Fifty years ago, Fernando Zobel, artist and heir to one of the country’s industrial fortunes, donated his art collection to the
Ateneo de Manila University. The university used his pieces, mostly paintings by the best of the Filipino moderns (including a few of his own), to form the nucleus of the Ateneo Art Gallery. At that time, no other museum existed for Philippine Modern Art. Two nights ago, on the 24th of October, the gallery celebrated its anniversary by formally unveiling its new home, an expanded space at the Special Collections Building of the
university’s Rizal Library.
How lucky can the Ateneo student get! In my day, the only time we ventured into the cramped air-conditioned library basement, then designated as the gallery, was to relieve ourselves from the heat. We plunked our heads on tables crammed full of books and napped. I vaguely remember J. Elizalde Navarro’s Homage to Dodjie Laurel, a wood and bronze sculpture of a racecar driver’s helmet, standing tall amidst a pile of periodicals. The art on the walls (if there were any) never made an impact. The gallery seemed more stockroom than showcase of one of the best art holdings in the country.
These days, the Ateneo Art Gallery has assumed a much higher profile, both within the university and to Manila’s art community. Credit must go to the gallery’s staff headed by its Director, Richie Lerma, and its Managing Curator, Yael Buencamino. The annual Ateneo Art Awards given to three artists below the age of 36, and their subsequent return exhibits, have certainly added vibrancy to the institution. This new venue will hopefully make it even more integral to the life of the university.
The gallery inaugurated its new space with a tastefully orchestrated event. Guests were first welcomed to the nearby Leong Hall Auditorium for the world premiere of In The Eye of Modernity, a musical piece commissioned from young composer Francis de Veyra. His light, contemporary symphony, performed against a slideshow of works from the gallery’s permanent collection, set the tone for the evening. The piece heralded an elegant throwback to the custom of celebrating important milestones with specially created
music. Much like the gallery, which hosts Fernando Zobel’s masterpieces side by side with the best of current art, the piece took an old fashioned tradition and injected it with the new.
After this, benefactors and art enthusiasts strolled over to the gallery for the evening’s main event, the vernissage of Lee Aguinaldo: In Retrospect.
In his opening remarks, Richie Lerma shared the impetus for the exhibit: important pieces from Lee Aguinaldo’s substantial body of work are represented in the gallery’s collection, plus he enjoyed a close friendship with Fernando Zobel. It is the first retrospective that I can recall since Aguinaldo’s death in 2007. The exhibit, curated by Boots Herrera and Lisa Chikiamco, brings together more than 150 pieces of Aguinaldo’s oeuvre, from his more familiar abstract expressionist flick and linear paintings from the 1950s, to his later mixed media figurative work. I personally
loved his photo collages brushed with a coat of acrylic from the late 1970s to the 1980s, and also the works on canvas that he called his galumphing pieces. I had not seen these before, but they felt so now. One could easily mistake these twenty- to thirty-year-old pieces for work done by a young visual artist practicing today. The show also features portraits of Aguinaldo, such as Agnes Arellano’s marble cast of his face, set like a death mask, as well as a hilarious photograph by Wig Tysmans. Tysmans photographed Aguinaldo for one of the latter’s exhibits in the 1980s, and it shows the artist stark naked, holding an open towel around his waist, flashing his jewels. The comical expression on his face is priceless.
In The Eye of Modernity was also the title of the exhibit of the Ateneo Art Gallery’s core collection for the Singapore Art Museum in November 2009. This show is currently reprised simultaneous to the Lee Aguinaldo show, in the gallery’s secondary space, two smaller rooms to the left of the entrance foyer. Here we have another must see for Philippine art lovers, the first time that majority of Zobel’s collection has been seen all together since the gallery’s early days. HR Ocampo’s fabulous 53-Q(Sarimanok) from 1953 gave me new appreciation for his technique. Within its vicinity hang
Vicente Manansala’s Jeepneys and Dambana, also from the 1950s, and Arturo Luz paintings from the same era, his flat figurative works already on the road to abstraction. There’s more, of course. I think I could keep coming back and never tire of this show.
Richie also made two important announcements. First, the donation by Security Bank of 100 Paintings: Mabini Art Project by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, recently exhibited at the UP Vargas Museum (see this blog’s Archives, April 2010). Ms. Olivia Yao of Security Bank served on the gallery’s 50th Anniversary Committee, and helped facilitate this generous gift along with Mr. Jun Villalon of The Drawing Room (an Ateneo alumnus), the gallery that represents the Aquilizans in Manila. Second, the launching of the initiative Fifty For Fifty that aims to raise P50 Million before August 2011 for the Ateneo Art Gallery’s acquisition fund.
In truth, at the risk of sounding like a pompous alumna, the Ateneo community should have no trouble raising the targeted amount. The challenge lies in convincing the university’s benefactors that art, like the UAAP Basketball team, is worth shelling out money for. If their souls cannot be appealed to, then perhaps their business sense can. Just do the math—- if the gallery had acquired paintings from Geraldine Javier in 2004 and Ronald Ventura in 2005, when they won the Ateneo Art Awards, their prices today would have significantly increased the worth of the university’s holdings, much more than
any basketball championship could have. As it is, one cannot even put a price on the Ateneo Art Gallery’s current collection. How does one value Fernando Zobel’s gift from fifty years ago? Definitely incalculable.
Lee Aguinaldo: In Retrospect runs from 26 October 2010 to 5 February 2011 at the Ateneo Art Gallery, Rizal Library Special Collections Building, Ateneo de Manila University, Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Phone(632)426-6488 or visit http://www.ateneo.gallery.edu