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

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 395: Missing the Magazine

Penman for Monday, August 31, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 364: Rediscovering Anselmo Espiritu

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Penman for Monday, July 29, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 359: Retrieval and Repatriation

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Penman for Monday, June 24, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Penman for Monday, April 29, 2010

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 317: Bringing the Minor Masters Home

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Penman for Monday, August 28, 2018

 

I’VE WRITTEN a few pieces recently about my self-assigned mission of finding and bringing home, from various sources overseas, masterpieces of Philippine publishing and literature, from early texts in Spanish to travel books about the Philippines and first editions or first publications of notable literary works.

This week I’m going to extend that to another burgeoning interest of mine—the recovery and repatriation of Filipino art pieces abroad, particularly those of painters who may never have quite achieved the status of a Juan Luna or Fernando Amorsolo, but whose works have their own charms to recommend them.

I may be luckier than most art fanciers in that I happen to know someone who restores the masters, so I get to see more than my fair share of Manansalas, Ocampos, Botongs, Magsaysay-Hos, and Luzes, up close, warts and all. But unless I win the Nobel Prize, I’m never going to own one of these masterworks, so I’ve learned to moderate my ambitions and aim for something both significant and reasonably attainable within a professor’s means.

Those goals crystallized for me when I attended, some months ago, an exhibit titled “Fascination with Filipiniana: The Vargas Collection,” curated by my friend and fellow UP prof Dr. Patrick Flores, who walked me through the show and pointed out how interesting (and not quite so seamless) the transition was between tradition and modernism, sometime in the past midcentury. I could see the tensions between the two, occasionally manifesting in the same artist’s earlier and later work (I don’t recall that he was in this Met exhibit, but Constancio Bernardo, who left the Philippines as an ardent follower of his teacher Amorsolo and came home a committed modernist, much to Amorsolo’s dismay, provides a good example.)

Many of the paintings on exhibit belonged to the school of “Mabini art,” a term often and unfairly used in the pejorative sense, suggesting cheap art done in haste for the tourist market. Indeed there’s a lot of that (and the purposes may not have changed; they’ve just become more pretentious, pitched toward buyers with deeper pockets), but these pioneering Mabini artists were talented in their own right, persistently romantic in a time of gloomy realism.

I was particularly drawn to the work of Gabriel Custodio (1912-1993), another student of Amorsolo and Fabian de la Rosa. I had earlier acquired two small paintings of his from the late 1950s, restful vignettes depicting rice fields and bamboo groves. The Tanza, Cavite native had produced larger seascapes that I admired, but the art market had caught on to him and I couldn’t possibly afford him at auction—at least not here.

I’ve long been convinced that in the United States—languishing in bedrooms, barns, garages, and resale shops—must be scores of Filipino art works brought over by American servicemen and diplomats after World War II and the Vietnam War, surfacing only recently with the passing of these veterans and being disposed of at auction by their heirs.

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A few months ago, a large painting by Custodio, about 2’ x 3’, turned up in, of all places, a Goodwill Store in Spokane, Washington—and I happily snagged that, and rolled it up in a tube for bringing home to Manila when I visited the US last month. Characteristically, Custodio signed it front and back, dated 1966; I’m calling it “Tanza Shore” in honor of his hometown and of its economic and cultural affinity to the water.

It was also on that trip when I secured and repatriated two other smaller but no less interesting pieces. One, shipped out of the East Coast, was an oil painting of a tree at sunset, more than anything an evocation of mood, an impressionist play of mauves, pinks, and oranges. It had been done by Jorge Pineda in 1937 and was still in its presumably original frame; the browned and crusty paper backing was beginning to crumble, but I plan to preserve it that way, as it bears the sticker of its framer: the Henry Schultheis Company, well known framers and gallery owners in New York City (Schultheis died in 1948). Pineda (1879-1946) himself was no mean painter, having won a prize for his work at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and later becoming a teacher to Amorsolo.

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The third piece I brought home—sold by an antiques dealer in Connecticut—caught my eye not just because of its subject but also because of its symbolic use of color. It’s an oil-on-paperboard depiction of Filipino farmers harvesting rice—pretty typical enough, and unremarkable of itself. But this work had been done by one P. T. Paguia in 1945, at the end of the war and in a season of new hope—a patriotic optimism exuded by the red, blue, and white in the dress of the woman bearing a bilao of fruits in the foreground, echoed by the other farmer and the brilliant sky. (Patrick Flores reminded me that Amorsolo had done a similar work in these colors, Palay Maiden, in 1920.) Sadly I could find nothing on P. T. Paguia, except a reference to Pedro T. Paguia being the illustrator of a 1952 book by Ramon Tapales, Singing and Growing for the Primary Grades.

