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’Tis the season of nationalism and National Artists

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 26, 2021 3:53 pm

The arts and culture scene is invisibly but earnestly abuzz today with thoughts about the candidates for this year’s Order of the National Artist. (The last of the nominations were due this Art Month of February.)

It’s an award given every three years by the National Commission of Culture and the Arts for the outstanding and nation-building practice of the seven arts.

These are — at the risk of sounding like an Oscar nomination host, for that’s what these cultural Olympics are — in music (singing, composition, direction, performance); dance (choreography, direction, performance); theater (direction, performance, production design); contemporary arts (painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, installation art, mixed media, illustration, graphic arts, performance art, imaging); literature (poetry, fiction, essay, playwriting, journalism, literary criticism); film, broadcasting and the broadcast arts (direction, writing, production design, cinematography, editing, camera work, performance); and architecture, design and allied arts (architecture design, interior design, industrial arts design, landscape architecture and fashion design).

Today’s auction at León Gallery is in alliance with the Asian Cultural Council (ACC), formerly the Rockefeller Foundation, which has the high-minded goal of sending Filipino artists of every kind abroad to stretch their wings and their imaginations. A portion of the proceeds of the auction will go towards furthering this vision.

The ACC counts eight of its grantees as having ascended to the heights of National Artist. These are Lamberto Avellana, theater and film, 1976; Lucrecia Kasilag, music, 1988; Jose Maceda, music, 1997; Alejandro R. Roces, literature, 2003; Alice G. Reyes, dance, 2014; Francisco Feliciano, music, 2014; Ramon Santos, music, 2014; and Kidlat Tahimik, film, 2018.

In today’s auction, there is a whole slew of National Artists on the roster, beginning with gems from the collections of two National Artists for Literature.

José Joya won for visual arts in 2003 and was also the Foundation’s first-ever grantee for painting. (Roberto Chabet, also featured in this auction and who went on to found the prestigious CCP 13 Artists Awards himself, was its second scholar.)

In today’s auction, there is a whole slew of National Artists on the roster, beginning with gems from the collections of two National Artists for Literature.

The first is Carlos P. Romulo who excelled as a writer, becoming the first and only Filipino (nay, the only Asian) to have received the Pulitzer Prize. He was also, famously, an aide-de-camp to Gen. Douglas MacArthur and would later accompany the general for his momentous return on Leyte beach in 1945.

Romulo is best known for being a diplomat, having been president of the UN General Assembly — again the first Asian to do so — and serving on the UN Security Council.  There is a fiery Sanso on offer that is a testament to his highly sophisticated taste, honed by living and working in the world’s greatest capitals.

'In Dense Masses,' oil on canvas, 1968, is a fiery Sanso that belonged to Gen. Carlos P. Romulo.
 Painted in Paris by Nena Saguil, “Untitled,” a 1964 watercolor from the collection of F. Sionil Jose, is the painting that got away from Don Geny Lopez.

The second National Artist is F. Sionil Jose, journalist, novelist and, above all, a patriot. Pushing a nationalist agenda was his reason for opening the renowned Solidaridad Galleries. A practiced agent provocateur, Sionil Jose also wanted to thumb his nose at a certain established gallery and give young, talented unknowns a shot at their own exhibitions.

Two exquisite works are from that exciting, halcyon era. These are a wonderful Onib Olmedo from the artist’s first-ever show that was also at Solidaridad and a 1964 Nena Saguil that was from a show full of Paris-painted pieces that stopped even the bon vivant collector Don Eugenio Lopez in his tracks. (Don Geny ended up buying half of the show and this work is one of those that Sionil Jose had managed to secrete for himself.)

  'Side Show,' oil on canvas by H.R. Ocampo, is a bawdy masterpiece from 1946.

And now for the National Artists for Painting, all are extremely well represented with a series of works from the mid-century masters and best buddies, Hernando R. Ocampo and Cesar Legaspi, as well as the master of cubism and his protegé, Vicente Manansala and Ang Kiukok.

The H.R. Ocampo is a bawdy work from 1946 detailing the many steamy evenings after the war at one of this artist’s favorite honky-tonks. (Manila was dotted with them, first established to serve American troops on R&R.)

There’s a dancing girl, thighs lit in gaudy lights. She’s gyrating to a live band and one can sense the undulations even in this more straitlaced millennium. This was in the collection of Don Vicente “Tiking” Lopez, the Iloilo hacendero and later Manila property magnate.

  A red fish by Ang Kiukok is open-mouthed in awe.

A blue fish by Ang Kiukok is a book piece.

The Cesar Legaspi, titled “Village on Fire,” is a true showstopper. Filled with jagged figures and raw emotions, it captures the panic of such an emergency but also the pathos and human courage. It is one of those works that can be said to truly define a National Artist.

  'Village on Fire' by Cesar Legaspi, oil on panel, 1948, is a career-defining piece.

Another snapshot of Philippine politics is Vicente Manansala’s “Pila Sa Bigas.” This artist cut his teeth on editorial cartoons that were also powerful statements. The rice line was an unfortunate feature of 1970s Manila when a combination of Luzon floods and untended Mindanao fields brought stocks of this basic food to empty.

 The iconic 'Pila Sa Bigas' by Vicente Manansala, oil on canvas, 1975

Ang Kiukok, on the other hand, offers an uncharacteristically jovial father-and-son portrait. (He was a student of Manansala at the UST art school and they would become fast friends for the rest of their lives.) There are two openmouthed fishes as well; both book pieces, also by this National Artist.

  A jovial Ang Kiukok of a father and son

The only living National Artist for painting is none other than the dashing Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera, represented by two ravishing works: the kilometric “Dance of Isadora” featuring a comely triplet of these terpsichorean muses. (It actually measures nine feet long.) 

  'The Color of Ideology,' acrylic on handmade paper by BenCab, our only living National Artist for Painting


Finally, there is “The Color of Ideology,” a fitting tribute to the tricolor of this season of nationalism, national art and national artists.