From the window of her apartment along Roxas Boulevard, artist Betsy Westendorp would spend many hours looking out on the view of Manila Bay, contemplating the sunset, and sometimes sketching what she saw.
Art critic Cid Reyes says that the artist once told him that as a young bride her late husband would fetch her from their Ermita apartment to drive down the then Dewey Boulevard to watch the world-famous sunset at Manila Bay. “And there, until the enveloping darkness totally engulfed the light of day, the couple watched the famous Philippine sunset. But even as the light faded away, the images remained in her memory throughout the years, such that decades later, long after her beloved husband had passed away, Westendorp would continue to paint the Philippine sunset in her home in Madrid, despite the many offers by friends to paint the Spanish sunset from their towering aeries.”
For in truth, what Westendorp was painting was not the actual sunset on Manila Bay, but her memories of it, and the feelings that such memories evoked, colored by what she was herself feeling at the moment.
It was her friend and biographer Elena Florez who coined the term to describe Westendorp’s cloud canvases. She called the works “atmosferografias,” a term that is now out of use but which Reyes explains as “[plumbing] the depths of space and atmosphere, lifting the veils of light to create radiant specters of clouds and skies. They are after all, the signifiers for the contemplation of light, as the artist remarks.” From my own amateur understanding, the term also connotes “atmosphere,” “feelings,” “biography,” combining seascape, skyscape, as well as Westendorp’s “interior world,” a glimpse of her moods, emotions, reactions, recollections, as she put brush to canvas to bring to life the “sunsets in her mind.”
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Westendorp’s moody, colorful canvases fill the walls of her condominium unit in Makati, where she had moved after relentless reclamation and construction obscured her view of Manila Bay.
But the paintings evoke a vibrant feeling in all who enter the unit, surrounding everyone with light and color, atmosphere and contrast. The feeling, I thought to myself, is not unlike being inside a jetliner caught in a gathering of clouds and sky.
While there are paintings of brilliant yellow and cream, and streaks of white light, there are also works of a darker, more somber palette. In “Stillness of the Moon,” she even captures the moon emerging from out of the darkening clouds, while “Edge of Darkness” depicts ships and bancas limned against the fading light, evoking a sense of sadness, if not nostalgia.
“The best time for me,” recalls Westendorp in a conversation, “is when I am just starting a new painting. All expectations, dreams are there.”
The feelings expressed in these “cloud paintings,” she shares, “come from inside.” Every painting, she says, “is not something you plan, it just comes. If something belongs, leave it there. If it does not, take it out.”
She is likewise pragmatic about what happens when she starts a new work only to find she is not happy about where it is going. “If I don’t like a painting, I just paint over it. Start over again!”
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While the “atmosferografias” were created in on-and-off spurts for nearly 30 years (her “latest” painting was completed just the day before her lunch with the media), Westendorp has been known to local and international art lovers since the 1970s for her portraits and her landscapes, specifically for her colorful, powerful floral paintings.
While the main gallery at Manila Contemporary (housed in the events venue Whitespace on Don Chino Roces Avenue in Makati) will be devoted to the “atmosferografias,” The Upstairs Gallery will be transformed into a sitting room of an upscale home. Here some of Westendorp’s portraits, most of them in the form of small works from the artist’s private collection, as well as photographic documentation of her iconic commissioned works, will be displayed.
This dual setup, says curator Eva McGovern, allows the public to see “two sides” of Westendorp as an artist. “This is the role of the curator,” McGovern comments. “To present different sides of the artist, provide a fresh perspective on her career.”
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One of perspective must be how Westendorp comes to the process of creation, which is spontaneously, driven by emotion and mood. In her younger days, says the artist, she sat for a portrait by the master Fernando Amorsolo and, when the sitting was finished, he presented her with a small sketch of what the final portrait would look like.
“I could never work that way,” she exclaims. “For me,” says the largely self-taught artist, “what the painting will be comes from inside.” Working from drafts, she says, “would be utterly boring if I knew already what the final painting would look like.”
It is surprising to hear how important spontaneity and feelings, moods and inner worlds are to Westendorp, who has been depicted in the media as a lady of propriety and good taste. Indeed, during our lunch, she is dressed in an impeccable white suit, her white hair drawn back in a bun. She sits on a sofa in her living room, accommodating prying journalists, and joined from time to time by solicitous lady friends.
But this, we learn after a conversation with her, is merely form. If anyone wants to know what goes on beneath this calm, cool exterior, one need only look at her paintings of clouds and sky bathed in the colors of the Manila sunset. There, one will find all the roiling emotions, color, tempest, and darkness that sometimes overwhelm her, as they do most everyone else.
(“Betsy Westendorp: Portrait of an Artist” opens on Jan. 17 and will be on view until Feb. 10 at Manila Contemporary, together with Galleria Duemila.)