Penman No. 343: A Feast for the Eye and Spirit

IMG_9257.jpegPenman for Monday, March 4, 2019

 

IF YOU ever find yourself with a free morning or afternoon in Manila, with some loose change in your pocket and a bee buzzing in your head about what to do, think no further and just do as I say: get thee to the San Agustin Museum in Intramuros. Your P200 (or even less, with concessions for seniors and students) will never be spent better, certainly not for a movie at the mall.

I hadn’t been to that museum in over 20 years; the last time I visited, it was a dark and gloomy place, as you might expect a 400-year-old institution to be. The museum is attached to the church of the same name, which was completed in stone in 1607 after two earlier and flimsier incarnations were destroyed by fire in 1574 and 1583. The Augustinians were inspired and industrious church builders—the corridors of the museum are lined with paintings of their glorious creations throughout the archipelago—and San Agustin Church itself remains the splendorous anchor of that evangelical effort.

The church has become a favorite choice for weddings, and indeed it was for the wedding of a friend that Beng and I went to San Agustin a few weeks ago. We got there an hour early, so we stepped into the foyer of the museum, and decided to while away the time viewing the exhibits. And what a feast for the eye and spirit that turned out to be.

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The museum is organized along six basic themes that circumscribe Augustinian life: Love for Songs, Love for Prayer, Love for Music, Love for Wisdom, Love for Science, and Love for Culture.

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Love for Songs speaks of the order’s devotion to liturgical music, embodied in the old choir books, many still on parchment, that were used in the church’s famous and now accessible choir loft, from where the visitor can appreciate the church’s full majesty under the towering organ.

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Love for Prayer describes the community’s gathering five times a day for prayer in that loft or coro, seated in intricately carved silleriaor choir stalls that go back to the early 1600s. The space is dominated by the lectern and organ. A tip for the visitor: peek behind the organ for a glimpse of the original colors of the place, preserved in the masonry.

Love for Music is a special exhibition of musical instruments employed for church services, highlighting the work of two important masters, the composer and organist Fr. Manuel Arostegui and musical director Marcel Adonay.

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Love for Wisdom brings us to the order’s library which, despite the ravages of war—many thousands of volumes were lost to Manila’s sacking by the British and then to the city’s bombardment in the Second World War—still displays books dating back to the 1500s, proof of the Augustinian devotion to scholarship (particularly to linguistics, based on the exhibits). Being something of an antiquarian, this was of the greatest interest to me (I noted with some amusement that the oldest book in the room was said to have been published in 1552—one year younger than the oldest in my personal collection), but unfortunately the library as a whole can be seen only through a glass wall, perhaps to protect its precious contents.

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Love for Science brings us to the work of the pioneering botanist Fr. Manuel Blanco, alongside that of two other Augustinian scientists, Fr. Ignacio Mercado and Fr. Antonio Llanos. It was, of course, Fr. Blanco’s Flora de Filipinasthat put the Philippines’ horticultural wealth on the global map, and the book’s illustrated 3rd edition (since reproduced) remains among the most coveted of Philippine publications.

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Finally, Love for Culture dwells on the Augustinian mission in education, starting with their first school in Cebu in 1565.

In a larger sense, that educational mission continues with the museum itself and what it offers the modern visitor—people like us who, immersed in the business and digital traffic of the 21stcentury, step into a time tunnel to be magically transported into a past materially composed of gold, ivory, parchment, and wood. Indeed, as we did, the best way to appreciate this museum is simply to walk through it, without too much thought to system or design, allowing the objects—whether they be glass-eyed Madonnas, gold-threaded priestly vestments, or the gravestone of Juan Luna y Novicio—to speak to you. I’m not even a particularly religious person—I’ve long had issues with the Church, despite my deep respect for its core intentions—but this exposure to specific aspects of the Augustinian mission in the Philippines strangely reassures me that good things survive.

Endowed by the likes of the late Don Luis Ma. Araneta, the museum has been very capably maintained and is well lit, and its two stories of exhibits, plus Father Blanco’s Garden, offer the visitor at least an hour of quiet wonderment—with an emphasis on “quiet,” an increasingly rare grace to be found in our frenetic city. Spare that hour and those 200 pesos; you will feel amply rewarded.