Whether by established or obscure artists, these paintings from decades ago bring me joy and relief from the vexations of our time. Of course I could resell them, but frankly they probably won’t make too much, and just looking at them makes me happier than wondering what they may be worth, which I suppose is what amateur collecting should be about. Call them escapist, but they fortify my spirit by reminding me of the need to fight for beauty and plenitude for all.

 

 

Penman No. 302: A Happy Refuge

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Penman for Monday, May 14, 2018

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 300: Mysteries of Art (1)

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Penman for Monday, April 30, 2018

 

 

I’LL ASK my readers to bear with me as I explore and try to solve, in another two-part series, some mysteries of art.

Alongside my recent love affair with old books, I’ve rekindled an early and abiding interest in art, particularly in paintings of a certain kind. My wife Beng, of course, is an artist—a watercolorist, a dreamer of waterscapes and landscapes—who’s also an art restorer and conservator, so the two of us have been fortunate to come closer to the works of the masters than most gallery hoppers. And I mean close, as in half an inch away from the tip of one’s nose to an Amorsolo or a Botong or, when we visit museums abroad, to a Rembrandt or a Tiepolo, because Beng can’t resist examining the minutiae of the painting’s restoration, often prompting a frantic museum guard to shriek, “Step back, Madame!”

We enjoy most schools and styles of art, from El Greco and Turner to O’Keefe and Matisse, but—as you can gather from those names I just dropped—our sexagenarian sensibilities might have a hard time cozying up to the likes of Basquiat, whom we could try to understand and appreciate, like we were taking an exam for a Humanities class, but not hang above our bed. (I’ll receive those boos now from my hipper friends.)

I myself have been veering closer, in my creeping senescence, toward something I can only vaguely describe as a midcentury romanticism—an imagined age of innocence before the Second World War, and of optimism after, like the war never happened, like no war could obliterate. Perhaps it’s my form of escapism from the madness of the present, but I’m drawn to landscapes with bamboos rustling in the breeze, to sunsets bursting with fruity promise, to rivers teeming with lilies, to beaches without people. Over the past few months, I’ve been picking up art pieces—paintings and prints—in this old-fashioned mode.

Given my UP professor’s salary, I have to work within a very limited budget, so I collect by sight rather than by name. This means that a painting should enthrall me—I should feel a rush of excitement, or a pang of melancholy, a cry of delight, the minute I see the piece; I should want to think about it again, to have it intrude into the most inconvenient moment of some mundane preoccupation. It might make me want to know more about the artist after—not necessarily before—I buy the painting.

I felt that surge last month when Beng and I drove out on a Saturday to a corner of Pampanga to view three small paintings I had spotted online, being offered by a picker. They were unsigned—so forget finding some mislaid Amorsolo—but they exuded rustic charm, a harking back to a lost provincial Eden. All my seller could say about them was that he had acquired them as a batch with a fourth and larger one, in the same style, that he had sold earlier, and that other one was signed “Serna 1944.” Serafin Serna (1919-1979) was, indeed, a painter of nature, a student of Amorsolo; most significantly, his brief biography online mentioned that Serna often didn’t sign his works. So the tantalizing possibility remains that my pastoral paeans were done by his hand, and they will be so attributed in our home gallery, pending proof to the contrary.

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Not long after, pretty much by the same route (although this one led to a gas station in Parañaque), I picked up two other little gems of the genre—landscapes done in 1957 by Gabriel Custodio (1912-1993), who I was ashamed to admit I knew nothing about until that instant. But again, encountering Custodio (another student of Amorsolo) reminded me of how important it is to scour our backyard for obscure treasures—many hidden, but others in plain sight.

Imagine my exhilaration when, two Saturdays ago, Beng and I attended the opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s fabulous new exhibit, “Fascination with Filipiniana: The Vargas Collection in the Wake of War and the Modern: Manila 1941-1961.” The curator himself, Dr. Patrick Flores, walked me up to one Serna and Custodio after the other, educating me on that key period of transition between the traditionalists and modernists—particularly the fact that the lines between were never that sharply drawn.

