This article originally appeared in Art+ Magazine Issue 38 (March-April 2015). The article is republished here as part of #ArtPlusFlashbackFriday project.
Text by Cid Reyes.
“The female Amorsolo.”
It was a label she recoiled from, a label that would otherwise have sent perhaps other female artists to the seventh heaven. It was itself a benediction that assumed her a permanent place in the pantheon of Philippine art.
But, true to her character and breeding, Anita Magsaysay-Ho would have none of it. A natural humility and honesty impelled her to say, “There is only one Amorsolo.”
And yet the label persists. Most especially when, in 1999, her painting “In the Marketplace” was sold at the Christie’s Singapore auction for the staggering amount of S$669,250 (P15M at the then exchange rate). Not surprisingly, the media itself was caught in the fevered atmosphere—pride in the art of one’s country, a celebration a “woman artist” who has broken, as it were, the glass ceiling.
In the history of Philippine art, Anita Magsaysay-Ho was sui generis, a class unto herself. In the year 2012, the art community mourned her passing.
Most of the artists from the generation that emerged after the war were from the middle-class. Only two could be considered from the affluent or privileged families. The first obvious one, of course, was Fernando Zobel, and the other was Anita Magsaysay-Ho.
In his book on the artist, author Alfredo Roces writes, “The Magsaysays are from the nineteenth century mestizo-principalia class who became settled in Zambales. Anita’s mother, Amalia Leonor Corpus, was born in San Antonio, Zambales; her father, Ambrosio Magsaysay, in San Marcelino. A United States (US) government pensionado of the early 1900s who took up civil engineering specializing in water systems at the Cornell University, Ambrosio was appointed manager of the Metropolitan Water District (now Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System) in the 1940s, taught at the University of the Philippines (UP), and served as the President of Magsaysay Lines until his death.
“She was born in the upper class neighborhood of Paco, Manila on May 21, 1914. Her family lived in the spacious mansion of their granduncle Don Teodoro Rafael Yangco (or Lolo Doyong), a shipping tycoon who had served some years as the Philippine Resident Commissioner in Washington, DC.”
It was, to say the least, an idyllic childhood, the stuff of period Filipino movies, as when Anita herself, led by the interviewer along the path of reminiscence, recalls, “My grandmother, Nana, and I always stayed at her house in San Antonio, a large house at the corner of the plaza…There were twelve male servants and two cooks…Mang Segundo who cooked Filipino food and Mang Elias who cooked European food…There was an Indian guard who watched the house. He had whiskers and a turban on his head.” (Director Peque Gallaga would have swooned at the sight.)
In this writer’s own interview with the artist, she shared, with good humor, “During our childhood, my sisters and I had to learn some kind of artistic activity. I think playing the piano was the most popular choice. I was just naturally drawn to painting. I was copying illustrations from stories in magazines. It was more like doodling, really.
“My parents really encouraged me. When I was already painting in oils, I was never allowed to do anything except to paint. They would just call me in for meals. Unlike my sisters, I never really learned to play the piano well. My Father used to say, ‘When Anita starts to play the piano, it is time to leave the room.’ But I still love music. I paint with music playing in the background.”
This essential excursion into the artist’s childhood sheds light in the understanding of the shaping of her character and personality, and more importantly, in the decisive choice of her subject matter, and the verities of Philippine life as crystallized in her canvases of earthbound women in the fields, gardens, kitchen, marketplace. The legacy of her art also affirms the potency, vitality, and weight of tradition against the onslaught of contemporary forces where anything of the past is deemed obsolescent.
But in her own world, Anita found herself at the stranglehold of the intoxicating Amorsolo influence, and the chauvinism perceptively addressed to her gender.
At the age of nine, Anita was already taking private art lessons from UP professor Ireneo Miranda. Indeed, she was avid for art and was incorrigibly decided on improving her painting skills. In our conversation, she recalled, “There was a German painter by the name of Adolf Heinemann, who was married to a Filipina. When the war broke out, he stayed on. I used to bring food to his house in Pasay. The poor man died during the war. I learned a lot from him, especially about light and shadow, and also the proper use of color.” Before war broke out, Anita had had private lessons at the painting school of Victorio Edades.
