By Elizabeth Ruth Deyro
Fundacion Sansó celebrates the 90th birthday of Juvenal Sansó with a year-long series of events.
With a successful career spanning seven decades, Juvenal Sansó has undoubtedly made an indelible impact on the art community in the Philippines and beyond. One of the most prolific and respected artists today, Sansó is known to wear his heart on his sleeve, utilizing his art to express the deepest parts of himself where words may fall short.
The world bears witness to the progression of his work as a master artist who has tried his hand at different mediums and lets his oeuvre thrive and grow along with his own maturation, serving as archival narrative to the phases of his life. This is what makes him the genius that he is and what makes his work a sight not only to behold, but to revisit and re-experience time and again.
“For Sansó, art is the expression of humanity as experienced by a very exceptional individual,” said Ricky Francisco, Director of the Fundacion Sansó, which is home to Sansó’s most prized creations. “His artworks are an expression of himself, and it is his self that he gives so generously to those who are fortunate enough to interact with him personally or through his art.”
November 23, 2019 marks Sansó’s 90th birthday, a celebration most anticipated and worthy of honoring. Francisco shared that the celebration will be year-long. Inaugurating the series of events are three art exhibitions, which present an overview of Sansó’s active years in the industry—Sansó at 90 at Fundacion Sansó, Juvenal Sansó: Jubilation! at Art Lounge Manila, and Sansó: Exceptional at Charlie’s Gallery in Bacolod.
Truly a strong force in the art community, Sansó’s relevance has never wavered.
Five years after he stopped serious painting, his art still speaks to the realities of life, illustrating how trauma heals and blooms into an eventual calm. As Francisco noted, Sansó’s art “chronicled his journey from trauma and anguish to joy and peace.”
Sansó’s early creations, referred to as the Black Period, are proof of how the artist carried the burden of a traumatic past. Quite suggestive of its overarching tone, artworks he created during this phase walk spectators through the tragedy he lived to tell. It was in 1934 when Sansó bid adieu to his motherland, the town of Reus in Catalonia, Spain, at the tender age of four, to flee the onset of the Spanish Civil War with his family. Here in the bustling city of Manila, they sought and found refuge. As they made the city their new
home, they also established El Arte Español, a wrought iron business that became their bread and butter.
When World War II and the Japanese Occupation plagued the country, there were two instances where Sansó barely escaped death, particularly during the Battle of Manila in 1945, and it changed the way he viewed life. Surviving the post-war years, with him trying to make ends meet by working as a bus conductor, became very difficult.
Soon he learned to take his angst and manipulate it into something tangible. Veering away from his family’s métier, paint and canvas served as the tools for his craft. “Sansó said that the difference between the artist and the artisan is that the latter’s work can be made by another artisan, but the former’s work is irreplaceable,” shared Francisco.
At 17, Sansó began studying art with the help of Alejandro Celis. He went on to formally enroll in the School of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines two years later in 1948, where he learned from the likes of National Artists Fernando Amorsolo and Guillermo Tolentino, alongside classmates who eventually became household names in the art community. At UP, he was exposed to the conservative school of painting.
For the sake of carving his own path and finding his individuality in art, he delved into the study of Modernism at the University of Santo Tomas in sit-in classes conducted by Cesar Legaspi, Galo Ocampo, and Antonio Garcia-Llamas. Sansó found success in applying his studies into his artistic style as he went on to become one of the pioneering Modernists in contemporary Philippine art. Art historians classify his work as “straddling Expressionism
“Incubus” and “The Sorcerer,” both of which won first prize at the Art Association of the Philippines Annual Art Competition in 1951, put Sansó on the map as an emerging artist to watch.
In 1952, he moved to Europe to further his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. A year later, he went to Paris to learn oil and fresco painting and graphics at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. He held his first solo exhibition at the Galerie de la Maison des Beaux-Arts in 1956. He returned to the Philippines for a one-man exhibition
at the Philippine Art Gallery the following year—the first-ever show devoted to printmaking in Manila, which, Francisco noted, was one of the many firsts brought about by Sansó’s curiosity and thirst for learning. In 1964, Sansó received the “Print of the Year” award from the Cleveland Museum of Art for his etching “Leuers,” putting him alongside Salvador Dali and Henri Matisse.
Sansó’s latter works, such as his floral pieces and renowned Brittany series, suggest a great transition in the themes he employed, perhaps reflective of an internal paradigm shift. The angst-filled grotesquerie of Sansó’s Black Period and its surreal bouquets of faces and heads were eventually replaced in latter years by floral blooms in the most striking shades of red, green, orange and blue. In the mid-Fifties, the artist spent his summers vacationing in the Brittany coast of France with the Le Dantec family. The lifelong friendship they formed was a balm to his soul and proved to be cathartic. From
desolation and anguish portrayed rather sharply in his early pieces, a sense of tranquil
contentment became the highlight of his mid-career creations. Indicating newfound peace and fulfillment, the shift completes the progression surrounding the concept of solitude, which Francisco noted is Sansó’s core theme.