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For now this is just a long introduction to build up some credibility for what I’m about to claim, which is a heightened sense of awareness in things artistic, albeit from a strictly amateur perspective. It’s the kind of awareness that allows me to pronounce (at least to myself), “Hmmm, this painting looks nice, but unfortunately it’s a fake, because XX never used an apostrophe when he dated his later signatures, as in ’76 or ’83,” or “How can this be from 1995 when ZZ died in 1986? Besides the strokes are all wrong, they’re way too hurried.”

Next week, we’ll deal with a real whodunit: who did that life-size painting of Rizal and a cohort of Spaniards stored for decades in UP Diliman? I’ll offer my conjecture.

 

Penman No. 287: Mysteries Solved

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Penman for Monday, January 22, 2018

 

AS I’VE been writing and tweeting about recently, my forays into collecting on the Internet have led to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries—people and stories I never knew, places I never visited.

I began telling one such story a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned coming across letters on eBay written in the 1930s by a young man from Bacolod to sci-fi pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman, then also a precocious teenager in California. We can’t tell how the two of them first made contact, but it likely had to do with the sci-fi magazines both of them were following.

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In a letter dated April 28, 1934 and written in green ink, the Filipino remains deferential to the American, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Ackerman” despite the fact that they were practically the same age and apparently had already been corresponding for some time. “I guess you are pretty anxious for my reply by this time and I am very much sorry that I could not answer your most interesting letter promptly, which I received two or three months ago,” the Pinoy begins. He explains that he’s been busy with schoolwork, then he goes on to rave about the sci-fi magazines and stories he’s been reading.

On another page, the writer talks about movies and their common idol, Marlene Dietrich. “She’s such a charming and exotic personage,” he says. “How did you like her new picture ‘The Scarlet Empress’? I liked Dietrich when I first saw her in ‘Morocco’ with Gary Cooper.” He signs off by sending Ackerman a picture of himself, with “a poor imitation of a Karloff smile,” and jokes that they’ll see each other at “the Far Eastern Olympics” which, of course, never happens.

It’s amusing and a bit astounding to see how up-to-date Filipinos were with American pop culture (as our correspondent was at pains to show) in these prewar days without the Internet, but I had an even bigger surprise in store when a reader who’d met me and Beng before, Sony Ng, wrote me to say that she knew who the writer was.

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I’d read his signature as “J. R. Oyco” but it was actually “J. R. Ayco,” the “J” being “Jess,” who had gone to Ateneo with Sony’s father. “I remember my father borrowing his copy of their yearbook Aegis (Class ’34, if I am not mistaken) and how I enjoyed it very much…. My mother had a friend, Amparo Ayco, whose husband Loth was Jess’ brother, I think. And they are the parents of Dr. Alex Ayco, the doctor of Cory [Aquino],” wrote Sony.

Jess, as it turns out, became an accomplished and quite famous painter in Bacolod. Further research showed that the Manila-born but Bacolod-based Jess studied painting in UP and architecture at UST, had an “avant-garde sensibility,” and won prizes for his works, some of which can be found at the UP Vargas Museum. Critics described him as a “Renaissance man,” being a theater director, performer, and costume and lighting designer at the same time. Sadly, he reportedly died penniless, unwilling to market his work.

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Speaking of painting, I had another mystery on my hands when I picked up a small painting that I saw online—a charming autumnal landscape done in the Western style by a Japanese painter surnamed “Sekido.” That was all I could see from the ad, aside from the irresistible price (for which you could get a throwaway cellphone). A quick run to Caloocan later, the painting—and a mystery—was mine.

Who was “Sekido”? Where was the place depicted? A Google search showed that a Yoshida Sekido (1894-1965) achieved some popularity for his exotic watercolors, but mine was an impressionistic oil, and likely newer; the signature was in Western letters. There was, however, something written in Japanese written at the back of the painting, and I posted an image of it to my international fountain-pen group and to my friends Lita and Fumio Watanabe.

After a day or two I got a tentative response. The painter’s name was Shosaku Sekido, born in 1939, and a member of Hakujitsukai, an association of Japanese artists who had studied abroad. There was nothing further on him online. Only one other word stuck out of the translation: “Kaida,” a place name. I looked it up, and found my quarry, in a series of pictures nearly identical to my painting: popular views of Mt. Ontake in the Kaida Highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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Now, I said, to complete the experience, Beng and I will have to go there on our next sortie to Japan—but we’ll have to keep our distance, as Mt. Ontake is an active volcano, whose last eruption in 2014 tragically killed 63 people, including many tourists. The beauty is a beast—the kind of mystery we have few answers for.

