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The Future of the Past: Fernando Zóbel at the Prado

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 01, 2023 5:00 am

“Moving forward” is a choice millennial expression. To move forward is to make progress even in the face of the most dire circumstance, and even in the face of violent argument.

For the 16th-century conquistador Ferdinand Magellan, it was an obsession to discover and to explore. Because of that he would find the Philippines, on the outer edges of the known world, and perish for his trouble on its shores.

It would be left to a more patient and deliberate man, Andres de Urdaneta—handpicked by both the King of Spain and the great Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, an Augustinian friar renowned for his sea-faring and love of mathematics—whom historians would posit would find the future by actually going backward. In 1565, Urdaneta would map the uncharted “silver way” that would complete the first trade route that would join the continents together. The “Tornoviaje” or “Return Journey” between the Philippines and Mexico would ignite the galleon trade, transform Manila into an important hub, and create the circumstances, say economists, for the first truly global currency and the birth of globalization.

Georgina Padilla Zobel flanked by her nephew (left) Beltran Padilla Febrel and her brother Alejandro Padilla Zobel.

Today, we are more than ever citizens of a greater world, following a course set by visionary artists such as Fernando Zobel who plumbed the histories of what came before. A pioneering exhibit titled “Zóbel: The Future of the Past” is a first on many levels and opened recently at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Spain’s national museum in Madrid. In a city steeped in the past—its own as well as the Philippines’—it was completely appropriate. Zobel is only one of two modern artists to be featured at the Prado; the other one is Pablo Picasso. (“For Spain’s flagship institution for art to show Fernando Zobel is the highest acclaim an artist can receive,” said Jaime Ponce de Leon of León Gallery who attended the opening.)

Fernando Zobel de Ayala listens intently to curator Felipe Pereda along with Cristina and Patsy Zobel de Ayala and Xandra Vallejo-Najera.

A 12-foot-tall banner announcing the show stood outside the museum’s main entrance on the famous paseo. The exhibit itself was at the Prado’s historic Claustro de los Jeronimos built of ancient granite that recalled Philip II’s royal palace, the Escorial. Indoors, an entire floor was given over to the exhibition, with a second for a crowded reception held beneath medieval arches. Forty-two paintings, drawn from three continents, as well as 51 sketchbooks and 85 drawings filled the halls.

(Front row) Sylvia Zobel de Ayala, Monica Zobel de Padilla, Kit Zobel de Ayala, Ava Pessina Zobel, Dedes Zobel; (standing behind) Fernando and Cristina Zobel de Ayala, Prof. Felipe Pereda, Xandra Vallejo-Nagera, and Maricris Zobel

Reached for comment on the exhibit, Fernando Zobel de Ayala, grand-nephew and namesake of the artist, had this to say: “It was a proud moment for the family when we saw the selected body of work of Fernando Zobel at the Museo Nacional del Prado. He had spent countless hours studying and sketching while seated on a bench in the halls of this prestigious institution. Now it is his works that hang on the gallery walls, mostly abstract compositions that have their beginnings and basis from the masterpieces in this museum that had caught his eye, mind, and hand. Through Zobel’s visual dialogues with the masters and their work, he shows how the past, or art history, can inform and interpret contemporary art-making. His approach has shown us how to look at and understand paintings, or specifically, abstract or non-objective art.” 

Gonzalo Mac-Crohon Padilla, Lisa Guerrero Nakpil, Georgina Padilla Zobel, J. Jakosalem, Jacobo Fitz-Stuart Martinez de Irujo (grandson of the Duchess of Alba), Gaspar Vibal and Jaime Ponce de Leon

He continued, “The exhibition displays several sketchbooks of drawings, along with paintings and prints, showing the breadth and depth of Zobel’s artistry; as well as the thought, inspiration, and execution embodied in them. References to the old masters, religious imagery, the Bauhaus, Chinese calligraphy, abound throughout the exhibition in relation to and in tandem with his body of work. It still comes as an amazing insight to realize that while the totality of his work bears no recognizable subject, the images executed on paper and canvas come from the actual world and works by other artists, and not solely from an artist’s imagination and creation. The paintings he had viewed at the Prado or photographs taken from daily life are not used as direct visual references. But these images inform and inhabit his unique and singular interpretation and perspective. What is vital is how his memory recalled or made sense of a visual scene—how the lines, gestures, volume, shapes, and colors of a landscape, human figure or object—contributed, comprised, and composed his paintings.” 

Prof. Felipe Pereda, Gonzalo Cabrera, Monica Zobel de Padilla, Xandra Vallejo-Nagera, Manuel Fontan of Fundacion Juan March, Ambassador Philippe Lhuillier, Kit, Fernando and Sylvia Zobel de Ayala, Patsy, Cristina and Sandra Zobel de Ayala.

The exhibition deliberately punctuated the words of Fernando Zobel himself, writ large on the space, with its many delights. “One of the quotations on the gallery walls which struck me as quite true about his work,” explained Mr. Zobel de Ayala, “was ‘Art is essentially intimate. The setting may be public, but the message comes in a whisper.’ I think it is important that to understand and appreciate art, one has to contemplate what to see, and to really look, and to listen, to the voice of the artist.” 

Iñigo Mac-Crohon Padilla, Ambassador Philippe Lhuillier, with Maricris and Iñigo Zobel

The show was co-curated by Felipe Pereda, the Fernando Zóbel de Ayala professor of Spanish Art at Harvard, and Manuel Fontán del Junco, director of Museums and Exhibitions at Fundación Juan March. The exhibition sought to uncover “the space between modern art and the legacy of artistic tradition.”

Maricris and Iñigo Zobel, Alvaro Padilla, Patsy and Sandra Zobel de Ayala, Ambassador Lhuillier, Ditas Samson and fellow curator, Cristina and Kit Zobel de Ayala, Xandra Vallejo-Nagera, join the curatorial tour with Prof. Pereda

Indeed, “Zobel: The Future of the Past” brings together multiple dimensions of the artist’s life through the unprecedented collaboration between three institutions that were so important and dear to this artist: Fundación Juan March, Museo Nacional del Prado and Ayala Museum/Ayala Foundation. Commenting on the exhibition, Mariles Gustilo of Ayala Museum summed it up thus: “It is our hope that viewers are infected with the vitality that bursts from his works. Zobel reminds us that we can draw inspiration from the past to help find our own greatness within.”