a most impressive exhibition, amplifying a figure already larger than life to begin with. I suppose my biggest surprise was my own continuing fascination with this Big White Man, in the way that I’ve often wondered about the postcolonial (or should that be neocolonial) chic we attach to names like “McKinley” and “Rockwell,” especially when they involve high-priced property.

Those of us who luckily came too late to experience the horrors of the Second World War can argue all day about the moral wrongs of American imperialism and the self-serving designs of America on the Pacific—and would very probably be right. But in these days of tension in the South China or West Philippine Sea, we might end up wishing a MacArthur were around to do what no pragmatic politician in Washington or Manila today would imagine doing.

Next week, the musicals.

Penman No. 129: Autographs and Memories

Jose_Rizal's_signaturePenman for Monday, December 29, 2014

 

WE AFFIX our signatures to documents everyday—to checks, memoranda, requests, receipts, and felicitations—with nary a thought to where those signatures will go, those hurried scribbles that say “I was here,” “I saw this,” or “I caused this,” and, therefore, “I matter.” For most of us, those signatures will go the way of the documents that occasioned them—to some vault, shredder, or rubbish heap—their practical purposes having been served, and bearing no other value otherwise. That is, unless you’re a George Washington, or a Paul McCartney, or a Princess Diana; and then you might sign a table napkin and turn that into pile of dollars.

I’ve always been fascinated by signatures and autographs (the commonly held difference being that signatures meet legal requirements, while autographs satisfy emotional needs). My earliest model, of course, was my father’s signature, written with that flourish typical of his generation, with an understandable hint of self-magnification. Impressive signatures took time and care to practice and to write, so my father’s attention to his own left me awed and respectful. Even if he was only a clerk in his office, he signed his name as presidents did.

Mine, alas, is completely undistinguished—illegible, to be more accurate, something once likened by a curious onlooker to a paper clip pulled from both ends. I know that some people seek to cultivate a mystique by designing unreadable signatures, but I never meant to, and find the practice pretentious. My father’s signature seemed larger than life, but before and beyond anything else, it proclaimed his name, which (especially in this avatar- and alias-driven present) is probably the most honest thing you can do.

I had these thoughts in mind when—among the last things we did before flying home from Washington—I took Beng to a very special exhibition at the National Archives Museum on “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” (still on until January 5). It promised to showcase the signatures of both prominent and obscure figures and their contributions (positive and otherwise) to the shaping of history, and the exhibition did not disappoint. Being something of a history buff and museum rat, I had previously come across the most well-known ones in facsimile and in other exhibits—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, and, of course, John Hancock—but here was an opportunity to appreciate them in context, appended to actual documents that should have, but not always, mattered.

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Albert Einstein’s ends a long letter passionately—and, in hindsight, poignantly—arguing for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Adolf Hitler’s—accompanying a large sheet attesting to his marriage to Eva Braun—is surprisingly small. Another unexpected twist comes courtesy of the poet Ezra Pound, who can masterfully edit his friend TS Eliot and yet, it turns out, can barely spell, as when he pleads in 1914 with the American consul in London on behalf of his fiancée, and here I quote him verbatim: “As an american about to mary and english woman, I write to you….” The Hopi Indians petition for their land in 1894, signing their names as pictographs of rainclouds, fish, and birds. Their voices are as lost and as forgotten as the letters of ordinary citizens writing to the President for various causes, none more futile than an appeal by the children of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for their parents’ lives to be spared.

As we left the museum, Beng and I wondered aloud why we couldn’t come up with a similar exhibition of historic signatures—say, of our national heroes and National Artists and National Scientists—by way of introducing our younger citizens to the story of our nation, as told by individuals in letters and other interesting and important memorabilia. This is, of course, a generation that writes messages, not letters; that tweets, not corresponds. The value of a signature—think of Manny Pacquiao’s on a boxing glove, or a porn star’s on a T-shirt—is what it will fetch on eBay.

Bonifacio

Some people collect autographs for fun and profit, and like any hobby involving demand and supply, a thriving business has grown around the pursuit and acquisition of scarce signatures, especially from people who will never write another one. Sometimes context is everything; a woman who got JFK to sign her newspaper just before he boarded that fateful car in Dallas made $30,000 out of that grim memento. The most sought-after signatures today, according to one listing on the Web, are those of the Beatles, the Apollo 11 crew, Marilyn Monroe, and—no, not JFK, or Churchill, or Hitler, who all follow this curious entry—the Sex Pistols with Sid Vicious. For what it’s worth, George Washington remains the star of the show, his signature on the Acts of Congress earning that book’s owner close to $10 million because of the confluence of the man and the material.

I’d be happy to run into a sheaf of yellowing papers at an antique shop or an old library and to find these signed by Rizal, Bonifacio, Juan Luna, Gregorio del Pilar, Paz Marquez Benitez, Angela Manalang-Gloria, Manuel Quezon, Jose Garcia Villa, Botong Francisco, or some such person. I doubt that I’ll be ever so lucky, precisely because we don’t value old books, especially those that have been scribbled on. As a literary tourist of sorts, I’ve been fortunate to have books signed by Joseph Heller, Kazuo Ishiguro, JM Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Frank McCourt, and Edward Jones, among others, but I’d trade most of them for any one of the above.

Quezon

Because our daughter Demi still understands what documents mean, she will be inheriting—aside from a trove of leaky pens—a passel of books and letters signed by many of our finest writers, her dad’s friends and mentors. I’ve been quite shameless about soliciting these signatures and autographs, fully expecting that the time will come, sooner than later, when our scrawls will be replaced by digital thumbprints, already a reality with Apple’s TouchID.

