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LEO BENESA

      Modern or contemporary art, although a by-word for decades in the Western world, is a phenomenon of the post-war period in the Philippines. This is not meant to detract from the yeoman efforts of Victorio Edades, Carlos Francisco and Galo Ocampo, who were known as the ‘Triumvirate’ in progressive art circles of the pre-war period. The art of these three men was indeed contemporary in intention and direction, but their role was more needed historical and transitional rather than iconoclastic. A new group was needed negotiate the actual aesthetic breakaway from the established canon to the abstract, expressionist, symbolist and other modes of creative expression characteristic of the art of the modern world.

For a while the ‘Thirteen Moderns’, a loose grouping which included the three men, appeared to effect the desired seachange, but somehow they did not have die necessary collective anima. This could probably be attributed to the enervating traumas of World War II. The iconoclastic role, instead, was assumed by a more dynamic group of six artists whose names are closely associated with the early years of the Philippine Art Gallery (PAG) in Ermita, Manila: Romeo Tabuena, Hernando Ocampo, Vicente Manansala, Victor Oteyza, Ramon Estella and Cesar Legaspi.

Three of the ‘Neo-Realists’, as critic Aguilar Cruz called them, namely, Oteyza, Estella and Ocampo, were self-taught artists. But they were no mere Sunday painters. Ocampo’s paintings, in particular, showed an almost scientific preoccupation with color and design that nevertheless seemed to spring from a feeling for organic form. A synthesis work entitled Ancestors was shown at one of the annual exhibitions of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP), a national organization of artists and art lovers which was founded in 1947-48.

In addition to Hernando Ocampo and his group, the PAG in its early years also started to attract other painters like Anita Magsaysay Ho, Nena Saguil, Mario and Helen Roces, and Manuel Rodriguez. Rodriguez subsequently moved away to found his own Contemporary Artist Gallery and workshop. Although diverse in style and temperament, the Neo-Realists and their companions shared a common dissatisfaction with what they considered as the static art of the Establishment, as exemplified by the painters belonging to the rural-pastoral school of Fernando Amorsolo.

The decisive battles between academic art and the new expressionism took place in the annual competitions of the early fifties. In an effort to avoid a direct confrontation and showdown, the AAP divide the entries into two categories, ‘conservative’ and modern’, artificial and untenable classification which was subsequently abolished. For all practical purposes, the ‘war’ between the two camps was won during the 1954 AAP exhibition at the Northern Motors showrooms. In protest over the choice of winning entries in the competition, a group of genre and landscape painters led by Antonio Dumlao walked out with their works and forthwith set them up on the sidewalks for public viewing. They then organized the Academy of Filipino Artists, which continued the sidewalk exhibitions for a few years in front of the Manila Hotel, only to disband unobtrusively later on and leave the field to the practitioners of the new movement. Before 1954, in fact, two painters, Arturo Luz and Fernando Zobel, who were to influence the directions of this new movement considerably, had started to show their works at the PAG and AAP exhibitions. The two represented a new breed: educated abroad, they stood for the painting for painting’s sake point of view, the so-called ‘painterly’ approach Luz through his spare lyrical style, with its emphasis on neatness and linear values, and Zobel through his Matisse-like color improvisations but chiefly through his lectures on art at the Ateneo de Manila which have had a profound influence on Philippine art appreciation and criticism. Another painter of the same orientation and spirit also came back from studies abroad to strengthen the camp of the PAG group. This was Constancio Bernardo, who was a disciple of Albers and his optico-geometric colorism.

Thus, with the entry of these newcomers and the walkout of the followers of Amorsolo and Fabian de la Rosa (and indirectly of Luna and Hidalgo), the controversy – which had begun with the return of Edades in 1928 and had been exacerbated by his arguments with the sculptor Guillermo Tolentino and Dominador Castañeda on the nature of artistic distortion and representation – came to an end. It was a complete rout in favor of a new expression and expressionism. All that was needed now at this stage was the emergence of the daring ones who would plunge Philippine art into the mainstream of the international style of abstraction.

Indeed, with the appearance of Zobel and Luz, new names began to assert themselves in the late fifties and early sixties: Cenon Rivera, J.E. Navarro, Jose Joya Jr., Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, Joan Edades, David Medalla, Lee Aguinaldo, Ang Kiukok, Jess Ayco, Zeny Laygo, Malang, Hugo Yonzon, Oscar Zalameda, Rodolfo Perez, and Juvenal Sanso. The majority gravitated this time around a new showplace, the Luz Gallery, which assumed the functions of the PAG as the latter gradually lost its old vitality.

Two painters, in particular, Joya and Aguinaldo, started producing canvases in the tradition of the New York school of abstract expressionism. Joya orbited into non-objective art while he was painting in Detroit, Michigan, with an explosion of spring colors entitled Magnolia Tree. Probably taking his cue from Zobel who was doing his ‘saeta’ series which were paintings applied with syringe instead of brush, Aguinaldo started flicking threads of paint with palette knife onto canvas to produce expressive abstractions with monumental effect. Perez advanced the frontiers further by spraying his colors on, to produce vibrating tonal zones in the soft-edged idioms of Rothko.

