Saturday, March 15, 2008

At Last! An Oral History of Philippine Art. By Eric Torres, Sunday Inquirer Magazine, October 28, 1990

Since its launch a year ago, Cid Reyes's Conversations On Philippine Art (Cultural Center of the Philippines, 196 pp.) has been selling so well that a second printing is inevitable. Not bad for a Filipino nonfiction work which isn't a cookbook. But such are the vagaries of the print media that so far, despite the book's growing success d'estime. it has gotten exactly one review (favorable) from Miguel A. Bernard, S.J.

Is Reyes's book perhaps too erudite, too technical for the layman that it should receive the cold shoulder from the press? Not at all. Anyone with slightest interest in Philippine art and culture should find it not only richly informative but entertaining as well.

Conversations is the story of Philippine art as perceived and told by 24 artists, a handful of critics and one art dealer who one way or another, according to Reyes, have made this side of the Pacific Rim the hyperactive art scene it is today. Reyes had thought of capturing on tape what artists think of their own art and its milieu long before that documentary genre known as oral history became fashionable. Serving as his model was the Paris Review interviews of the writers in which the interviewer fields questions calculated to draw answers from his subjects in a thoroughly involving, informal manner. Oral history is absorbing reading only if the interviewer is familiar with the turf of his quarry.

As oral historian, Reyes knows his field (visual arts ) and its relations (literature, history, music, etc.) well enough to asks the sort of question that stimulates a pertinent, substantial reaction -- not that he always gets it in every case. He exudes such expertise and enthusiasm about the points he raise that the result is often more a dialogue between equals than a question-and-answer routine with its attendant blandness and lack of direction. With this book, interviewing is a finely tuned art. I'll go further: it has come of age at last in this country, a model for others, especially journalists, to emulate.

SIXTEEN YEARS in the making, Conversations includes most of the seminal figures of Philippine modernism alive at the time the author embarked on his taping project. The complete list of interviewees comprises Victorio Edades, Diosdado Lorenzo, Vicente Manansala, Hernando Ocampo, Nena Saguil, Cesar Legaspi, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Fernando Zobel, Arturo Luz, Mauro Malang Santos, Juvenal Sanso, Napoleon Abueva, Jose Joya, Ang KiuKok, Lee Aguinaldo, Chabet, David Cortez Medalla, Ben Cabrera, Rodolfo Samonte, Raymundo Albano, Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi, Angelito Antonio, Norma Belleza, Eduardo Castrillo. The critics (most of whom are also visual/literary artists in their own right): Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, Leonidas Benesa, Alfredo Roces, Manuel Duldulao, Rodolfo Paras-Perez, Emmanuel (Eric) Torres. The lone art dealer is Tessie Luz, representing "art from the point of view of marketing."

What's bound to surprise the reader -- something he doesn't usually expect from visual artists -- is the generally high degree of verbal articulateness and perspicacity in discussions on art, artmaking, and much else, I value highly the interviews of, among others, Medalla, Arturo Luz, Zobel, Ocampo, Benesa, Samonte, Gelveson-Tequi, for intellectual content and eloquence. Only a handful are disappointing, but no less fascinating for what they reveal about the artist's personality. Ang's responses are laconic, while Castrillo's, which with his quaint way with the English language and one juicy malapropism, are effusive -- one remains an inscrutable persona, the other a jolly ham. For rambunctious exuberance nothing beats Manansala, who lets it all hang out in the vernacular and English declaring, "I am not an intellectual. I am a peasant."

About half of Reyes's subjects were inteviewed in the summer of '73 before he left for Rome on an Italian government scholarship, taking the tapes with him to transcribe and edit. While in Europe he interviewed Zobel and such notable expatrait as Medalla, Saguil, Gelvezon-Tequi, Cabrera. Upon his return to Manila in'78, the suitcase which contained the edited transcripts was snatched by a thief at the Manila International Airport. Providentially the tapes were in another luggage, so transcribing had to start all over again.As soon as the task was done, I was asked by Reyes to help out in editing the voluminous second set of transcripts which comprise, roughly two-thirds of the book. And this I did as I was then on Sabbatical leave.