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Penman No. 339: Dinner in Penang

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Penman for Monday, February 4, 2019

 

A FEW days after I retired last month, Beng and I hopped on a plane to Kuala Lumpur on our way to Penang. I’d booked the trip many months ago, as a form of insurance against changing my mind about staying on at my job for another year or two, a very tempting option. Thankfully Malaysia Airlines had a sale on its flights, and that sealed the deal.

Why Penang? Because, about ten years ago, I made a vow to bring Beng to every city I’d ever been, and Penang was one of the few left on the list that was close and affordable, with the promise of a pleasant and relaxed vacation. (In your 20s, you look for bars and ziplining; in your 60s, a soft bed and a nice view of the sunset sounds just about right.) Malaysia also happens to be a personal favorite of ours—I’d taken Beng to KL, Melaka, and Kota Kinabalu before, with happy outcomes in all of those places.

The first and only time I’d been to Penang was in December 1992, when I and a few other Filipinos attended the Asean Writers Conference/Workshop being held there for writers below 40. It’s hard to imagine now that I was only 38 then, with a full shock of jet-black hair and a certain cockiness about the strength of Philippine writing in our part of the world; I’d just returned with a PhD from the US and had confirmed to myself that we could write as well as anyone else. That seemed to be upheld when the conference elected us president—an honor usually reserved for the host country—but our esteem took a few licks at dinnertime, when our Indonesian poet-friend, a man who had made a fortune reading poetry to thousands of paying listeners, dined up in the revolving restaurant, while my roommate Fidel Rillo and I snuck out to the hawker stalls, our precious ringgit jangling in our pockets.

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There was, I must say, a sufficiency of ringgit to accompany Beng and me this time around, but we still chose to take the low road, as it’s very often more fun, foregoing the swanky beachside hotels in Batu Feringhi for more modest digs in central George Town, the island’s capital. We stayed at the aptly named 1926 Heritage Hotel, a long building that still displayed the grace and robust masonry of its colonial past. While highrises are beginning to crowd the Penang cityscape, its colonial architecture is the island’s true attraction, the old mansions set back by wide swaths of greenery and bougainvillea.

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Not being beach types, Beng and I made a beeline on our first morning for the Penang State Museum (entrance fee, 1 ringgit), which had small but artful and informative exhibits on Penang’s mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage. We always make it a point to master the local bus or metro system wherever we go to save on taxis, and armed with seven-day bus passes for 30 (about P400) ringgit each, we just rode buses from one end of the line to the other, enjoying the view and riding back.

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The must-sees for anyone touring Penang are Penang Hill, which offers spectacular views of the city from about 800 meters up via funicular train, and the Blue Mansion, the magnificently restored 130-year-old home of one of China’s richest men, now also a hotel and a restaurant, but open to guided tours (tip: Wife #7 will haunt you). We took it slow, enjoying just one major destination for every one of our four days there, but George Town is full of interesting turns—among them, the old Protestant Cemetery with graves from the 1700s that Beng and I strayed into while walking to the Blue Mansion.

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Most of all, Penang is about hawker food (so Fidel and I were on the right track back in 1992), with brand-new Mercedes-Benzes lined up for parking beside stalls hawking Hainanese Chicken Rice for 5 ringgit a plate. Being a creature of habit, I was quite happy to try chicken rice at various stalls, while Beng had her choice of possibilities from congee to char kway teow.

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The trip reminded me of a short poem I wrote after my first visit there nearly 27 years ago, and here it is (Elangovan is a prominent Singaporean playwright).

DINNER IN PENANG

 For the second time in as many days

I come to her, and have the same

Two-ringgit dish of hawker’s prawn

Steamed in fragrant both, and its succulence

Competes in joyfulness with the garlic sauce.

 

The next morning, Elangovan says to me:

Those prawns were fatted on the city’s slime—

Look here, it’s in the papers,

“Waterborne diseases on the rise!”—

And while my reason grapples

With the sordid possibilities,

My stomach’s heart has no regrets,

Having loved, without need of asking,

Having departed more complete, in trusting.