And, as if to dramatize the fact that Philippine Art had become international in grammar, spirit and geography, Aguilar Alcuaz left for Europe in 1956 and came back in 1964 still doing figuration but in a highly abstract yet viscerally disturbing style. The Philippine-artist-in-voluntary-exile is no new theme in the history of Philippine art, and the case of Aguilar Alcuaz is not unique even in recent times. In fact, Tabuena – the most prolific and sensitive among the early Neo-Realists – had left much earlier and has not come back so far, preferring an artist’s life in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to painting in his own country. Nena Saguil had also left earlier, and ended up living and painting in Paris for 14 years before finally coming back to Manila for a retrospective show in 1968 at the new Solidaridad Galleries. Manansala, who paints in what he himself has called ‘transparent cubism’, has done some world traveling. Anita Ho has lived in Brazil, and now resides in Canada. Zalameda is an inveterate continental traveller. The gifted Medalla, who has abandoned painting in favor of kinetic sculpture, has been living in England for the fast few years. Zobel and Sanso, who are Philippine-born Spanish citizens, sojourn mostly in Europe, although they come back periodically to Manila to show their latest works.

How far Philippine contemporary art has progressed since Edades and his painting, The Builders, may be seen in the fact that at the 1964 Venice Biennial the painter chosen to represent the Philippines was abstractionist Jose Joya, together with the modernist sculptor Napoleon Abueva. Also, it was the first time that a Philippine painter ever took part in an international exhibition of this magnitude. The Philippines did not win any medals (Pop Art was the word then), but the participation itself was historically significant and prepared the way for other Philippine painters seeking international stature.
The following year 1965, Tabuena sent his works to Brazil to represent his country in the 8th Sao Paulo Biennial. Two year later, in 1967, the paintings of Hernando Ocampo were also shown in Brazil at the same biennial, while Aguilar Alcuaz represented the younger generation at the 5th Biennial de Paris.

A painter of sardonic humor, Navarro also took part in the 1967 Sao Paolo exhibition, but in the field of sculpture. Indeed, a whole book can be written on the works of a number of’ Philippine artists who have been active in both painting and sculpture.
In the meantime, the mid-sixties also witnessed the maturation and emergence of a new generation of young painters who may be considered as the legitimate aesthetic offspring of the progressive elements of the immediate post war period, especially of the Neo-Realists. Highly conscientious and competent, the young painters have been winning the big prizes offered yearly in national competitions. It is noteworthy that the older painters, apart from the fact that they are already well-known, have declined to compete against these young men in the annuals of the Art Association of the Philippines, preferring when they do take part to participate hors concours as guest artists.

This new generation divides itself into two groupings, but with no real discernible organization or leadership. The first cluster consists of Roberto Chabet, Angelito Antonio, Florencio Concepcion, Charito Bitanga, Antonio Austria, David Aquino, Norma Belleza, Antonio Chan, William Chua, Veronica Lim, Leonardo Pacunayen, Angelito David, Antonio Hidalgo, Noel Manalo, and Manuel Rodriguez Jr. The second cluster consists of Alfredo Liongoren, Kelvin Chung, Marciano Galang, Virgilio Aviado, Ben Maramag, Benedicto Cabrera, Edgar Doctor, Lucio Martinez, Efren Zaragosa, Raul Lebajo, Raul Isidro, Prudencio Lammaroza, Jaime de Guzman, and Lamberto Hechanova Jr.

In the works of this new generation of Philippine painters are polarized all the progressive tendencies and thrusts of Philippine art, as well as the basic drawbacks inherent in the act of working derivatively within the continuum of the international art movement (and its various recent manifestations like pop, op, minimalism-maximalism, hard-and soft-edgism, colorschoolism, and so on), to the detriment of the growth of national art, whatever that may mean. In any case, these young artists are the true heirs of the Philippine contemporary art movement. Their performance in the next few years together with that of their more spirited elders will largely determine the shape of its content.

Reference/s:
From the NCCA-published book by Benesa – What is Philippine about Philippine Art? and Other Essays (originally from Verlag Neves Forum, 1970). For inquiries on the book, contact Glenn Maboloc of Public Affairs at 527-2192 local 614 or email address paid@ncca.gov.ph. Available also at all National Bookstores.
About the Author:
Leo Benesa is a poet, essayist, and above all, a professional art critic. His works in art criticism include his column for the Weekend of Daily Express. He was one of the founders of the International Association of Art Critics. Among his books are Joya Drawings (1975), Galo B. Ocampo: 50 Years of Art, The Printmakers (1975), The Art of Fine Prints: A View of 25 Years (1980), and Okir: The Epiphany of Philippine Graphic Art (1981).