Repetitio, Celeste Lecaroz, Kanto.com.ph, Creative Corners9

Finding the Artist’s Light

For her sixth solo show at 1335MABINI, painter Celeste Lecaroz revisits the oeuvre of National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, master of light in Philippine genre paintings, in an effort to remember his life, reinterpret his works, and find new light in the past and present

Words John Alexis Balaguer
Images 1335MABINI

“My conception of the ideal Filipina beauty is one with a rounded face, not of the oval type often presented to us in newspaper and magazine illustrations. The eyes should be exceptionally lively, not the dreamy, sleepy type that characterizes the Mongolian. The nose should be of the blunt form but firm and strongly marked. The mouth plays a very important part in the determination of a beautiful face. The ideal Filipina beauty should have a sensuous mouth, not the type of the pouting mouth of the early days. So; the ideal Filipino beauty should not necessarily be white-complexioned, not of the dark brown color of the typical Malayan, but of the clear skin or flesh-colored type which we often witness when we meet a blushing girl.”

Fernando Amorsolo y Cueto (1892-1972), First National Artist, and recognized grandmaster of Filipino genre painting

A few years back when I was working as an educator and researcher at Ayala Museum, I had the privilege of working closely on National Artist Fernando Amorsolo’s works on numerous occasions. The painting Palay Maiden (1920), an oil on canvas portrait, had always struck me. In it, Amorsolo depicts a country lass in the fields, holding a bundle of freshly harvested rice. Her body language seems to suggest that she has been caught mid-toil and only paused to smile at the viewer. The work exemplifies Amorsolo’s ideal beauty—the characteristic woman blushing in the golden sunlight—with patriotic touches subtly encoded: her white blouse, red skirt, and blue kerchief suggest the colors of the national flag. A virtuoso with his masterful use of color and light in painting portraits and rural landscapes, the artist portrayed traditional Filipino customs and quotidian occupations as archetypes of national pride.

It is no wonder that artists continue to be inspired by Amorsolo’s works, offering both homage and criticism to his oeuvre. One recent addition to this continuing discourse on the National Artist is the exhibition “Repetitio,” held at the Makati gallery 1335MABINI by painter Celeste Lecaroz (b. 1971) from June 30 to July 28, 2021. The exhibition, in cooperation with the Fernando C. Amorsolo Art Foundation, showcased 15 large-scale paintings by Lecaroz, deriving visual elements from some of the National Artist’s famous works. Exploring the idea of translation as reinterpretation, Lecaroz effectively borrows Amorsolo’s timeless subjects to explore her present-day artistic ideals. Characterized by uninhibited brushwork, strident colors, and the simplification and abstraction of subject matter, she describes the collection as “experimentations on chromostereopsis,” that is, visual illusions whereby depth is achieved in two-dimensional color palettes with bright, saccharine colors.

Courtesy of 1355MABINI, Header: Tahip I, Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 152.4 cm (48 x 60 in), 2021

Celeste Lecaroz-Aceron y Salud hails from San Juan, Batangas where she developed her love for drawing sketching the idyllic beaches of her hometown. Today, she lives in Quezon City, where she had been painting up until taking on the project when the pandemic hit Metro Manila. According to writer Leon de Pola in the exhibition monograph, Lecaroz began to revisit the project when the lockdown was lifted, working on canvases that had been primed prior. Later she worked on examining taken photographs of the Amorsolo works before recreating them in her own painterly style. The artist had finished fourteen of the paintings but had run out of light phtalo blue paint, which arrived only in late June. With the clearance from customs, the fifteenth and last of the works for the series was then finally completed. These derivative works were all painted during lockdown with the spirited outlook of celebrating generations in Philippine art during a precarious period: “No one knows how much or how little time we have,” says Lecaroz in an interview with Agimat. “All I know is I want to manifest this gift… Or so this pandemic continues to make me realize.”

Tahip 2, Acrylic on canvas, 114 x 76 cm (44.8 in x 29.9 in), 2021

The exhibition opens with the painting Tahip 2 (2021) at the gallery’s entrance. Done in acrylic on canvas, Lecaroz reinterprets Amorsolo’s 1948 oil painting Winnowing Rice in vivid colors. Done with bold, expressive brushstrokes, the figure of Amorsolo’s woman is windswept by the vigorous movements of the artist’s hand, the rice field and nearby mountains rendered to near-abstraction. Where there was once a dainty country maiden hard at work in the sunlit rice field, now stands an ambiguous form in an alternate world. Inside the main gallery, one finds the painting Lilim (2021), an acrylic on canvas work following Amorsolo’s Under the Mango Tree (1952). In the original image, women are seen resting under the shade of a mango tree, collecting their harvested fruits while engaged in lively conversation. The work exhibits depth by use of shadow, connoting layers of subjects around the tree. Lecaroz’s reinterpretation borrows some of Amorsolo’s figures in the same orientation yet emphasizing exaggerated painterly qualities—she evokes Amorsolo’s figures but sets them ablaze in a parallel universe devoid of the pastoral and idyllic quality of the original.