Meanwhile Reyes continued to interview some more artists for a more comprehensive oral history and a more sizeable book. This final set of transcripts -- which I never saw till after the book was published -- took five years. Because of his responsibilities as a yuppie executive of Ace, Saatchi & Saatchi, work on the book slowed down, grinding to a halt for long stretches at a time.

After the final interviews were transcribed and edited, looking for a publisher took another five years (as Reyes says in his busy preface, "one thing did not lead to another"), during which time I would nag him to get on with its publication, especially since an alarming number of his subjects were dying one after another (Edades, Lorenzo, Ocampo, Manansala, Albano, Benesa, Zobel) while his oral history was yellowing just sitting on a shelf. Eventually the Cultural Center of the Philippines heard about Reyes's labor of love and publication soon followed -- and with unseemly haste.

The HASTE shows all over the book. The prefatory note on the interviewees, for instance could have been more consistently organized. A number of the photo or pen-and-ink portraits of the interviewees are poorly selected or mediocre in quality. In some early copies of the book, Diosdado Lorenzo is represented by somebody else's picture! (This mishap has been corrected in later copies.)

If there is a Worst Proof-Reading Prize of the Year, this book with it's numerous typos and missing words and lines, deserves it. My interview doesn't suffer in this regard as much as the others, but a line from the prefatory note, "Torres reviewed and updated the transcribed interview in 1988," is incorrect. The 1972 interview was "reviewed" in 1978, not 1988 -- and "updating" is the wrong word. What the CCP editor should have written -- or the author failed to recall! -- was that a second interview was made and incorporated into the first. Why? Because Reyes felt a need to asks me more questions on critics and criticism which he failed to do in the earlier tapes. I cheerfully obliged, which explains why my contribution is one of the longest in the book, after Medalla's and Roces's!

Equally vexing is that over 130 artworks reproduced in the book do not indicate the collections they belong to. The lack of such documentation, typical of domestic art publications -- a reason why research hereabouts is an ordeal -- must not be allowed to pass unnoticed. Such negative comments as I've made are urgent especially since this book is now being used in academe! No one is more aware of all the editorial and printing snafus in this book than the author himself, who intends to correct them in a forthcoming second, revised edition -- as soon as he is done with his current project (now this is hard to believe), a book on Philippine culinary arts -- a cookbook!

It is the good fortune of Conversations that in spite of its belated publication, warts and all, the interviews themselves sounds as fresh as ever. They have become even more cherisable with the passage of time -- "like vintage wine," to borrow Benesa's felicitous phrase in the books introduction written as long ago as 1983, a year before his, Benesa's, death.

A big plus going for the book is that the "conversations" are more than straight, sensible exchanges on theme and form, art isms and stages in an artist's development. They are also intimate glimpses into the cultural, sociological and economic milieu of Philippine art as well as its global context. The conversations are lit up with verbal and mental surprises: witty repartees, amusing anecdotes, plain-folks psychology, disclosures of local color and family history. Quotable lines, passages, are plentiful. For certain readers, a color marker will often be pressed into service. I have underscored this statement from Legaspi: "I am not a perfectionist: to be one you must know what perfection is, and I don't." And this one from Zobel: "Style is simply one's easiest way of doing certain things. I pity the painter concious of his style. It is likely to turn into his subject matter, and I for one can think of nothing more boring." A good number of the interviewed keep the discussion crackling on a sensible a sensible, casually intelligent plane. A few indulge in ego-tripping and gossip, occasionally lapsing into bitchiness.

No less notable is the author's success in getting his subjects heard in their individual voices in the language most comfortable to them, generally English of course, but English laced with Filipino of Taglish. (These few interviews conducted in the Filpino are summarized in an appendix.) Readers will have a field day getting to know some, unfamiliar minority views on the local art scene -- and psyching the characters of each interviewee, who often has no time to put on a mask or duck a leading (or prying) question.

