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. 304: Revisiting the Print

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Penman for Monday, May 28, 2018

 

I usually reserve my weekends for truly enjoyable things, like rummaging through Japanese surplus shops or just driving down south for a hearty lunch of steaming bulalo cooled off by fresh buko juice, but there was one event a couple of Saturdays ago that I wasn’t going to miss for the world.

This was “Tirada,” the 50thanniversary retrospective show of the Association of Pinoyprintmakers (A/P, formerly known as the Philippine Association of Printmakers, or PAP) at the CCP. I recently wrote about this group when I brought up my obscure and distant past as a printmaker in the early 1970s, when I’d just stepped out of martial-law prison and was looking for something to do while I didn’t have a real job.

I turned to printmaking for a couple of years to help support myself, and those times at the PAP studio-headquarters on Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita turned out to be one of the most instructive and wonderful periods of my life, as I immersed myself in the intricacies—and the backbreaking labors—of printmaking.

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(With Pinoy printmakers Benjie Cabrera, Jess Flores, Bencab, and Egay Fernandez at the AP retrospective.)

Despite its long and glorious history, printmaking remains misunderstood and underappreciated by many. The fact that printmakers will often make multiple copies of the same work seems to debase the value of the work in the eyes of art buyers looking for something totally unique, like an oil painting. But printmaking’s great contribution to art was precisely its democratization, by making art accessible to many, beginning with the engravings that illustrated old books and newspapers and lent visual credence to literature and journalism. Prints also adorned books on anatomy, horticulture, geography, and astronomy, among others, without which science could not have progressed.

It was an imaginative step to move from the print as functional appendage to the print as an art form in itself, and many artists took that step because it offered a fascinating alternative, with its own fresh challenges, to the sometimes staid art of painting. Prints require a heavily physical and tactile engagement with one’s tools and materials, like sculpture, working with plates, inks, papers, and presses.

Back in the PAP days—employing techniques that hadn’t changed much since Durer and Rembrandt used them centuries ago—we drew designs on zinc plates coated with an asphalt “ground,” soaked them in nitric acid which ate away the designs, cleaned and inked the plates, then rolled them onto paper under enormous pressures to produce etchings. (Today printmakers use polymer plates, not metal—a technique I’ve yet to learn, not having touched a burin or engraver’s tool in over 40 years. The Japanese, of course, used wood, and others use linoleum and stone for their material.)

The PAP was formed in 1968, led by such pioneers as Manuel Rodriguez, Sr. By the time I found my way to Jorge Bocobo five years later, its regulars included the likes of Orly Castillo, Manolito Mayo, Fil de la Cruz, Jess Flores, Joel Soliven, Rhoda Recto, Petite Calaguas, Benjie Cabrera, Fernando Modesto, Bing del Rosario, and Emet Valente. Some days I’d watch Bencab and Tiny Nuyda at work, or just listen to their banter, which was just as valuable to the salingpusaI was, eager for a whiff of the artistic life (I would become a full-time writer a few years down the road).

Some of those stalwarts have since passed on, but seeing their works on display at the CCP—alongside a whole new generation of brilliant Filipino printmakers—revived happy memories of the kind of camaraderie that AP leader and master printmaker Pandy Aviado referred to in his remarks. Painting can be a lonely art, and perhaps it needs to be, but printmaking typically attracts the collective assistance of others, as physically strenuous as the work can get.

My solitary contribution to the show—a 1975 etching of my grandmother—proudly hung beside one of Bencab’s in the corridor outside the main gallery, but I felt happiest just to share the company of old friends from another branch of the arts that I’d stepped away from, perhaps too quickly. I remembered the sheer exhilaration of lifting the dampened paper off a pressed plate to see one’s design in vivid ink, a joy tempered but also deepened by the intensity of filing away and smoothing out the rough edges of a zinc plate, or inhaling a vinegary cloud of acid, or pouring cold lacquer thinner onto one’s fingers to wash away the grime.

“I wish we had a small etching press at home,” I found myself telling Beng—only to be told by a new acquaintance, the artist Angela Silva, that the renowned Raul Isidro had one, or a few, to sell, having commissioned a raft of them to help spread the faith. I made a beeline for Raul, and then and there reserved myself a unit, with Beng’s blessings.

I’ve decided to return to printmaking in the most old-fashioned way with a technique called drypoint, scratching out my designs with a sharp tool by hand on a copper plate. I can just see how busy my retirement’s going to be a year hence—and how messy. But what a marvelous mess I hope to make.

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(With artist Raul Isidro, receiving my baby press. The print above is Joel Soliven’s “Owl70” from my collection.)