This article originally appeared in Contemporary Art Philippines (now Art+ Magazine) Issue 21 (2011). The article is republished here as part of #ArtPlusFlashbackFriday project.
By Cid Reyes; images courtesy of Ayala Museum
In time for Ayala Museum’s exhibition on National Artist Victorio Edades, CAP reprints Contributing Editor CID REYES’ Q&A with the iconoclast whose passionate defense of Modernism still resonates today.
Victorio Edades was born on December 23, 1895 in Barrio Bolosan, Dagupan, Pangasinan. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Washington, 1915-19. In 1925, he obtained his Master of Arts from the same university. Edades organized the School of Fine Arts, University of Sto. Tomas in 1935. He also founded the Atelier of Modern Art, with Diosdado Lorenzo and Galo Ocampo, in 1937.
His awards and distinctions include: First Prize, English Composition Contest, Dagupan, 1915; Gold Medal, Oratorical Contest, 1919; Free tuition for High Scholastic Standing, University of Washington, 1921-1928; Second Prize, “The Sketch,” Seattle Fine Arts Competition, 1928; Chairman of the Jury, Art Competition among Filipino Painters conducted by the occupying Japanese Forces, 1942; Member, Board of Judges, First Art Competition of the Art Association of the Philippines with Fernando Amorsolo, E. Aguilar Cruz and Francisco Monti, an Italian sculptor, 1948; Medal and Diploma, AAP, 1960; Pro Patria Award, Rizal Centennial Celebration, 1961; Manila Cultural Award in Painting, 1964; Plaque of Merit, AAP, 1973; The National Artists Award of the Republic of the Philippines, 1976; Annual Merit Award, Fiesta Celebration, City of Dagupan, 1976; Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa, UST, 1977; and Tanglaw ng Lahi Award, Ateneo de Manila University, 1980.
Edades was proclaimed National Artist for Painting in 1976. He died in 1985.
The interview was conducted in the artist’s residence in Davao. April 1973.
CID REYES: The painting for which you are most well-known is called “The Builders.” Do you consider it your best painting?
VICTORIO C. EDADES: No, but it was in that painting that I put my entire soul. You see, I come from the working class of our society. My parents and my relatives are all farmers. I have always associated myself with farmers and workers. Even in Alaska where I worked for nine years, I associated with the Filipino workers. My sympathies have always been with the working man, and in “The Builders” I wanted to show the beauty and dignity of labor. The painting depicts workers in various poses. I did the painting in 1928; I spent, I think, three or four months working on it. It was last exhibited during my show at the Philippine Columbian Club.
What caused the furor over that show, your first one-man exhibition?
Remember this was the year 1928. My paintings were conceived in big, forceful masses, with strokes that are visible, strokes that were new to the viewing public in the Philippines, in contrast to Amorsolo’s brushstrokes which were very smooth, very fine in technique. His technique was what the public had been accustomed to when they looked at paintings. The rough-and-rugged way I shaped my figures was a bit too much for them. They thought I was a lunatic who did not know how to draw.
Your Columbian show seemed to have received such vitriolic criticism from the public and the press alike. Was there not a single favorable reaction from anyone?
There was an artist who used to work with the Bureau of Public Works. His name was Gregorio Paredes, the father of our famous architect Paredes. He wrote an article in the papers and came to the defense, shall we say, of modern art.
Would you let us quote him?
Yes, certainly. (Quoting from a clipping of the article.)
The above lines are not the words of an art critic; they are expressions of simple appreciation from a fellow artist.
Were you ever impressed by Amorsolo’s paintings? Did you ever admire his works?
No. To me his paintings were like embroidery, just like a girl’s silk dress. Too fine. In a painting I look for character and vigor. Amorsolo’s paintings were like the work of a gentle boy or a gentle girl: sweet and charming. I had been taught to capture strength in a painting. So we molded masses in a big way. We eliminated a lot of details. The more details you put in a painting, the more you destroy the form. That’s why when I arrived from America, Amorsolo’s paintings looked timid to me.
Do you know what Amorsolo thought of your paintings?
