Sampaloc around UST (University of Santo Tomas) was the place to be right after Liberation. It was the first area to be liberated because of the concentration camp at UST where Americans caught in the war were held; the environs teemed with GIs, schools converted into hospitals, night spots for war-weary GIs and WACs, and army vehicles.
Even at 11, I could feel the wartime-peacetime melange as I walked to an army dental clinic for a decayed molar caught in a war. I tasted my first postwar pork and beans and the melt-proof Hershey’s constituted to resist tropical heat, as was the rubbery butter.
Our family had evacuated to Kuya Manoling (Manuel Conde) and Ate Lita’s house on Maria Cristina Street just off España. There I first laid eyes on the early paintings of Botong Francisco—well, not exactly “laid eyes,” because I just walked past them day in and day out not realizing that they were masterpieces.
There were four or five paintings (I now forget how many), at least two big ones. I recall farmers having a noon meal beside stacks of rice, and a fluvial parade for the Virgin on a balsa (raft), paintings standing out in the sala and in the dining room.
I also saw Botong every now and then, especially in the store on the first floor. But I gave him as much attention as I did his paintings. Botong and Kuya Manoling were soul mates, bosom pals, brothers in art. Most probably it never occurred to either of them that they would both become National Artists.
How I now wish I listened to what the two were chatting about, for I was at the age when “little” boys and girls can eavesdrop all they want and nobody minds. Even then, fleetingly, Botong’s face was to me like an open book—so simple, so sincere.
By the time my wedding drew near in 1960, Botong had become a big name. All I asked from Ate Lita as a wedding gift was one page of Botong’s colored sketches or studies on a number of inch-thick Oslo-paper albums for Kuya Manoling’s “Genghis Khan” and “Saranggani” (which didn’t push through). Ruefully, the family had lost track of all the sketches, and all their Botongs had somehow been given away.
I renewed “bonds” with Botong on a Laguna Loop trip from the Rizal end. After all, Angono is a Laguna “lake town” and, myself being from Laguna, it was my lake as well. We went through the Blanco Museum, Nemiranda’s atelier, and others. We sought out Botong’s house and finally found it, but it was quite forlorn as there was nobody there.
Last month I brought my balikbayan sister-in-law to Ayala Museum. What luck, for National Artist Botong Francisco was on exhibit. While she toured the rest of the floors, I went through “Botong” on the third floor and dwelt on the first floor, where the majority of his paintings were. What a revelation, for my neglected Botong struck me as for the first time!
I held my breath before “Camote Eaters” (1946) because it was so frankly Pinoy. I broke into a chuckle before “Harana,” with a young man who couldn’t even look at his lady love, while his two friends leaning on his back slept soundly (perhaps snoring) or bored to death with the languor of love. Before “Pilgrimage to Antipolo,” I felt like scooping the babies in the baskets suspended from the pingga! The “Fiesta” series gave a lilt to my heart.
The paintings are owned by the Locsins, Cojuangcos, Ques, Pascual, FEU, City Hall, CB, UST, Malacañang, etc. Till the last, I hoped to find one owned by Manuel Conde.
Botong wrote to daughter Carmen on March 5, 1968: “Art to live must go back to a bigger audience. For this it must have power to communicate and not to repel. That is why I have to paint big murals, for like a composer I can create a symphony from the history of our country or our way of life.”
I planted myself in front of the 25-minute documentary on the murals, “A Nation Imagined.” It began: “I was the dark-skinned child who loved to draw… My hand moves and leaves a track like an animal named imagination.”
In an instant, the paintings became bigger than life. It was history awakened, seen, lived, remembered, bringing forth a vision, a people, a nation. Unfolding before me was an object lesson of the nationalist function of art. Botong was also communicating “my country,” “Filipinismo,” like a clap of thunder.
Animating the murals in selected parts then freezing the image was a masterful stroke. Kudos to Peque Gallaga, director; Palanca Award winner Vicente Groyon for a simple, poignant script; and Emerzon Texon for subdued Filipino strains.
A wave of sadness flitted through me as I sat there alone except for groups of students and one or two viewers. Are we philistines?
Only now was I deeply moved by paintings I first passed decades ago without even blinking. Now I was on the edge of blinking with tears in my eyes. (Go see before March 31.)
Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor, book editor and occasional journalist. Comments to marda_ph @yahoo.com, fax 8284454.