Lilim, Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 152.4 cm (48 x 60 in), 2021

In Ani (2021), Lecaroz revisits Amorsolo’s iconic oil on canvas painting Planting Rice (1951). Where there once stood a festive line of farmers planting seedlings in a vast, green field, Lecaroz’s farmers are nearly subsumed by the explosion of color and vigorous brushstrokes; their representational qualities now seem only ethereal remains of Amorsolo’s pastoral landscape. Finally, towards the end of the gallery is Pag-uwi (2021), another acrylic on canvas work depicting a man and woman astride a carabao. This is Lecaroz’s reworking of Amorsolo’s On the Way Home (1945), and yet again employs the energetic brushstrokes and strident palettes that characterize the artist’s body of work; Amorsolo’s patented depiction of the Philippine sunset is nowhere in sight, the fields and sky an explosion of striking splotches melding on to each other. The ambiguous figures placidly traverse the discordant landscape, still evoking the original creature and couple’s silent stride to an imagined home. In each of Lecaroz’s works is the consistency of the artist’s energetic hand materializing as expressive landscapes and figures that suggest a vague sense of the Amorsolo genre, yet ambiguous enough to invoke new worlds.

Ani, Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 152.4 cm (48 x 60 in), 2021
Pag-uwi, Acrylic on canvas, 78 x 95 cm (30.7 x 37.4 in), 2021

In the monograph which accompanied the exhibition, Lecaroz is quoted by writer Leon de Pola on her intentions behind the exhibition: “These scenes that Master Amorsolo has painted are part of our collective memory. When he painted them, he employed his years of experience, knowledge, and skills. The benefit of repetition is I can share his vision while bringing my own set of experience, knowledge, and skills. To be able to stand in for him and have the freedom to paint his images in this different age and worldview is one of my most fruitful experiences as a painter.” Today, all licenses for works by Amorsolo are regulated by the Fernando C. Amorsolo Art Foundation, currently managed by the artist’s heirs. Alarmed by the numerous forgeries of the artist’s works, the children initially sought to form the organization for cataloging and authenticating the artist’s works. Lecaroz herself sought a licensing agreement from the family to use the original works as starting points for her reinterpretations, which she began working on in March 2020 during the community lockdown.

In 2020 when basketball star Kobe Bryant passed, the artist created a portrait of him in her signature style, later opening the licenses of the work for free use in the public domain. She had also been part of numerous solo and group exhibitions which raised funds for a number of causes including the World Wildlife Fund in 2020. This year, the artist continues to extend her hand through her art with her sixth solo show, all of which works that are sold will provide royalty shares to the Fernando C. Amorsolo Art Foundation.

Lecaroz’s tribute to Kobe Bryant

Certainly, the deliberate reinterpretation of Amorsolo’s subjects to Lecaroz’s modern techniques is an interesting effort, for one because the modernist movement itself opposed the representational and impressionistic works of the artist, and secondly, the exercise tiptoes on the boundaries between authenticity and authorship. Lecaroz’s exercise might thus invoke questions about the tenets of genre, even beauty, and consequently, national identity. For one may not touch Amorsolo without referencing his discourse of a national ideal. The exhibition’s remembrance of the National Artist’s legacy then implies a revisiting not just of his visual subjects, but of his life and work.

Amorsolo’s affinity to the rural can be traced back to when the family moved to Daet, Camarines Norte when the artist was but an infant. The young Fernando grew up in the idyll countryside, where even at a young age, he was known to go to coastal areas, drawing ships and seaside scenes. When the Philippines, after centuries of being a Spanish colony, became a territory of the United States of America, the artist held on to his memories of the peaceful countryside by filling his canvases with scenes of celebrations such as fiestas, symbolic landmarks such as old churches, provincial life, and rituals associated with local traditions. Yet for someone so well-known and distinguished during his time, he was said to have been a rather shy man. Amorsolo had designed the logo for Ginebra San Miguel which depicted the archangel Michael vanquishing the devil. Don Enrique Zobel, the owner of the beverage company, was so enthralled by the artist’s work that he became his patron and offered to send him to the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid. To Amorsolo’s disbelief, the school informed him that they would accept him not as a student but as a professor. After his acceptance at the Academia, a banquet was held for his welcome, yet the artist was so nervous that he excused himself and went back to his hotel.

