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Trump, Miss Universe and Philippine Art

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 08, 2020 4:00 pm

Just how much we are enamored with the good ol’ United States of America can probably be counted by the number hours we spent following the Miss Universe pageant and the recent US elections. (Incidentally, both have Mr. Trump in common, who at one time owned the beauty contest franchise for almost 20 years.)

A hundred years ago, it was a bit of a harder sell, with the US having to fork over millions of dollars — to be exact, $20 million of them — to close the deal for the purchase of the Philippine Islands from Spain.

The US, of course, had to have everything bigger, brighter and better. For the St. Louis World Fair in 1904, they decided to commission — not Juan Luna, the king of Philippine art who reigned with the preferential protection of the Spanish royal court — but his nemesis, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo to create a giant allegorical work. Entitled “Per Pacem et Libertatem (Through Peace and Liberty),” it was a thinly veiled message that submission to Lady Liberty a.k.a. the United States would bring not only a dreamy serenity but also the flourishing of the arts, education, commerce and industry. The Philippines was depicted as offering an olive branch in one hand while laying down the bolo clenched in the other. America, on the other hand, was dressed like Joan of Arc but compassionately kept her sword sheathed. Around her danced cherubs symbolizing all the material satisfactions of this harmonious world. Hovering over her was a goddess carrying the torch of discernment.

BenCab's "Homage to Turing”: A tribute to Arturo Luz

The painting, which was almost as big as Luna’s “Spoliarium,” measured 15 feet across and towered 20 feet high. The Philippine Exposition Board paid 25,000 francs to Hidalgo, according to Lopez Museum notes, the equivalent of $180,000, or as it put it, “the price of elegantly presented propaganda.”

“Per Pacem et Libertatem” was blown to smithereens in World War II, ironically by American bombs, and all that remains is a single yellowing photograph from the collection of President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter and a handful of glorious bocetos or studies.

One of these had been safeguarded by Hidalgo’s relatives and has surfaced at the year-ending León Gallery Kingly Treasures auction set for Saturday, Nov. 28 at 2 p.m. at the gallery premises in Eurovilla I, Legazpi Village, Makati.

There are other mementos of those halcyon days, after people like Hen. Luna were put to the sword. Speaking of which, a completely stunning aparador owned by the mother of his colorful arch-enemy Felix Buencamino is also a highlight of the upcoming November sale. The intertwined initials — in delicate Baliuag inlay — are the monogram of Doña Petrona Siojo de Buencamino, the über-ancestress of the Buencamino clan of San Miguel de Mayumo town in Bulacan province, says society scholar Toto Gonzalez.

A pair of Fabian de la Rosa watercolors are particularly outstanding not only because of their creator but their provenance from the collection of Don Eugenio “Geny” Lopez Jr. De la Rosa was clapped into jail at the outbreak of the Philippine-American War and was only released because he had become fast friends with the American consul at the time. He would eventually head the School of Fine Arts in the American-founded University of the Philippines. Don Geny, of course, educated at the Virginia Military Institute and the Harvard Business School, would make a daring escape to the United States at the height of martial law.

Fabian de la Rosa, "Dalagang Filipina"

One of the most famous US-educated artists was Arturo Rogerio Luz. He had spent a year at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in New York in 1950; upon his return to Manila, he quickly became part of the second wave of abstract artists that came after Hernando R. Ocampo’s serious band of Neo-Realists.

A massive work called “Homage to Turing” by another former émigré, Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera, is a highlight of the auction. It is a book piece measuring a monumental 3.75 x 7 feet. Arturo Luz is himself represented by another immense work, titled “Two Men on Wheels.”

Fernando Amorsolo chimes in with a portrait of a war hero, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, who survived all that only to be cut down during an ill-fated flyby past his girlfriend’s home in Pila, Laguna in 1954. Captain Teofilo A. Benitez was the golden boy of the Benitez clan. (One of his aunts, Emma, would later become Mrs. Luis Araneta; the other actress Leila Benitez.) He was aide-de-camp of General Carlos P. Romulo, who rumor had it was once almost offloaded from Quezon’s submarine during World War II so that the presidential son’s comic book collection could be stowed. (A good thing for all of us, more logical heads prevailed.)

Finally, a stupendous work by Lee Aguinaldo, entitled “Linear No. 36.” It was created in 1966, when this “bad boy of Philippine art” was actually coming off consecutive wins at the path-finding annual competition of the influential Art Association of the Philippines (AAP.)

Lee Aguinaldo, “Linear No. 36,” the Miss Universe of his works, from the collection of Don Geny Lopez

In 1965, “Painting No. One” took home the AAP top prize again. It was an intense work with bands of black, white and gray and is embryonic of this work at hand. “Linear No. 36” is thus at the pinnacle of Aguinaldo’s subtle gradations of light and shadow, creating a remarkable and uniquely serene work. Fernando Zobel, another American-educated artist, would praise the “Linear” series as “having a quality that is particularly elusive in hard-edged painting, i.e. that is personal and distinct.”

That, along with its origins from the Lopez collection make it, in the words of one art critic, “the Miss Universe of Lee Aguinaldos.”