Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Encased in an acrylic display box is one massive tome. It is a bulging scrapbook, one of 83 that have been painstakingly assembled by one woman from 1948 to 2000. The hardbound volumes contain clippings of news and articles about art and artists in the Philippines. Interspersed with bits and pieces from dailies, weeklies, and other publications are photographs, notes, invitations, catalogs, letters, and other ephemera.
Scrapbook Volume 36, which documents the goings on in the art world from August 1976 to September 1977, is flipped open to reveal four news clippings. The viewer of the rare artifact will learn that on March 4, 20 new art pieces by José Joya were shown at the UP Tacloban Justice Building. The week before, impressionist Gabriel Custodio, Jr. died of a kidney ailment. He was 34. On the same page is a handwritten letter, dated July 14, from National Artist Napoleon Abueva. Addressing “Mrs. Ledesma,” Abueva wrote:
The second sculptured bench is delivered today. This bench is really big and it is among the very few benches I have ever carved of such size. I would like to ask six thousand pesos for this bench and kindly credit the amount to my accounts. The wood is mangga and the legs are narra.” He signed it “Billy,” with a postscript, “The [Victorio] Edades portrait of yours is great.
“Mrs. Ledesma,” the muse of the Edades portrait, is Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, the indefatigable art patron; author of three books on art, a memoir, and a cookbook; founder of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP); and consummate scrapbooker. Kalaw-Ledesma’s life, alongside a narrative of the Philippine art world, is the subject of a new book, “The Life and Times of Purita Kalaw-Ledesma,” published by Vibal.
The book takes on manifold tasks. While it is both biography and a catalog of some important and representative pieces of Philippine modern art, at the heart of its structure are four essays by art scholars who either directly touch or circle around Kalaw-Ledesma’s life and work, including the scrapbooks, and her involvement with several prevailing institutions. The book’s editor, Purissima Benitez-Johannot, for instance, writes in part about Kalaw-Ledesma’s upbringing and family life.
Kalaw-Ledesma, who was born February 2, 1914, had very public parents. Her father was the historian and statesman T. M. Kalaw. When Purita was two, he became the first director of the Philippine Museum and Library. Her mother, Purificacion Garcia Villanueva, philanthropist and a devoted suffragist, was crowned the first Filipino Queen of the Orient at the Manila Carnival of 1908. Purita was the fourth of five children.
While in high school, she enrolled and studied painting and design at the Escuela de Bellas Artes of the University of the Philippines. There she met friends who would become prominent modern artists. It bears noting that around this time, the modernist Victorio Edades also mounted his seminal exhibition at the Philippine Columbian Club, which, after ultimately having introduced modernism to art consciousness in the country, sparked debates in the press and cognoscenti circles about modernism versus conservatism.
Kalaw-Ledesma earned an education degree from the UP in 1936, and in 1937 married Rafael Ledesma, who hailed from a prominent Negros Occidental clan. Benitez-Johannot describes him as “an out-of-the-box progressive and an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised.” A beautiful wedding photo is included in the book. She wore an embroidered diaphanous veil in the manner of a riding hood, and he looked debonair in a black tailcoat.
The founding of the AAP, meanwhile, roots its genesis to two years after the war, when, after meeting two former classmates from the Escuella de Bellas Artes, Kalaw-Ledesma set out to look for their other peers. The undertaking took off after she acquired a list of former students from two UP professors, one of whom was classical painter Fernando Amorsolo. Amorsolo purportedly warned her that attempts of creating an artist’s organization had failed in the past. Nevertheless, she succeeded. What started as 13 founding members in 1948 flourished into more than five hundred artists by 1959.
“The Philippine Museum and Library were in ruins after the war, destroyed to the core and in the collective psyche of the residents of the city,” Benitez-Johannot writes. “Responsibility for artists and the arts came almost by default to the AAP and its board.” The AAP has since held competitions and exhibitions, “to place value on artworks, and to enable artists, poets, and writers to embark on study tours and programs to the epicenters of the art world.”
The early life of the AAP was not without its share of drama, however. Mentioned several times in the book was “the walkout of 1955,” the overarching story of which played out in the press as a definitive schism between the conservatives and the modernists.
In her essay that referenced materials from the scrapbooks from 1948 to 1969, Clarissa Chikiamco reports the walkout thus: “That year, to celebrate their golden jubilee, the Rotary Club sponsored an exhibition and contest, organized by the AAP and held simultaneously with the Eighth AAP Annual Competition … While the AAP contest awarded prizes in the conservative and modern categories, the Rotary Club competition made no such distinction. With handsome monetary prizes at stake, all three Rotary-sponsored prizes went to modern artists.”