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Penman No. 332: Southern Surprises

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Penman for Monday, December 17, 2018

 

MY RECENT forays to southern Taiwan—the first to Tainan, and the second to Kaohsiung—reminded me that while we Pinoys love to chuckle and even snicker at how the Chinese (among others) mangle English, the economic and technological leaps they’ve made (using their own language, let’s not forget) are no laughing matter, unless you’re a Chinese entrepreneur or engineer on his or her way to the bank.

This occurred to me as I was flipping through the local travel and leisure magazines in my hotel room in Tainan between sessions of the academic conference I was attending. Typical of the prose was this advertisement for a resort on the island: “Join the exclusive equestrian sports of the aristocrats, so that parents can easily experience the price of the people, the wonderful and rich itinerary, you can easily lick the children without going far! Let you play and don’t want to go home anymore.”

I could imagine some snooty Filipinos, more English than the English, rolling on the floor and thinking that people who write that way can’t possibly go anywhere, but I would’ve liked to bring those people to the exhibits downstairs showcasing Taiwan’s state-of-the-art research in biomedical engineering, solar power, and materials science, including an interesting project aimed at improving your basketball skills through “a virtual reality basketball tactic training system.”

I don’t know how close that project will bring Taiwan to a world basketball championship, but I could see, from the presentations I was listening to, that they were going all out to become world-class champions in research and development. Our host, the National Cheng Kung University, had almost US$145 million to spend on R&D in 2017, mostly from the government. (That’s about half of the University of the Philippines’ budget for everything.)

Thankfully, we did have a break from all the S&T reports on the last day of our Tainan conference, and we were given a choice of tours between visiting a museum or an aquaculture farm. Now, I love fish as much as you do—it’s often the first thing I eat in the morning—but I wanted to have a closer look at Taiwan’s culture and history, so I hopped on the museum bus. What we saw was, well, anything but Taiwanese—unless you take the act of presenting the thing itself as an expression of Taiwan’s place in the world today.

Our destination was the Chimei Museum, named after the company that’s now the world’s largest maker of ABS resin, which goes into the making of popular plastics such as computer keyboards, auto body parts, and bicycle helmets.

The Chimei Museum is an imposing if rather odd homage to Western art and artisanship. Located on the outskirts of Tainan, it was built in 1992 by the billionaire industrialist Shi Wen-long. Now 90, Shi never got a college degree. But he’s also a passionate amateur violinist who’s played with Yo-yo Ma. That, plus his personal fortune, has allowed him to put together a stunning collection of vintage musical instruments—including priceless violins by Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati—that are now on display at the museum, in an exhibition that recreates the workshop of a master luthier or violin maker.

The Chimei’s other showstopper—aside from the Rodin gallery and some masterpieces of French realism—is its exhibit of ancient arms and armor, from the time of the Greek hoplites and medieval knights to the Japanese samurai and English crossbowmen. I have to admit to a boy’s fascination with weaponry, and having visited many of the world’s best museums, I’d have to say that the Chimei’s collection was comprehensively fearsome. These were the real things, folks, not cheap or 3-D printed replicas.

Indeed, there’s hardly anything Chinese in the design of the Chimei or in its exhibits. The large, neoclassical, Corinthian-columned museum—set off from the street by a long walkway flanked by tall statues of the Greek gods and goddesses—could have stood anywhere in Europe or the US, and comes off as a statement, as if to say, “We could have given you the chinoiserie you expect, but we chose to acquire and to present the best of the West.”

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And I can’t let this column end without mentioning the other surprise I came across in southern Taiwan, in the port city of Kaohsiung, where I also attended a conference on distance education. Our host, Dr. Eing-Ming Wu, made use of a free afternoon to introduce us to the city in a most unconventional way—by giving us tickets to take the I-Ride, Kaohsiung’s so-called “flying theater”—kind of like a rollercoaster in an Imax—powered by the homegrown Brogent Group’s 3D technology, which it has exported to Hollywood and other amusement capitals worldwide. If I needed to be impressed by Taiwan’s engineers, this was the best way to do it, screaming my head off, feet dangling in the air, as we swooped over a Buddhist temple then plunged into the ocean.

While travel to Taiwan remains visa-free for Pinoys, I’m definitely returning as a tourist to Kaohsiung with my wife Beng, if only to have her  experience the exhilaration of the I-Ride and maybe take her on a cruise on the Love River, feasting on the sweet giant atisuntil our eyes bulge. As they say, in Taiwan, “you can easily lick the children without going far”—whatever that means, it sounds like fun!

