Rosario Bitanga: The painter whose destiny was abstraction
One of the definite and defining highlights of the recently concluded Art Fair Philippines—which, after two years of being staged online, roared back with a vengeance for its 10th edition—was the showcase devoted to the old and new works of Rosario Bitanga, the grand dame of Philippine abstraction. While not exactly a retrospective, the exhibition, eloquent titled “Past, Present, Participant,” gave a generous glimpse of the artist’s oeuvre, not merely presenting her abstract masterpieces, but her figurative paintings and sculptures in varying media as well.
It’s not hard to see the charms of the works of Bitanga who, along with Nena Saguil, is considered as the country’s first major female abstractionist and one of the pioneers of post-war Modernism. Her intuitive use of color, her symphonic arrangement of lines, and her deft juxtaposition of organic and geometric shapes constitute a highly-choreographed visual language. As opposed to the somber, masculine, and almost melancholic non-representational idiom of Western practitioners, Philippine abstraction is characterized by grace, softness, and movement, as epitomized by Bitanga’s works, as well as those of Saguil and National Artist Jose Joya.
The inclusion of Bitanga’s figurative works, such as her landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, allowed the viewer to see how her abstraction has basis in the natural world, with its bravura of colors, its shifting shapes, and tremendous forms. While a painting’s title may point at its source of inspiration, the work is not a direct translation of whatever the artist may have apperceived. For instance, a work titled “Emerald Wave Rising,” a fracturing of greens and blues emerges, is reminiscent of the waves of the sea, yes, but also, in its propulsive energy, the tug-and-pull of tides, the pulse of creation itself.
At the heart of Bitanga’s work is movement, evidenced by the succession and the overlapping of shapes in her paintings. While they may seem to synchronously emerge from the canvas, it pays to see her forms as shifting and transfiguring—the ethos of Futurism, but this time translated into abstraction. This emphasis on motion was already crystal clear in her work, “Galloping Horses,” which Bitanga painted in 1959 and won for the artist an award in the Pontiac Society of Artist in the United States. Through a hectic mass of curvilinear shapes, one intuits how the elegant bodies of horses charge through—and fly in—the air.
Her mastery of technique, her poetic sense of space and form, and her evocation of the sublime continue to be undimmed.
Her stay in the US was a pivotal turning point for Bitanga. There, she studied at the prestigious Cranbook Academy of Arts, where Joya and another soon-to-be National Artist, Napoleon Abueva, received instruction prior to Bitanga’s entry in the 1960s. Before Cranbook, Bitanga was painting Filipino genre themes and traditional images, but her professor Fred Mitchell laid down the tracks of abstraction, persuading her: “Do something different.”
As “Past, Present, Participant” attested, the artist’s singular practice is a gift that keeps on giving, touching a new generation of viewers. Her mastery of technique, her poetic sense of space and form, and her evocation of the sublime continue to be undimmed. Rosario Bitanga, arguably the most important figure in Philippine abstraction, is not yet finished.