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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Penman No. 227: The Southern Lights Shine Brightly

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Penman for Monday, November 28, 2016

 

 

 

A RECENT gallbladder operation and the stitches in four corners of my belly couldn’t stop me from flying down to Iloilo City last week to catch the tail-end of VIVA Excon 2016, which I’d plugged here some time ago but just had to see for myself. The personal reason was that my wife Beng was one of the scheduled speakers, for a session on “Art Conservation and Restoration,” but I’d also heard that VIVA Excon was one of the most successful events of its kind in the country (“probably the only surviving and longest-running Filipino biennale,” VIVA Excon stalwart and chronicler Cecilia Locsin-Nava would emphasize to me). Here’s what I found.

From November 17 to 20, more than 250 artists, speakers, and guests from the Visayas, Mindanao, and Manila gathered at Casa Real in the old provincial capitol of Iloilo to celebrate, interrogate, and propagate art in all its splendorous variety—the important qualifier being that this was new art produced south of Manila. It’s been around since 1990, moving around the major capitals of the Visayas such as Cebu, Bacolod, Dumaguete, and of course Iloilo. Surprisingly, it was only the second time that Iloilo hosted VIVA Excon, after a 20-year hiatus, so the local organizers made up for lost time by mounting one of its most vibrant editions ever.

When it started—spurred by the need to create a southern antipode for the arts, given the emergence of such bright new talents as the Negrense painter-sculptor Charlie Co—VIVA Excon had to be funded by the artists themselves, but this year Iloilo’s provincial and city government pitched in to guarantee the event’s success, with help from a host of sponsors led by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). On top of the local planning was painter Rock Drilon, assisted by a corps of wizards and elves who made sure that the dozens of events on the program went off like clockwork. VIVA Excon originals Ed Defensor, Charlie Co, Peewee Roldan, and Cecilia Nava were also around to lend their wisdom and support.

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As its name suggests, VIVA Excon (the “VIVA” stands for Visayas Islands Visual Arts) was at once both an exhibition and a conference. As someone who has helped to organize quite a few literary conferences myself, I was much impressed by the scope and depth of the topics taken up at the conference and by the expertise of the speakers engaged for the occasion, some of them coming from as far as the US, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I missed most of the earlier sessions, but I would have loved to listen to Ma. Victoria “Boots” Herrera speak on “Museum Practices: What Artists Need to Know”; Silvana Diaz on “Creative Economics: Art Management and Economic Viability”; Elvert Bañares on “Creative Crossover: From Visual Art to Cinema and Back—The Visayan Artists’ Experience”; Rex Aguado on “Art, the Artist, and the Art Collector”; and Patrick Flores on “Art Criticism—Its Value to the Artist and the Artworld.”

Fortunately, I came in time to catch UP art theorist Lisa Ito address issues in writing about the arts—“for what and for whom,” she would say, “beyond the popular writing geared toward the art market, and the academic writing produced by scholars and theorists.” Lisa felt that more writing should be undertaken to “connect artistic production to social contexts and current realities, and developing publics and communities that validate the vitality of art and culture” as well as to “document design practices and projects and to record transient cultural events for future generations—how communities adapt, such as by using tricycles as mobile galleries and by putting up makeshift museums.”

She was followed by New York-based Carina Evangelista whose lecture on “When Forces Shape Form” led the audience to where art has gone far beyond and outside the museum, in performative gestures—often deeply and manifestly political—that emphasized process over product, transience over permanence, and repurposing over originality. (One example: the banknotes that Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles stamped with a political message and circulated in 1970 as a form of mobile graffiti, which nervous recipients couldn’t pass on quickly enough, thereby abetting its purpose.) It was truly a semester’s worth of material packed into 45 minutes on new forms of art from body mutilation to sound and video installation, reminding me of Marjorie Perloff’s lecture on avant-garde poetry just a couple of weeks earlier in Singapore; sometimes you learn the most wonderful things in the oddest places.

Of course, I was happiest and proudest to see Beng onstage walking the audience through the various stages of restoring Amorsolos and Botong Franciscos, and it was clear from the flurry of questions she fielded after her presentation that conservation and restoration were two of the least understood concerns of the art world, yet also two of the most vital if not inevitable. (Sculptor and installation artist Martin Genodepa graciously emceed the presentations.)

Outside the conference hall, three art exhibits were held: a curated one on “Contemporary Art of the Islands” at the UP Visayas Art Gallery, the more freewheeling Visayas Art Fair at Casa Real, and a special retrospective of the late Ilonggo sculptor Timoteo Jumayao at the Museo Iloilo.

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The culminating activity of VIVA Excon was the presentation of the Garbo sa Bisaya award to eight outstanding Visayan artists for excellence in their respective fields: painter Antonio Alcoseba (Cebu); scholar and painter Dulce Cuna Anacion (Leyte); film artist Elvert Bañares (Iloilo); film animator Oliver Exmundo (Iloilo); painter Allain Hablo (Iloilo); multimedia artist Manny Montelibano (Negros Occidental); painter Javy Villacin (Cebu); and painter and scholar Reuben Cañete (Cebu).

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But I’m sure that all the attendees will agree if I suggest that the best part of VIVA Excon was, ultimately, the company of fellow artists, a fraternity forged over beer and music as much as over linseed oil and plaster. Even if I was little more than an onlooker at the event, I was glad to meet up with old friends and acquaintances like Rock Drilon, whose Mag:Net bar and gallery on Katipunan Avenue used to be one of our favorite hangouts. He moved to Iloilo years ago to take care of his ailing mom, and found himself drawn inextricably into the local art scene, until he realized that he was truly home. “Viva should last beyond the Excon,” Rock told me, “so an artists’ cooperative has been organized to sustain the energy sparked by VIVA Excon.”