 

 

 

Penman No. 294: From Bach to Baleh

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Penman for Monday, March 19, 2018

 

SOMETIME LAST year, I reported on the opening of the new Museo Kordilyera at the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB), and predicted that it was going to become one of the new “must-sees” for the culturally savvy Baguio visitor, alongside such landmarks as the Bencab Museum. I was back there last week to help inaugurate a new theater and enjoy a concert—about which you’ll hear more in a bit—but what sealed UPB’s reputation for me as that region’s cultural beacon was its new exhibit titled “Feasts of Merit” which opened last month and which will run all year long.

As UPB Professor Emeritus Delfin Tolentino explains it, the title refers to the “prestige feasts” sponsored by the well-off families of traditional societies around Asia and in the Philippine north, such as by the Ifugao, Bontok, and Ibaloy. In these feasts—now long gone, for obvious reasons—hundreds of pigs and carabaos would be slaughtered in a show of affluence—indeed, in what could be seen as a deliberate exercise in excess, as Museo director Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores acknowledges. But alongside this excess was the idea that wealth was meaningless if it could not be shared with others, so the point of the feast was to have the community partake of it, thereby strengthening the ties between and among the people.

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To liven up the scene, the Museo purchased (with sponsorships), dismantled, transported, and reassembled a complete traditional Ifugao house or baleh which now forms the centerpiece of the exhibit. The 50-year-old house took four days to put back together, says Ikin, employing no nails. Walking around and beneath it gives the visitor an intimate sense of family and village life—as well as of the ingenuity of the native architect, in such touches as the rat guards circling every post, preventing rodents and other pests from clambering up into the house proper.

The baleh may be the most arresting feature of the exhibit, but equally fascinating are the large-scale reproductions of vintage photographs lining the walls, chronicling a lost way of life in the highlands, from Bontok women threshing rice together to other women wearing golden mouth guards to display their wealth (or, as one of those women said, “to shut us up” because the men wore no such flashy encumbrances).

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An especially fascinating corner of the museum houses its impressive collection of heirloom textiles, many sporting designs unseen and unwoven for many decades. As two of her assistants carefully folded and scanned some specimens to create digital files of their designs, Ikin unrolled a large swath of an indigo-dyed textile from the 1920s—still looking new and sharp—that she had found in Chicago, being sold by a Filipino, whom she had managed to persuade to sell the precious artifact.

Foreign sponsors and benefactors such as the Newberry Library in Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia helped make the exhibit possible; local supporters like the National Artist Bencab have also generously lent or donated items from their extensive collections. Dr. Amores says the Museo would be very happy to receive more donations of choice items from private collections, and I can’t think of a more fitting recipient myself of such pieces than the Museo Kordilyera and its state-of-the-art facilities and curatorial services.

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The Museo and its exhibits are part of a broader UPB program to revitalize its campus as a regional center for cultural awareness and research under Chancellor Ray Rovillos, who also happens to be a historian. With just a six-hectare footprint and a steeply sloping landscape to work with, Dr. Rovillos and his architect, the brilliantly adaptive Aris Go, have given UPB a smart new environment that goes beyond looks to include catchments for rainwater, among other innovations.

Thanks to the support of the cultural maven Sen. Loren Legarda, UPB also now has an impressive new theater, the Teatro Amianan, which was inaugurated last week with a concert, and the adjoining Darnay Demetillo Art Space.

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The concert opened with some popular numbers by UPB’s homegrown Tinig Amianan, after which the audience was treated to a stellar performance by soprano Stephanie Quintin, a Baguio girl and UP graduate who has trained in Germany and Hong Kong. Stephanie presented a selection of vocal classics from Bach to Lizst and Gounod before wowing the crowd with Nicanor Abelardo’s “Bituing Marikit” and a rousing rendition of Jose Estella’s “Ang Maya.” She was very capably accompanied by the young pianist Gabriel Paguirigan, who’s still in school at the UP College of Music after graduating from the Philippine High School for the Arts, but who has already won a slew of awards.

It may be quite a stretch from Bach to the baleh, but it’s precisely the kind of imaginative leap from the tribal to the global that Baguio has always been known for, and as a UP official myself, I felt immensely proud to see UPB on top of the effort. Bravo!