AS A PRIMARY document on Philippine modern art, Conversations is indispensable to both specialist and the general reader. The book starts off with most salient modernist, Edades. It is one of the revelations of this book that his long-standing position as "Father of Philippine Modern Art" is questioned by Roces and Ocampo. On one hand, Roces debunks as "myth" the common assumption it was Edades's paintings that introduced modernism in the country: before Edades's controversial first one-man show of 1928. Roces points out, someone else was already painting in a Post-Impressionist idiom even more advanced than Edades's -- Juan Arellano. Roces is right of course, and his opinion reflects a growing critical consensus against the Edades-as-father "myth." On the other hand, Ocampo maintains that Edades deserves the title, not as a painter (Ocampo calls his art "not necessarily the best modern") but as the most visible art critic championing the cause of modernism in the 30's and 40's.

Edades opinion of the art of Fernando Amorsolo ("like a girl's silk dress... sweet and charming") and his resume of his serial debate with Guillermo Tolentino (O rarity, an intellectual debate in print!) are one reason for buying the book. Reference to the late debate of the '40s has Edades quoting form his articles published at the time in defence of modernist "distortion." One only wishes Reyes had started on his project earlier when Amorsolo and Tolentino were still around so their hindsight on that debate could also be published for wider circulation. Another issue that runs through like a leitmotif in more that a third of the interviews is "Filipinism." What Manansala, Ocampo, Zobel, Roces, Benesa, Medalla, Albano have to say on this issue is another reason for buying the book.

A wide, wide range of in-exhaustively interesting issues is tackled. The Filipino artist as internationalist and the hazards of internationalism are discussed by Medalla, Benesa, Sanso, Joya, Paras-Perez, Gelveson-Tequi with the authority of first-hand experience. For beginning artists and connoisseurs, the "influences" on an artist's work will always remain a central issue: Arturo Luz, Zobel, Cabrera, Benesa address this with distinctive perception and candor. The accounting and banking appetites of readers are well served with views of the artist as socio-economic animal: Ledesma reminiscing on prewar days when one who took up painting risked being called a hampaslupa and a girl marrying one a fool: Aguinaldo selling exactly one painting in his first show (to Zobel)" Lorenzo making his first sale of three paintings to the illustrious Fabian de la Rosa for six pesos (!); Tessie Luz recalling the prices at a Joya show (P300-500) way back then.

For all kinds of artists, hearing their fellow practitioners talk shop on the technical details of their craft in Conversations is a bonus: Magsaysay-Ho on why she rejects an Amorsoloesque gray ground and how she applies pigments (thick/thin/thick)on canvas; Zobel on his Zen abstracts using brush and hypodermic syringe; Joya on the uses of ubok; Legaspi on the "stippling, " Manansala on why black-and-white works are superior to colorful ones; Samonte on how to make his kind of cast-paper relief.

Best of all (one wishes there were more) are reflections on the line that divides authentic art expression and commercialized art, artistic integrity and compromise: here Lorenzo, Legaspi, Ocampo, Medalla, Sanso, Roces provide their own valuable perceptions. All kinds of readers should find the Reyes book a mine of information on how a group of artists got started and coped with individual difficulties, what ideas preoccupy them, why they paint the way they do. Some disclosures -- those of Ocampo, Saguil, Legaspi, Medalla, Samonte -- are profiles in artistic integrity.

If there were one other quality shining through the best and the brightest, it is this: a probing intelligence, honed by years of observation, self-discipline and study (much reading and reflection) for the greater glory of their craft. Integrity, intelligence: both are made to bear on their art, ultimately raising it from the level of mere skill or technical prowess and saving it from becoming a mere commodity in the marketplace. At a time when the national sociopolitical scene appears to be a dismal muddle, Reyes's oral history qualifies as inspirational literature.