(Photo of Forrest Ackerman from Wikipedia; photo of Jess Ayco article from Sun-Star Bacolod; photo of Mt. Ontake from trulyjapan.net)

Penman No. 257: Wonder Woman in the House

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Penman for Monday, June 26, 2017

 

OVER MOST of the 43 years that we’ve been married, Beng has learned—not without some resistance—to resign herself to being introduced as “the wife of Butch Dalisay” (whatever that means). Lately, I’m happy to report, more of the reverse has been happening. I’ve been attending art events where I’ve tagged along as the quiet husband, content to watch Beng take center stage.

To step back a bit, center stage was where Beng (aka June Poticar) was when I first saw her in college. She was in UP a bit earlier than I was (although you’d never have known it just by looking), and I had a crush on her, but I didn’t think she was going to give me the time of day back then. She was a member of the University Student Council, where all the cool people were, representing Fine Arts; I was a scrawny freshman pecking away at a noisy manifesto in a corner. I admired her most when, sometime in 1971, she led the making and unrolling of the probably biggest wall painting ever made in Philippine art history, a protest piece occupying several floors of the Library building facing the Sunken Garden. I was a reporter for the Collegian, and I wrote up that story, not knowing that the girl behind the mural was going to be my wife just three years later.

We’ll save the love story for some other time, and flash forward to 2017. After variously working for many decades as a fashion designer, a jewelry designer, a graphic artist, and a watercolorist (as well as, of course, a wife and mother), Beng has found her métier and been recognized as an art restorer and conservator—one of the country’s best—and no one could be prouder than her writer-husband.

I was invited to Iloilo last May to speak at an international conference on intangible heritage, which we both enjoyed attending. But I’d have to admit that I was more anxious to attend Beng’s lecture that same week at the University of San Agustin, which had asked her to speak on art restoration before a group of young local artists.

It’s been almost 20 years since Beng joined a group of other Filipino professionals for an intensive, year-long training program in art restoration and conservation put together by the Agencia Española de Cooperacion Internacional, the National Museum of the Philippines, and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. That turned out to be a life-changing experience for many of them—certainly for Beng, who put up her own art-restoration company and has trained other people in this very small but absolutely necessary occupation.

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Since then, I’ve watched her and her team patiently bring scores of priceless paintings and other artworks by the masters back to life, from the partial restoration of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, which had suffered a tear, and many other works by Amorsolo, Manansala, Botong Francisco, HR Ocampo, Fernando Zobel, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Araceli Dans, Bencab, and their peers (once, even a Miro print).

I’d have to admit that I’m more scared than she is when she applies her brush to a century-old canvas, or cleans up the browned varnish on an Amorsolo with a Q-Tip, and I’m sure my mouth hangs open in wonderment when I see the magic happen, but she’s cool as a cucumber, knowing precisely what she’s doing. I nearly scream when we visit museums like the Louvre and the Prado and she comes to within a centimeter of a Renoir or an El Greco to scrutinize the restoration job.

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That’s the woman I saw transforming a roomful of young Ilonggo artists—almost all of whom had never met or even heard of her before—from curious and polite listeners to an animated gaggle eager to practice on their own artworks. I sat like a mouse in a corner of the room as Beng explained the basics and intricacies of scientific art restoration which, as she pointed out, isn’t really taught in art school in the Philippines. (Sadly, not even in UP; you’d think that with the number of beautiful and valuable paintings moldering away in this country, we’d be awash in art restorers, but there’s been very little interest in putting it on the curriculum, probably because there are very few qualified practitioners to teach it.)

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Beng’s lecture and demo in Iloilo was a preview of what a full course should be, where she discussed some basic principles—reversibility, compatibility, durability (“Less is more; don’t do anything that isn’t necessary; always make sure that whatever material you add for patching and grafting is weaker than the original linen or cotton,” etc.)

“My practice of restoration has led me to certain discoveries and I now use non-toxic ingredients to remove stubborn and deeply ingrained dirt and old discolored and hard-to-remove varnish. I have discovered new sources of local conservation materials that have lowered the cost of restoration. I have also developed my own techniques in closing and flattening cracks, softening and correcting dents, and patching tears and holes,” she wrote for Perro Berde, a publication of the Spanish embassy here.

“I’m no Wonder Woman,” Beng says when I tease her, but I suspect she had it all planned out. When she established her company 18 years ago, she chose the name “Artemis,” which English-major-me knows is another name for Diana. I better be careful.

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