I do not know. But I do know what Guillermo Tolentino thought of my work. He told me once that if he were asked, he would recommend me to teach advertising art. He thought that was the only thing I was fit for.
Let me bring up the subject of your celebrated debate with the sculptor Guillermo Tolentino. This involved the issue of conservative art versus modern art. You published a series of articles extolling modern art to which Tolentino offered a rebuttal: “Yes, I do like modern art, but I also like ancient and primitive art. I do not like distorted ones.”
The first argument I had with Tolentino occurred before the outbreak of the last war. He wrote a note to me saying that he did not want to argue with me in the papers. But I told him that it would benefit the public as well as our respective students from the University of the Philippines and the University of Santo Tomas. And so we went ahead and published our individual views in the papers.
You have written many articles in magazines and newspapers spreading the gospel of modern art in the Philippines. They provide many of the answers to some basic questions I had wanted to ask you. Such as: What do you consider academic art? What are your reasons for denouncing it? (Quoting from a clipping of one of his articles)
How does one, say, a Filipino layman whose only exposure has been to conservative art, start to understand and appreciate modern art? (Continuing to read from his clipping.)
What is responsible for the stubborn resistance to modern art by the Filipino public at large? (Continuing to quote from same article)
The point is to try to change one’s habit of seeing. You are trying, so to speak, to give the public a new pair of eyes.
As I have said, one of the obstacles to proper appreciation is the undeveloped sense of perception in the ordinary observer. (Continuing to quote from the clipping)
Mr. Tolentino, in summing up his contempt for modern art, borrowed the famous lines of Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.” What was your answer to that?
(Reading from a clipping)
Professor Ariston Estrada, who incidentally was one of my professors in De La Salle College, was said to be one of the staunchest opponents of modern art; he was vehemently pro conservative in art.
In an article he published in the Monday Mail in 1935, Professor Estrada seemed to have confused academic or conservative art with the works of the great Renaissance painters. He thought that when I attacked the academic, I was attacking the art of Fra Angelico, Michelangelo and Da Vinci. And so I had to explain to him that academic arts is an art that is lifeless, dead and copyist. He wrote to me saying that after thoroughly studying my rebuttal, he would give me his answer. That was more than 37 years ago, and I’ve never heard from him since.
In all your writings, you have often invoked Cezanne’s classic dictum: “See everything in nature: the cone, the sphere and the cylinder.”
Cezanne’s message is clear: that is to say, in nature you eliminate a lot of insignificant details and concentrate on the greater forms. If you are painting a tree trunk, the important thing is to show the trunk as a solid vertical object rather than spend your time depicting the intricacies of the tree trunk, and thus, ignoring the sturdiness of the trunk that holds all the branches of the tree.
Would it be right to call “The Builders” Cezannesque?
Well, from Cezanne I learned solidity and grandeur, and these qualities I tried to achieve in this painting.
And the colors?
That’s a different matter. Cezanne, as you know, used a lot of purple for his shadows. But in the Philippines, due to the intensity of the heat, the purple turns into dark violet—black, almost. In “The Builders,” the shadows are almost black.
There is another painting I wanted to ask you about. It now hangs at the National Museum. It’s called “The Sketch.”
“The Sketch” was painted in America and exhibited at the Seattle Fine Arts Society, which was composed of artists from Washington, Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Canada. It won the second highest honors. The first honors was won by one of my professors from the University of Washington.
I took up Architecture and Fine Arts at the University of Washington in Seattle. I finished my course in 1928. Then I majored in painting, getting my Masters degree in 1928.
This was on a scholarship, I presume?
No. I was a working student. My friends and I – there were six of us – had written to several American universities asking for information on whether we could study and work at the same time. We received favorable responses from four universities, but we chose Seattle because the climate was warm and well-suited to Filipinos. Anyways, I didn’t stay at the University all the time because for half of the year, I had to work in Alaska.
Yes, I was canning salmon.
I suppose judging from the title, “The Sketch” is one of those artist-in-his-studio types of painting.