The late art historian Rod. Paras-Perez perfectly summed up the solitude of Sansó’s art in his monograph, Sansó: Art Quest Between Two Worlds: “Expressionism in the traditional sense is defining one’s angst. Or one’s laughters. Or one’s demons. Alone. This too is the existential longing. It is the point in Sansó’s solitary voyage to the self. Sansó set out alone and painted brooding images or sunlit shores as witnesses to every confrontation with the self. And every cry honors our laughter. Each sunlit shore becomes a homage to the moonbeam each one carries as talisman. And Sansó moves on.” Apart from this long-standing affair with painting, the artist has successfully dabbled in various forms, including
printmaking, photography, textile design, set and costume design, photography, and photograms.
A milestone attained by few distinguished Filipino artists, two retrospectives were organized in Manila to celebrate Sansó’s works: a culmination of his then-25 years in art, showcased by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1974, and the 1000-work retrospective organized by patron Luis Ma. Araneta at the General Bank and Trust Company in 1976. In 1988, Sansó was honored as the featured artist of six simultaneous solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, Alliance Française de Manille, Finale Art File, Ayala Museum, the Lopez Museum and Library, and the Centro Cultural de España. 2016 saw Sansó celebrate 70 years in art with a six-museum retrospective at Fundacion Sansó, Kalaw Ledesma Foundation, Ateneo Art Gallery, Ayala Museum, Lopez Museum and Library, and the UP Vargas Museum.
Sansó’s art captures the essence of life in the Philippines, as seen in his depictions of barong-barongs, baklads, and flowers. When asked on this point by the late art critics Leonidas V. Benesa and Ray Albano in an interview on the onset of his 25-year retrospective at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Sansó stated: “…The Filipino experience is the strongest of them all, my paintings being basically nostalgic reminiscences. Of course, being away from the Philippines makes my paintings even more Filipino. I’m sure if I came back to the Philippines, then all the European things would come out.”
After the better part of five decades spent in France, the multi-faceted artist returned to the Philippines in 2008 to settle in the country for good. “His works are very distinctive. You recognize them immediately. There is an organic and spontaneous feel to almost all
of his works. His composition is masterful, and his color palette is very distinct.
They also are very honest. They show what he has gone through, from despair to tranquility,” Francisco said, when asked why Sansó has made a lasting impact and what
sets him apart from other artists of his time. He also opined that the Philippine influence in Sansó’s work was “tempered and idealized by the Expressionist style he developed, as he was exposed to it while studying and living in Paris.”
Sansó is the recipient of various accolades, most notably, the Presidential Medal of Merit from the Philippine government in 2006, the Distinguished King’s Cross of Isabela given by King Juan Carlos I of Spain in 2007, and the Chevalier del’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) awarded by the French Minister of Culture in 2007.
Sansó’s works belong in the collections of forty museums around the world, including the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Madrid, the National Gallery of Art
in Washington D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art.
In the Philippines, his works are featured in various public and private institutions, including the National Museum of the Philippines, the Ateneo Art Gallery, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, as well as in many respected private collections of prominent American, European and Philippine families and companies, including that of Nelson Rockefeller, Vincent Price, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Cocteau, and the Rothschild family, among others.
Yet the most crucial institution of the numerous that house Sansó’s art would have to be the one that he himself built. Fundacion Sansó, a non-profit art foundation, was established in 2014 with the support of Sansó’s friends, to preserve his artistic contributions to Philippine art.
Fundacion Sansó – the single-artist museum dedicated to his works – ensures that his artworks, personal archive and memorabilia would be safeguarded and kept in pristine condition. Nestled in the heart of San Juan, Manila, the museum serves as home to works from his personal collection and those of his major collectors.
“Fundacion Sansó hopefully will be able to tell his stories and keep his legacy alive for the years to come,” Francisco said.
Aside from managing its collection and archive, Fundacion Sansó also aids in the master artist’s intent to support emerging young artists. Launched in 2016, the Fundacion Sansó Fine Arts Student Stipend Program provides select students with a regular monthly stipend to help augment their financial resources and cover the purchase of art supplies and other expenses necessary for their studies.
Francisco shared that the second batch of Sansó scholars have been chosen, with the total number of scholars now at 11. Along with the stipend comes the opportunity to exhibit at the museum.
Kicking off the busy year of commemorating Sansó’s 90th birthday celebration, Fundacion Sansó and Art Lounge Manila recently launched their respective exhibitions of his works. Fundacion Sansó is hosting Sansó at 90, which formally opened on November 24.
Proceeds from the exhibit will help to raise funds for the scholarship program. The museum also launched its improved Certificate of Authentication, with security features that ensure safety from forgery. It is offering 15% discount for the first 90 pieces authenticated from November 15 to December 15, 2019, in honor of Sansó’s 90th birthday.
Another ongoing exhibit titled Juvenal Sansó: Jubilation! is presented by Art Lounge Manila at The Podium. In coordination with Fundacion Sansó, the exhibit showcases 40 pieces spanning Sansó’s 70-year career.
We may also look forward to the launch of La Definitiva Sansó: A Life Lived Thrice – which was written and researched by the late Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete –finally coming out to print in 2020 after being completely re-laid out because of new and exciting works that surfaced from private collections these past few years, among other events lined up for the yearlong celebration.
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