Fernando Amorsolo in Madrid, 1917

Amorsolo is also often regarded as the de facto leader of the classical realist school in Philippine art history, yet according to writer Edwin A. Martinez, the artist never took up the challenge in his own defense: “The artist responded with a shrug and said that he had already matured as an artist.  He had nothing left to prove and was comfortable painting what he wished in the form of expression that he chose.” The Fernando C. Amorsolo Art Foundation notes in the National Artist’s biography that critics interpret his idealized world as the work of someone who has never experienced pain in his life. And yet, he was not short on personal tragedies.

When he was young, his half-brother Perico was forcibly recruited by the revolutionary movement against Spain counter to his and his father’s wishes and was never seen again. During the onset of the Japanese occupation, his younger brother Pablo, who was also an artist, was branded a Japanese sympathizer and was executed by Filipino guerillas. Personal tragedies from the realities of society affected his body of work, whereby the artist began painting tragic scenes of war, death, and destruction while keeping a defiantly hopeful stance. Martinez notes this in the artist’s biography with the 1942 oil on canvas work, Bataan. The painting depicts a woman kneeling before a fallen soldier, with her head held up to the sky. Her face is illumined by an unknown glow, highlighting her intense yet hopeful expression. This work and many others might connote that the National Artist’s intentional preference for an idealized national image is not merely a nostalgic remembrance of some personal memory, but an attempt to invoke a sense of communal hope, if nothing else, amidst the ever-changing, sometimes cruel, geological, cultural, and political landscape.

This sense of hope in itself I might argue is the core of the ideal beauty Amorsolo’s works continue to rouse today. While the artist does establish strict criteria for the beautiful Filipina which he so consciously followed as an archetype for a national image, one might not readily take away the intuitive purity of the artist who held onto his ideals, personal as they may be, as guided by his vision for a better nation. Would it not also be a critical endeavor to look at the artist’s intentions and conscious effort in creating such a world? In her exhibition monograph, Lecaroz notes: “I finished these works as an act of remembrance. Does it matter if we cannot find communist angst in Amorsolo’s works? George Orwell said for any work of art, there is only one test worth bothering about―survival. We can leave the agrarian issues out of our discussions, or we can tackle them head-on. Regardless of what we do about them, there will be generations of art lovers and artists who would discover and love Amorsolo’s art. It will survive.”

Bamboo Dancing, Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 152.4 cm (48 x 60 in), 2021

Of the many works in the exhibition, a work that called out to me is the acrylic on canvas painting Dalaga (2021), modeled after Amorsolo’s Girl with Mangoes (1951). Amorsolo originally depicts a country maiden with a basket of fruits and holding a bundle of freshly-picked mangoes. In the background is a kalesa transporting a passenger, and a church façade flanked by a blooming fire tree. Lecaroz transforms this scene with its familiar forms, yet reintroducing Amorsolo’s maiden as a dream-like figure. Unlike the other anonymous subjects, Lecaroz depicts this young woman with a full facial expression. Although she may not exhibit the ideal, Filipina beauty that the National Artist has illustrated time and again in his masterful realism, Lecaroz’s psychedelic dalaga reverberates the essence of Amorsolo’s perpetual maiden with the same sincere smile. Writer Och Gonzalez once described Lecaroz’s artistic pre-occupations: “The artist invites us to engage in a wistful return to innocence and connection, not as a means of escape, but as a note of hope to carry us forward into brighter days.” While Lecaroz’s Repetitio might appear to simply derive from the visual elements of Amorsolo’s oeuvre for her formal reinterpretations, the exhibition might be seen as an opportune reminder of the sincere efforts and intentions artists make behind their formal creations. Could it be that behind the formal replication and technical reworking, the essence is also repeated? Amorsolo’s smiling maidens and hopeful countryfolk may yet live in Lecaroz’s acts of remembrance, though they appear entirely different today, as hints of hope in these trying times. Repetition then becomes commendation and continuity, and in this way, one might find the artist’s light. •

Reference: Fernando Amorsolo Art Foundation

Dalaga, Acrylic on canvas 114 x 76 cm (44.8 in x 29.9 in), 2021

Repetitio is now at 1335Mabini and runs from June 30 to July 28.

John Alexis Balaguer is the manager of operations at Palacio de Memoria arts and events center and is the founder and curator of Curare Art Space. Formerly, he was a curatorial researcher at Ayala Museum, writing for exhibitions and publications, and was managing editor of the museum magazine. His projects include research work for the catalogue raisonne of Spanish-Filipino artist Fernando Zobel and In Focus: Arts and Objects Explained from the Ayala Museum collection. Prior, he was gallery manager at Archivo 1984. Lex received the Loyola Schools Award for the Arts in 2012, and the Ateneo Art Award for Art Criticism in 2019. He currently contributes to Art Asia Pacific magazine and Kanto.com.ph as Art Section grantee.

Kanto thanks Scavolini for the writing grant that made this article possible

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