Yes. I used my friends as models. The person sketching is an Ilocano who was taking up sculpture then. In the background is another friend, Mr. De Venezia, who was studying advertising arts. The lady lying on the couch is Eleonor McMuller, a friend of the family. The sculptor is actually sketching a still-life in front of him and not Eleonor, as some people think! The painting aroused quite a lot of interest since I happened to be a Filipino. It was even published in one of their daily papers.
What happened after your studies at the University of Seattle?
I came back to the Philippines. I was about 32 then and had gotten married. I met Mrs. [Jean] Edades when we were both students at the University. When I finished my Master’s degree, she also finished her Bachelors degree in Fine Arts. We got married on the eve of our departure for Manila. When we got here, I applied for a teaching post at the University of the Philippines. I was rejected.
I don’t know. It was Rafael Palma who was president of the UP then, and Don Fabian de la Rosa was the director of the School of Fine Arts. I’d heard that Director de la Rosa submitted my case to the entire faculty of Fine Arts and everyone disapproved the idea of my joining the staff. I was told – and this again is hearsay – that the faculty objected to a Master’s degree-holder receiving a salary of P200 a month when most of the professors were receiving less than P100. You see, Fine Arts at that time was more like a vocational course; it was not considered a collegiate course at all.
What did you do then after you were rejected by U.P.?
I applied as an architectural designer at the Bureau of Public Works. I was accepted, and so for two years I worked under Architect Juan Arellano. In the evening, I taught History of Architecture at the Mapua Institute of Technology. I couldn’t do much painting then; I was hibernating.
What do you recall of Fabian de la Rosa’s paintings?
They were mostly portraiture; some were landscapes of the old Santa Mesa.
Who took over after Fabian de la Rosa as director of Fine Arts?
Don Fernando Amorsolo. He was the most influential painter then. His name was synonymous with portraiture. Industrial firms, whenever they needed paintings for calendars, would turn all the time to Amorsolo.
What were the circumstances of your first meeting with Amorsolo?
The first time I met Don Fernando was at a bienvenida party for Don Fabian, who had come back from a trip to Europe. There was a big dinner in his honor.
I wonder what Amorsolo thought of all the Modernists? Did you hear him say anything against the movement?
Oh no. And this is one thing I can say about Don Fernando: he is the sweetest man. A most kind man. He would never say anything against anyone. I have met him several times but not once did he show any antagonism toward anyone.
When you were attacking academic art, did personal elements like professional rivalry come into the picture?
No, when I attacked or criticized an artist’s technique of painting, I was not criticizing the artist himself or his personality. Once when I saw an exhibition of paintings by Salgado, I thought I was watching an exhibition of Amorsolo! This is a clear example of academicism, an artist imitating slavishly the works of a master.
Who is Salgado?
Salgado was a former student at U.P. He has moved to America now. The very last paintings I saw of his showed the influence of the nuclear bomb. There were these mushroom-looking explosions!
Do you think Amorsolo encouraged his students to copy his style?
I don’t know exactly, but I presume he did. Otherwise there would not be so many Filipino students in U.P. painting like him. I’ve been informed by reliable sources that some of his students who copied his style used to ask Amorsolo himself to sign their paintings so they could sell them!
If you were to place a Salgado painting beside an Amorsolo, would you mistake one for the other?
At first sight, yes; but on further examination, I can always detect an imitation Amorsolo from an original. There was one time when I visited an acquaintance who was very proud to show me an Amorsolo painting. I looked at this particular painting and studied it for several minutes. It was not an original Amorsolo!
And you told your acquaintance, I suppose?
No, out of delicadeza [sense of propriety].
What was the art market like during your time?
You could hardly call it a “market!” Even Amorsolo, who was then the most popular painter in the country, sold his works for only P100-120!
Did this lack of art buyers in the country discourage you? Have you ever felt like giving up painting?
Oh no, never. I have always thought that a real painter would keep painting, even if nobody bought his work. Ever since I was a kid, I have always liked drawing. In fact, my brother-in-law suggested to my parents that I study sculpture. You see, he had seen my notebooks filled with sketches. At the College of San Alberto in Dagupan, I saw a lot of drawings in black and white, and portraits as well. These stimulated me to study paintings. But one, of course, must have a source of income, a rice-and-fish, bread-and-butter income, and that’s the reason why I took up Architecture—so that I could continue with my painting.
