“The Brave Modern” exhibit at the Ayala Museum offers up a survey of Cesar Legaspi’s body of work from the pre-war years to the 1980s.
This article originally appeared in Art+ Magazine Issue 37 (Jan-Feb 2015). The article is republished here as part of #ArtPlusFlashbackFriday project.
Text by Jaime Oscar Salazar. Images courtesy of Ayala Museum.
Cesar Legaspi: The Brave Modern, which opened on December 2, 2014 and will run till April 26, 2015 at the Third Floor Gallery of the Ayala Museum, is the sixth iteration of the Images of Nation series that was first launched by the museum in 2010 so as to showcase the works of the National Artists for the Visual Arts. Previous editions of the series had featured, in chronological order, works by Vicente S. Manansala, Jose T. Joya, Victorio C. Edades, Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco, and H. R. Ocampo.
Educated at the University of the Philippines, from which he received his Certificate of Proficiency in 1936, Cesar Legaspi pursued further studies in art abroad, entering the Cultural Hispanica in Madrid, Spain as a scholar from 1953 to 1954, and, later, the Academie Ranson in Paris, France. According to an account by art critic Alice G. Guillermo, he would spend “precious long years” producing at a rate of about 12 paintings annually. He was otherwise preoccupied with his work in advertising agencies as magazine illustrator and art director. He put up his first solo show in 1963 at the Luz Gallery, and five years later, he decided to leave the firm where he occupied an executive post and devote himself to his art full-time.
Together with Edades, Manansala, Francisco, H. R. Ocampo, Galo Ocampo, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Ricarte Puruganan, Arsenio Capili, Jose Pardo, Bonifacio Cristobal, Diosdado Lorenzo, and Demetrio Diego, Legaspi had been initially identified with what has become mythologized in Philippine art history as the “Thirteen Moderns.” Conceived by Edades, the short-lived collective was, at best, informal, and very nearly apocryphal. Chronicled in the compendium Conversations on Philippines Art by Cid Reyes are the remarks of Manansala on the group: “[‘Yang] grupong ‘yan, ha—walang ginawa! Nothing! Ni party, ni exhibition. Nothing. Kaya very significant ‘yang grupong ‘yan. [That group—it did nothing! Nothing! Not even a party or an exhibition. Nothing. That’s why that group is very significant.]”
Following World War II, Legaspi came to be seen as a major figure of what was dubbed “Neorealism.” Devised by writer and painter E. Aguilar Cruz, the term refers not so much to a singular style – though practitioners Legaspi, Manansala, and Romeo Tabuena, by the estimation of Guillermo, seemed to develop along similar lines, constituting the “true core” of a coterie that also included H. R. Ocampo, Victor Oteyza, and Ramon Estela – as an advocacy for a kind of Modernism that went beyond the trail that had been previously blazed by Edades in his rejection of “conservative” art, which was exemplified by the idealized rural idylls of Fernando C. Amorsolo.
Art historian Rod. Paras-Perez has surmised that Cruz had come up with the name “simply to indicate a new mode of looking at reality, perhaps with the same unflinching vision as the Neo-Realist filmmakers of Italy.” Art studies professor Patrick D. Flores, however, has argued that it has to do neither with the Italian filmmaking movement or the realism of Gustave Courbet, and instead indicates a negotiation of the impasse between Modernism and Conservatism that involves, on the one hand, a deferral to the figuration of typical painting, and, on the other, an encouragement to innovate within established genres.
In the work of Legaspi, as with that of his aforementioned Neorealist peers, innovation included, most strikingly, the articulation of a Cubist idiom that cleaved away from the distinctive properties of its European counterpart, such that the pictorial surface is sliced into crystalline planes that overlap and interpenetrate one another without infracting the integrity of the subject. A significant instance of local mediation, the resistance to the total fragmentation of figures in Philippine Cubism has been read, by Guillermo, as stemming from a specifically cultural attitude toward the body and the environment (and the concomitant reluctance to cut these up) or, per Flores, as an effort toward the restoration of “well-being in the face of aggressive alienation.”
Brave Modern offers up a survey of Legaspi’s body of work from the pre-war years to the 1980s, serving to introduce to or reacquaint visitors with his noteworthy use of intense colors and powerful contrasts in the service not only of diligent formal play, but also of sharp social commentary, throughout a career suffused with creative restlessness—he had declared, “Style can be a prison in which we may be forced to do things merely because one style demands it. I believe the demands of context have a higher priority. That is why I put much emphasis on life.”
And yet whatever merit there may be in such an enterprise of display, it does bear examining what the Ayala Museum seeks to explore, propose, or advance besides the provocation or satisfaction of art-historical interest in Legaspi among its publics. By what means is his oeuvre envisioned to converse, collide, imply, or otherwise engage with that of his peers, as well as with contemporary artists and their practices? How might his paintings be apprehended anew in light of, for example, Flores’s recent work on Cubism in the Philippines, or related scholarly investigations, both at home and abroad? In what way is the titular – not to mention singular, as suggested by the article “the” – bravery ascribed to Legaspi supposed to be understood, and to what degree does it constitute a critical tool with which to approach his work, rather than a symptom of the reduction of art to biography or psychology?
Moreover, it is instructive to note that Images of Nation program began in the centenary birth year of Manansala, which is to say only several months after the outbreak of the controversy on the unprecedented exercise of presidential prerogative over the Order of National Artists (ONA), long a vexed and vexing honor. As one might recall, the scandal was precipitated by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s addition of four individuals to and the subtraction of one from the official list jointly drawn up by the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Art. Only the deed of addition was ruled to be invalid by the Supreme Court in 2013. There was another flare-up in 2014, this time prompted by the exclusion of actor Nora Aunor, a popular nominee for the award, on putatively moral grounds, and comparable issues may be found were one to probe the ONA’s history.
Where, then, does Images of Nation stand with reference to these disputes regarding what is widely – or at least loudly – acknowledged to be the highest accomplishment a Filipino artist can attain? What does the museum, with its not inconsiderable exhibitionary exertions over the many iterations of the series, attempt to accomplish apart from, for instance: enhancing the commercial value of pieces that may one day surface in the market; augmenting the symbolic capital of collectors; perpetuating the fantasy of an official nation united and uplifted by art; and rehearsing the gesture of homage to National Artists, and by extension, to the state that ritually bestows the recognition—even if these acts are not easily, if at all, separable from its other institutional functions?
It is in the face of such questions that the idea of courage acquires its cogency.