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Two years from now, the event will be hosted by Roxas City in Capiz. Iloilo could be hard to top, but these Visayans are full of surprises.

Penman No. 220: Viva Visayan Artists

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Penman for Monday, October 10, 2013

 

JUST LIKE the city itself, which has undergone a refreshing makeover these past few years under the watchful eye of its chief political patron, former Senate President Franklin M. Drilon, Iloilo’s artists have been brimming with a new vitality that art lovers beyond the region have begun to appreciate.

I know that, because a few months ago, my wife Beng—herself an Ilongga artist and conservator who’d gone briefly back to Iloilo on family business—came home with the news that while in Iloilo, she had found and purchased a large painting by one of the city’s brightest young talents. The word “large” pricked my ears because it somehow sounded like “expensive” to me, but then she said she was paying for it herself, so I asked no further.

But I had to find out who the artist was, and Beng—who regularly tends to Amorsolos, Manansalas, Botongs, and Ocampos in her line of work—began gushing like a fangirl about a young painter she’d met while touring the Iloilo art scene with her old friend Rock Drilon. Rock, himself a painter of no mean stature (a recent exhibit at West Gallery displayed a penchant for organic, microbial forms), has been based in his home city for many years now, and has been a guru of sorts to younger artists there. So it was Rock who took Beng around to introduce her to his wards and their work, which was how this haunting painting of a young woman in white drapery found its way to our home in Quezon City. (It was too large to fly home with Beng and had to be professionally packed and shipped; I didn’t get to see it until months later.)
That’s when I first heard of Kat Malazarte, whose first solo exhibit Beng had seen at Casa Real de Iloilo, where Beng’s chosen work titled “Purity” (an apt choice for anyone surnamed Dalisay) had been the centerpiece. Just 20 at the time, she had already won the Vision Petron National Student Art Competition in 2015 for her video entry “Tingnan nang Malapitan, Damhin nang Malaliman” (Examine Closely, Feel Deeply). Indeed there’s a classical composure and pensiveness to Kat’s work, uncommon in artists of her age more prone to wanton kineticism. Her self-avowed themes of “purity, innocence, chastity, modesty, inner silence, contemplation, and state of nothingness” are monastic notions one might associate more closely with a nunnery (Kat’s a Fine Arts cum laude graduate of the University of San Agustin), and her subject’s luminous hands might have been rendered by a Renaissance master.

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So it was with much delight that Beng dragged me a couple of weekends ago to a three-day show at the Gallery at A Space on Legazpi Street in Makati, where a unique concept was being tried out by a pair of young and enterprising creatives, Karen Nomorosa and Prim Paypon. On show were the works of none other than Kat Malazarte and another rising Ilonggo star, the sculptor Harry Mark Gonzales. Dedicated to the theme of “The Quiet Strength of a Woman,” the show of Kat’s paintings and Harry’s sculptures proved a perfect pairing—much like the show’s instigators themselves, who both have outstanding corporate and science backgrounds (both are summas—she in CS, he in Biology) but who’ve taken on the more daunting challenge of promoting Filipino art through their startup venture, Curious Curator.

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“Curious Curator was conceptualized in order to help budding and potential artists from outside Metro Manila, especially from the Visayas and Mindanao, penetrate the mainstream art scene,” said Karen and Prim. “Keeping the welfare of the artist front and center, Curious Curator manages the financial, marketing and sales aspect of the collaboration so that the artist can focus on the creation process. Curated and conceptual art exhibitions are held in non-traditional venues to reach a wider audience. This enables the startup to promote the evolving Filipino artistry while diversifying and simplifying ways that budding art collectors can secure original but affordable art pieces.”

The two-person exhibit at A Space realized that mission. While we had already seen Kat’s work, Harry’s cold-cast marble figures, more than vaguely reminiscent of Henry Moore’s sinuous women, were another revelation. Coming from a background in IT and with a large brood of siblings to help support (he once drove a sikad around the city), this carpenter’s son put his faith in his vision and his hands, and began sculpting pieces that quickly won local collectors over. The self-taught artist won a Metrobank Art and Design Excellence Award in 2007 for a terracotta sculpture he crafted to protest an oil spill in Guimaras. “My main inspiration for these pieces is my mother,” he told me as we surveyed his pieces, whose exaggerated torsos suggested an overflowing fullness of all good things.

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It was too bad the show ran for only three days, from September 30 to October 2, but with rentals at a premium, Karen and Prim have had to be more creative in their marketing, aggressively promoting the featured artists and their work online and selling a good number of them even before the show opened.

As for myself, I got the best part of the deal when Beng generously agreed to lend me Kat’s signature work “Purity” to hang in my new office at the UP Institute of Creative Writing (after the Faculty Center fire last April, we’ve found a new home in Room 3200 of Pavilion 3 at Palma Hall in Diliman).

But there are even more exciting events on the Iloilo art calendar to look forward to, chiefly the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibit and Conference (VIVA Excon) which will be held from November 17 to 21 in Iloilo City. The event will take place in four different venues: the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV) Art Gallery for the Garbo Sa Bisaya Awardees Exhibit; the Museo Iloilo for the Romeo Tabuena Tribute Exhibition; the UPV Auditorium for Turns in Form (Curated Contemporary Art from the Visayas); and the Visayas Art Fair.

VIVA Excon will also feature lectures on contemporary art practices, talks by artists, and workshops; an art conservator named June Poticar Dalisay, aka Beng, has been invited to talk about art conservation and restoration, and I’m going to do my darnedest best, my schedule permitting, to tag along. Left to herself, Beng just might drag home another local discovery—not that I’d mind too much.