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Penman No. 290: My Cabinet of Curiosities

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Penman for Monday, February 12, 2018

 

HISTORY TELLS us that museums began as private collections of odds and ends—Wunderkammer or “rooms of wonder” in German, later to be known as “cabinets of curiosities”—where wealthy Europeans of the 16th century amassed objects from all around the world for the amazement and delectation of their friends. Those objects ranged from stuffed crocodiles and “unicorn” (narwhal) horns to Roman coins, clockwork globes, and such vestiges of defeated empires as the feather crown of the Aztec Montezuma (now in Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology).

Kept and shown in—yes—cabinets (although originally “cabinets” could also mean whole rooms), these collections formed the basis for what later became full-scale and more specialized museums. Those museums are what Beng and I make a beeline for every time we land on foreign territory, eager for the chance to see wondrous objects from the past with our own eyes. Topping that list would be perennials like the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum, the Field Museum, and the New York City Public Library—for which one lifetime seems inadequate to appreciate in their entirety—as well as art palaces such as the Louvre, the Prado, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate, and the Getty.

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For reasons we can only guess at, the routing in those places almost always ends at the gift shop, where you can pick up a pewter Colosseum or a Vincent van Gogh fridge magnet (both made, of course, in China) to remember your visit by.

My urges, however, have gone in another direction: instead of spending $24.99 on a fake Lindbergh cap at the Air and Space Museum, I’d rather spend it on a book on early aviation or on a 1927 newspaper marking the historic trans-Atlantic flight. You’d be surprised how inexpensive the real thing can be, compared to the mock memento.

Given that mindset—and the fact that I’ve had more than 30 years of collecting old fountain pens, watches, and other men’s junk behind me—it’s no surprise that I’ve cobbled together my own cabinet of curiosities at home, representing half a lifetime of picking rubbish off the street. Some people would call me a pack rat, for keeping Love Bus tickets ca. 1978 or real plane tickets from back when they used red carbon paper for the passenger coupons.

Lately I’ve been prowling eBay for fine old books, but I get as much pleasure finding treasure in a Cavite junkyard as I do securing a 130-year-old travel book in French online (you’ll see both below).

I’ll leave it for Beng and Demi to sort everything out when I myself become a candidate for taxidermy, but here’s a sampler of what a visitor to my mini-museum will find:

  1. A man’s black umbrella with a classic bent-bamboo handle, found for P120 in a Japanese surplus store in Bacoor. Beng rhapsodizes over the ceramics in these stores, and rightly so, but I’ve been strangely attracted to wooden umbrellas, clocks, and boxes;
  2. A silver “Dos Mundos” coin from 1771, big and fat, from my home island of Tablas in Romblon, reputed to be a pirate haven in Spanish times.
  3. A gold-tinted medallion given out to luminaries and guests at the Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1946, the kind gift of a dear family friend, whose father was one of those guests;
  4. A Form 5 (at it was already called then) that a student registered with at the University of the Philippines in the 1930s, accompanied by a booklet of course offerings for that time.
  5. A 900-page travel book, published in Paris in 1878, with 360 beautiful engravings of scenes from Australia, Java, Japan, and China, sourced from Funchal in Portugal;
  6. A gold Hamilton railroad watch from around 1925, large and bright, so-called because railroads required precise timekeeping down to the exact second to avoid collisions, and such watches were synchronized by telegraphy;
  7. The original iPhone from 2007 (of which I must sheepishly admit I have three, two of which still function perfectly), which I predict will be tomorrow’s great collectible (alongside my EasyCall pager, which still glows when turned on, a near-mint BlackBerry, and four Palm PDAs);
  8. A copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine from November 1773—no, not an early version of Playboy or Penthouse, but the very first publication to call itself a magazine, or a collection of general-interest articles, including the title story on “The Frugal Housewife, wherein the art of dressing all sorts of viands with cleanliness, decency, and elegance, is explained….”; and
  9. An array of French-made 19th-century toothbrushes with bone handles and boar bristles.

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I could go on and on—but it only gets worse (or more fascinating, if you like extracted teeth, gallstones, and other wonders of the natural world). Don’t be shy, come on in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.