Maybe that’s how digital books will be signed in the future—with the press of a thumb or a forefinger on a touchpad—and it will simplify my life as an author, but take me even farther away from the verifiable veracity of the written word, and the written name.

Penman No. 5: Encounters with History

Library

Penman for Monday, July 23, 2012

I HAD an unusual encounter with history last week, by way of two sorties to two different exhibits that turned out to have a bit more to do with each other than I might’ve initially thought.

The first trip was something I’d been meaning to do for years but just never came around to doing—a visit to the Presidential Museum and Library at Malacañan Palace. (Our tour guide took pains to point out that “Malacañan” referred specifically to the presidential seat of power and the more popular “Malacañang” to the entire place itself; I think we’ll go with Malacañang for the rest of this piece.)

It’s one of those sad ironies that we footloose Filipinos can make elaborate and expensive plans to visit the White House and Buckingham Palace without ever setting foot on our own presidential abode. It could be that for far too long—particularly all those years of martial law—Malacañang didn’t lend itself to friendly visitations by ordinary citizens. That, plus the fact that we Pinoys have never had much of a sense of history, beyond routine celebrations of Independence Day and tired if not tiresome commemorations of Edsa 1. We’ve been schooled to think of history as high drama, as a calendar of big events, forgetting that those events were forged in offices, classrooms, factories, and the shade of mango trees.

Malacañang is, of course, the perfect theater for high drama—one of the balconies in the museum was the setting for that famous picture of Ferdinand Marcos and his family vowing defiantly to stay and to fight on, shortly before decamping to America in February 1986—but it was also, and remains, home and office to a long succession of men and women who led the country, people doing nothing more earth-shattering on most days than signing letters of condolences and felicitations and proclamations declaring this or that period to be National Fire Prevention Week.

As a museum rat, I’ve always been fascinated by presidential and royal regalia, and by the mementoes left behind by the high and mighty—not to be awed by them, but to appreciate their humanity behind the pomp and the poses. George Washington’s signature blue coat is on display at the Smithsonian, but so are his dentures, which must have hurt far worse than mine, and I don’t even have to worry about putting a country together; the mock pockets on Jose Rizal’s jacket in Dapitan betray a sharp fashion sense even in exile (and the smallness of his body size—a surprise to many Filipinos expecting a titan of a hero—merely accentuates his real stature).

Last week, thanks to the invitation of Ronnie Geron—an undersecretary in the palace and an avid member of Fountain Pen Network-Philippines—our group of over 30 fountain-pen enthusiasts got to visit and tour the Presidential Museum and Library. Since fountain pens themselves are something of an anachronism, stepping back into presidential history was a treat for all of us, and we can’t be blamed for feeling that the highlight of the tour was staring at Emilio Aguinaldo’s pen, or what remained of it—a piece we quickly identified as being very likely a Waterman 52 in mottled red hard rubber (a sorry shell of a pen, in exchange for which I offered to provide a near-mint example from my collection—but no one seemed to be too interested).

There were no other pens to be found that day in the museum and library, but there were roomfuls of other memorabilia, from the time of the Spanish and American governors-general to the prewar, postwar, and recent presidents: photographs, paintings, clothes, books, furniture, documents, and campaign materials. Every president had either a room or a corner devoted to materials from his or her presidency, and our very knowledgeable guide—a young man named Louie—walked us through the history of every room, mindful that the building itself was historic, quite apart from its residents.

The museum and library are located in what is now known as Kalayaan Hall, a 1921 structure used by the Americans as their Executive Building; the Marcoses called it Maharlika Hall, but Cory Aquino gave it its present name. Aside from the Main Hall and Library (or the Gallery of Presidents), the building also contains the Old Waiting Room Gallery, with materials from the Spanish era; the Old Executive Secretary’s Office, with rare Rizaliana; the Old Governor-General’s Office, the Osmeña Cabinet Room, the West and East Staircases, the Quezon Executive Office, the Quirino Council of State Room, the Roxas Cabinet Room, and the Northeast and Southeast Galleries. Plan on spending at least an hour to see and imbibe everything.

What most Filipinos (including many of us) don’t know is that tours of the Presidential Museum and Library are available for a minimal fee to individuals or groups who make the necessary arrangements beforehand. (Call 784-4286 local 4945 or email pml@malacanang.gov.ph for details.) The entrance is through Gate 6, and parking can be had at the Freedom Park just outside the gates.

Another exhibit that I made a point of looking into was one at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery, titled “ReCollection 1081: Clear and Present Danger (Visual Dissent on Martial Rule),” co-curated by Marika Constantino and Ruel Caasi, and staged by the CCP in cooperation with the Liongoren Gallery. ReCollection 1081 brings together a selection of artworks produced by Filipino artists during and after martial law, as well as publications produced by both the underground and alternative press.

Those who lived through martial law can’t possibly miss the irony of the exhibition venue—much hated and derided in Imelda Marcos’ time as the domain of the elite, but long since reclaimed by more ordinary folk.

This show was already written about by Constantino herself a few days ago here in the Star, so I’ll just have a few points to add—chiefly, that the artist’s protest against oppression, injustice, and exploitation both preceded and continued after martial law (see Jaime de Guzman’s Sabbath of the Witches, 1970, and Nunelucio Alvarado’s Tunok sa Dahon, 1986).

It was martial law, of course, that provoked both the most explicit and subtlest forms of protest, demanding both courage and wit of the artist, and this range of responses is on full display in the exhibit. Assembling these works was already a feat in itself, considering how many more such works (and their creators) have been lost in the crossfire. Their survival into another century and their installation in the cultural bastion of the dictatorship is sweet poetic justice.

ReCollection 1081 runs until September 30.