Formal lessons came with her studies at the UP School of Fine Arts under Fabian de la Rosa, the two Amorsolos, Fernando and Pablo, Vicente Rivera y Mir, and, once again, Ireneo Miranda. She remembered Pablo as being the better teacher, but acknowledged that Fernando was the superior artist and decidedly the most influential. Her contemporaries were Carlos “Botong” Francisco, Galo Ocampo, and Cesar Legaspi. (A younger artist in the school at the time was Juvenal Sansó, who shares the anecdote of his first meeting with Anita. He had just won at the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) competition and Anita complimented him, “I love your work!” As shy himself as Anita, he was so flustered by the compliment that he could just blurt out, “So do I!” Meaning, of course, that he, Sansó, equally admired Anita’s works.)
In her thirties, Anita studied at the Art Students League (ASL) in New York City. She was under the tutelage of the legendary art teacher, Kenneth Hayes Miller, who once had under his wing a rebellious student, one named Jackson Pollock. On her first days at the ASL, Anita experienced a “traumatic” incident with Miller. Seeing her painting, Miller, without saying a word, took her palette knife away and scraped all the paint off her canvas! Though the incident brought her to tears, she steeled herself into learning how to paint correctly, according to Miller’s principles. In retrospect, she was immensely grateful for everything she learned. “At the ASL, you learned all the basic things. Painting was always a study in comparison; everything in it was related with everything else. You always compared one element with another, such as contrast between light and dark. In that school, you had to have a built-in self-discipline. Nobody will discipline you.”
At the ASL, Anita also studied lithography under Will Barnet and sketching under Robert Ward Johnson. At the recommendation of a friend, she then moved on to another well-known art school, the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Here she was trained by a professor named Zoltan Sepeshy, who, only a few years earlier, also had another Filipino artist under his tutelage named Jose Joya. Sepeshy played a most significant role in Anita’s artistic maturation in two aspects: through him, she discovered the medium of egg tempera. In subject, she discovered what she was born to paint.
As to the medium: “Oh, it’s such a tedious process. At Cranbrook I had to prepare about 20 boards and it took me about two weeks to prepare them…It’s a very, very luminous medium because of the egg yolk and you get this quality you find only in old Italian paintings.”
As to subject matter: “I was looking for a subject I could feel for, something I could really paint. Well, I am a woman and I know how a woman feels, but what really inspired me to do those women is Brueghel. There was a Brueghel painting of some women in the fields at the Cranbrook Museum.”
Indeed, the subject of women working in the fields is already established in the history of Western art. Among the most famous are the works of Van Gogh, Gauguin, John Constable, and, of course, Jean-Francois Millet. Surprisingly, even the Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevitch also depicted female farmers before he launched the landmark abstraction “White on White.”
To be sure, the subject matter itself is staple, but what led to the distinctive Anita Magsaysay-Ho rendition was very likely instigated by Sepeshy, whose initial reaction was one of disappointment, seeing that there was no excitement in the execution of the figures because, in the words of Sepeshy, “everything was correct.” It was then that the artist exaggerated the women’s poses, which amazingly provided the necessary visual tension. These were gestures and poses that in real life would look unnatural or impossible to achieve, but nonetheless, in a visual work, made an exciting visual sense. This is, of course, the idiom of Expressionism, where intense emotions demanded the distortion of line, shape and color. Modern forerunners of Expressionism were the Fauves and Van Gogh. Earlier Expressionists were Edvard Munch (famously exemplified by “The Scream”), Georges Rouault, and Chaim Soutine. Expressionism can still be traced centuries back to the works of Hieronymus Bosch and Matthias Grünewald (gruesomely visible in his Crucifixion, a seminal influence on the Filipino Expressionist Ang Kiukok.) In ancient Egyptian murals, female farm workers were depicted in the hieratic style.
But Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s works marvelously swing into the other emotional extreme. Not for her the narratives of anguish, misery, and suffering. These were emotions alien to the artist, or at least, sentiments she turned away from and deemed not to celebrate in her art.
The words of Alfredo Roces inarguably attest to this: “These ladies who people Magsaysay-Ho canvases strike a viewer as creatures somewhat blissfully lost in their own world. They do not appear conscious of the viewer’s presence. Instead, they are in some state of nirvana, lost in communing with one another. Sometimes, you feel they share some secret the viewer is not allowed to share. You sense that these women are content, that their physical labors in their intimate closed worlds are self-contained and fulfilled. No emotional tensions – no angst – disturb Anita’s world.”
This is the same bliss, inexhaustible in the delight and pleasure that her art summons, that admirers and collectors experience when in the presence Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s works.