Chikiamco quotes from Kalaw-Ledesma and Amadis Guerrero’s “The Struggle for Philippine Art” (1974): “Visibly angry, the conservatives made their last stand. As soon as the ceremonial ribbon was cut, they strode in one by one and, in full view of the startled guests, removed their paintings and stalked out. Twenty painters withdrew from the exhibit, and a total of 32 paintings were removed and displayed across the street.”
Chikiamco argues that poring through the archive will rouse a revitalized insight into the much-fabled, convenient story. The walkout, in fact, did not consist of all conservatives; they included modernists like Hugo Yonzon Jr. and Ang Kiukok. “The street show’s 64 exhibiting artists, having grown from the initial 20, apparently included 10 moderns. Another list of supporters for the sidewalk exhibition included Manuel Rodriguez Sr., a Rotary prize-winning artist. Speaking for the artists exhibiting on the street, Antonio Dumlao, third-prize winner in the conservative category, insisted that they were not against the moderns. At issue was their suspicion that the Rotary competition had been fixed.”
The year 1955 was also when Kalaw-Ledesma submitted her master’s thesis “A Critical Analysis of Modern Painting in the Philippines Today” to the UP graduate school. Curator Patrick D. Flores, in his essay, juxtaposes and contrasts Kalaw-Ledesma’s thesis with writings by the artist Fernando Zobel and the critic Francisco Arcellana. According to Flores, the three “consolidated efforts to form a modern consciousness.”
Kalaw-Ledesma’s thesis, for instance, argued for a shift toward a more vigorous liberal education program. She wrote, “Our schools put more emphasis on developing craftsmen rather than thinkers. Thus we see many excellently executed pictures in our exhibition halls which are very shallow and have nothing to say.” Flores further quotes: “The concept of what a painting is should be raised from that which is merely perceptual or appealing to the senses to that which is conceptual or originating from the mind; the conceptual basis of painting is one of the major principles of modern art.”
Flores points out that this is echoed in Zobel, who wrote, “The artist does not paint what he sees; he paints what (he thinks) he knows.” This move toward a break from the captivity of the “merely perceptual” has parallels in Arcellana, too. Writing about the state of Philippine abstraction, Arcellana commented on José Joya: “Figuration no longer operates in Joya’s work: it is pure feeling and therefore pure color: it is pure music.”
Finally, the book’s fourth essay finds Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez digging into Kalaw-Ledesma’s archives of the 1970s. The 1970s and today are more than four decades apart, but Ramirez submits that similarities between the two junctures are “enticing to explore.” She cites two parallels: increased commercialism (for example with “the rise of art festival-fairs” and “global market agents avidly playing into historicizing projects”) and what she describes as “faint stirrings of resistance to institutional validation” by artist-run and collective-initiated enterprises.
While the 1970s was a tumultuous time, Ramirez thrives in being at once critical and humorous. She quotes critic Jolico Cuadra’s “uncharacteristically kinder” view of the Philippine Art Gallery: “Meetings were held there: of writers, of people who were making films, people who wanted to act. Amateur painters, serious painters, tourists, students, would go there; people who wanted to buy paintings, or to have them framed; people who painfully wanted to do something, creating something.”
Ramirez then comments, “This catchall scenario is now familiar to platoons of curiosity-driven adventure-seekers gravitating today around hipsterish co-work enclaves that variably take shape as coffee stops, reading rooms, DIY studios, or ramshackle places where art is installed. But the 1970s saw no such spread of packaged leisure options to do art-foodie-selfie crawls across the metropolis.”
Further into the scrapbooks, Ramirez discovers in the 1978 volume a typewritten and mimeographed copy of Hayag Sining, a UP underground student publication awash with “brazen critique of the Marcos penchant for white-fencing shanties, stinging accounts of the ‘Kulay Anyo ng Lahi’ murals, assertions of value of lowbrow art such as comics, and taunting reviews of religious theater.” Ramirez notices, “Tucked into the masthead is recognition of Purita’s having sponsored the issue; to what degree remains unclear.” Like its authors, readers of this book would probably arrive at a similar conclusion: That a book of history can be, surprisingly, unexpected.
"The Life and Times of Purita Kalaw-Ledesma" is published by the Vibal Foundation and will soon be available in all leading bookstores and the Vibal Shop online.