Did you have any association at all with the Philippine Art Gallery?
Yes. I remember very well the time when Mrs. Lydia Arguilla Salas invited me to give a talk to a number of painters and writers. The gallery was still at the Palomo Building in Azcarraga. Later on, she was to transfer the PAG to one of these apartments along Taft Avenue, the Petrona Apartment. I used to go there quite often and used to meet a lot of people. From Taft Avenue, Lyd transferred to Arquiza Street in Ermita where she held regular exhibitions. She became the rallying center of all the modern artists in the Philippines. We used to have the Philippine Art Gallery Club, and I was once elected president. We had very lively meetings.
Did you ever hold a one-man exhibition at the PAG?
I used to join group shows together with the other artists. One of the paintings I showed was called “The Market,” which is now in the possession of Aguilar-Alcuaz.
The Philippine Art Gallery was situated in the midst of the proliferating commercial Mabini galleries. What can you say about this much-maligned Mabini school of painting?
I remember Purita Kalaw-Ledesma saying, “Let’s face it—these painters are there to make money.” Well, that’s true, isn’t it? I remember a very good student I had at UST. He wanted to go to America but he was not able to meet the requirements of the university he wanted to attend. So he opened a shop in Mabini. To my surprise, when I next met him, he told me that he was now making a lot of money, so much money that he could afford to send his family to travel to Japan and Hong Kong. I was amazed at the way he had changed his style in order to meet the demands of the tourists. He was not painting what he believed in, he was painting according to the dictates of his clients, the tourists. So there you are.
I’m rather curious to know about this “Triumvirate” of you, Carlos V. Francisco, and Galo Ocampo. What brought the three of you together?
Just before the outbreak of the war in 1936, I painted a mural with the cooperation of Botong Francisco and Galo Ocampo. It was a very long mural, covering the entire wall of the foyer of the State Theatre which had been designed by the architect Juan Nakpil.
Does this mural still exist?
Oh no, no, no. The whole building was bombed and burned during the Liberation.
When you said that the three of you worked on this huge mural, it sounded to me like it was a sort of collaborative painting, or what we call “interaction” painting. Didn’t your individual styles clash with each other?
Not at all. We had what you might call division of labor. I designed the composition. Galo Ocampo made the sketches on the wall. Since Botong was such a fast worker, he did all the filling up. I honestly think Botong is our best draftsman yet, even beating Amorsolo… Anyway, we decided to make the mural look flat, just like a tapestry, so as not to create the illustration of a hole in the wall. Now that’s something we have introduced in the Philippines. Just like an Oriental painting—flat on the wall.
You painted directly on the surface of the wall?
No. We painted on canvas, then pasted it on the wall. We assembled together all these pieces of canvas until we had the entire wall covered.
What did the mural depict? Did you have a title for it?
Yes. It was called “The Rising Philippines.” You see, this mural was in 1935. That was the time when the Philippines inaugurated the Commonwealth granted to us by America. The painting was very symbolic: it showed a figure of a woman surging upwards, and on either side of her we tried to show the Spanish Civilization, which taught us religion, and the American civilization, which taught us how to work. We showed Spanish galleons and modern airplanes.
Did you ever try to expand this Triumvirate? Didn’t you ask other artists to join your group?
Yes, we did, in fact. Diosdado Lorenzo had arrived from Rome with his Italian wife. I saw that Lorenzo’s works belonged to the modern school, and so we decided to ask him to join us. There was a time even when Galo Ocampo, Diosdado Lorenzo, and myself started a small atelier, a small sketching school somewhere in Ermita. But the school soon folded up because we could not get a nude model for our classes.
Well, you know how modest the Filipino woman is, especially then. No matter how bad she may be, she was not willing to pose in the nude.
After Diosdado Lorenzo came the others, like the group now known as the Thirteen Moderns.
Right. We invited other painters like Anita Magsaysay-Ho, [Vicente] Manansala, and Hernando Ocampo. We had in mind to form a stronger body to promote modern art in the country.
You mentioned the more well-known painters like Magsaysay-Ho, Ocampo and Manansala, but there was a host of other painters who are not at all known to the young painters of today, painters such as Ricarte Puruganan, Demetrio Diego, Bonifacio Cristobal, Jose Pardo, and Arsenio Capili. Who were they? Where are they now?
Well, let’s see. Puruganan used to teach with me at the University of Santo Tomas. After the war, he went back to Ilocos, and the last I’ve heard is that he has gone into building construction. Diego was one of our prominent illustrators of the Manila Times. Bonifacio Cristobal, I think, is still connected with the UST, where he teaches drawing and woodcarving. Pardo was an architect. He was at one time the dean of the College of Architecture and Fine Arts at the UST. As for Arsenio Capili, I don’t know; I’ve lost track of him.
How long did the Thirteen Moderns last as a group?
Not very long, I’m afraid. When the war broke out, we were all dispersed. When the Americans came, we were all busy mending our ruined farms and houses. But we used to hold regular meetings at the Ivory Tower, a restaurant owned by a Filipino poet married to an American woman.
At your age now, which I reckon to be 83, do you think you still have the physical energy to do another painting the size of “The Builders”?
My goodness, yes! Even twice that size!
Are there pictorial concerns as regards, say, form and color, in which you are at present engaged?
Yes. I would like very much to achieve a more characteristically Philippine color. Lots of bright color, and also blues and greens: some distinctive shades, hues and tones that capture or reflect the Philippine spirit of life.
From a technical standpoint, I am curious as to how you start on a painting.
Well, I start with a rough sketch using charcoal, mapping out the different figures or shapes. What follows is a continuous process of changes, revisions, erasures. As the painting progresses, many of the original ideas disappear, and what results is the final struggle between me and my material.
Can I be brash enough to ask you what you think are the faults and weaknesses of your paintings?
Well, sometimes the paintings tend to look too “flat.” My object is to make the painting as simple as possible. I have found that the great painters in the world tend to “simplify” their works as they advance in years. They see masses simply. In my case, I try to do the same, but sometimes they lack force. I must do something about it.
Have you ever done a completely non-figurative, non-objective painting?
No, not really. I’ve done a few in watercolor, but that’s all. They’re not very serious. I can never run away from the human figure.
What do you think of so-called abstract painters who have never taken the effort to learn how to draw the human figure?
I think it is always dangerous to follow the line of least resistance. In my experience as a teacher, I have known a lot of painters who had started off with abstraction simply because it was easier for them. They’re doing away with the basic foundation, you see, and I don’t think they will ever amount to much in the long run.
But just because one can do a decent painting of the human figure does not necessarily imply he can do a powerful abstract painting, does it?
Well, I’ll tell you what: Picasso, for instance, in some of his, was doing obviously figurative paintings which at the same time looked quite abstract. Picasso, of course, never admitted the fact that what he was doing was abstract painting. Picasso didn’t think there was such a thing as abstract art. To him, there must – and always should be – correlation with nature. Certainly there are painters who can turn out good figurative paintings and abstract paintings. But if a painter can draw well, can master the human figure, that should be good enough, shouldn’t it?
What do you think of the present trend in Philippine painting? Do you think our painters are going in the right direction? Do you think our painters are moving forward, forging a new idiom?
It was, I think, Herbert Read who said – and I agree with him – that the modern artist has now reached the dead end of his inventive genius. And therefore I think that the modern artists – whether he’s a Filipino or whatever – should now launch himself into a discovery of new forms; I think the modern artist should now start to look at the blank expanse of his white empty canvas not as familiar friendly territory, but as terra incognita. He must dare and risk to discover.
As the Grand Old Man of Philippine Painting, you must often be asked this question: What advice would you give to the young, struggling Filipino painter?
To the young, struggling Filipino painter, this I have to say: be diligent in the observation of nature. Draw everyday. Draw relentlessly. Never stoop to prettify, instead, reveal, unmask the character of an object.