Some hardy people braved the rain and traffic last week to catch the opening of “The Real H. R. Ocampo” at the Ayala Museum. The program started at 6 p.m. but the guests trickled in as late as 10 p.m., and were rewarded by the sight of genuine luminous works so different from the flat fakes that have flooded the art market.
Ocampo’s most popular work is actually a copy of a small oil painting titled “Genesis” that was woven into a tapestry by Japanese artisans to become the fire curtain of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Main Theater. With proper lighting, “Genesis” glows with the intensity of red-hot embers, and emanating from its three-dimensional center are what seem to be claws or tongues of fire reaching out to the viewer. The current Ayala Museum show proves that “Genesis” may be the largest of Ocampo’s work but is not necessarily his greatest. The show provides a second look at one of the most original yet underrated of Filipino artists.
Official recognition came late for Hernando Ruiz Ocampo, better known for the way he signed his paintings: “H. R. Ocampo.” He was proclaimed National Artist for Painting as an afterthought—13 years after his death. It is not well known that before he turned to painting full-time, Ocampo expressed himself through words and was a founding member of “The Veronicans,” a prewar group of writers that included future National Artists for Literature Francisco Arcellana and N. V. M. Gonzalez. In the early 1980s I leafed through a typescript of his poems composed and illustrated for his mistress in the 1950s. It was an unsold rarity at the old Heritage Art Center in Cubao, and I wonder where it is today.
Ocampo’s most anthologized short story “Bakya” (1938) articulated his empathy for the working class. I remember this story from high school; it helped me understand his early paintings in 1934-1945 that, after an unsuccessful attempt at aping Fernando Amorsolo, were filled with images of the hungry, the homeless, and the miserable, thus commenting on the social conditions of his time long before what is now known as “social realism” became fashionable. These heartrending paintings may be important for the art historian, but are definitely not decorative enough for the living or dining room walls in the gated Makati villages.
As a painter, Ocampo was self-taught, his art homegrown and unique. He made ink illustrations for magazines and worked in an advertising firm. In 1938, with Carlos V. Francisco, Galo Ocampo and other artists he formed “The Thirteen Moderns.” With Vicente Manansala and Cesar Legaspi he formed another group called “The Neo Realists.” Articulate and social, Ocampo often was at the center of groups of writers, artists or art lovers. He was the shining star in a constellation of artists that met every Saturday at the Taza de Oro coffee shop in Manila—hence “The Saturday Group” that hailed him as the “father of nonobjective art in the Philippines.”
Ocampo himself admitted that Filipinos were partial to pretty pictures and attracted to the simple and figurative. Yet he persevered even as many did not understand or care for his work. He was of the opinion that unlike figurative art that left little to the imagination, nonobjective art was open to many interpretations, even those that went beyond the artist’s intention and imagination. Once, confronted by someone who claimed there was a couple coupling on the CCP curtain, he explained:
“Those were not intended. That is the quality of abstract painting. You see what you want to see. On the artist’s part, it is intuition. You get what you bring into it. Don’t look for a topical or literal meaning. Approach it as a visual image. Find the leitmotif. As in music, the moment you catch the main motif, you capture the whole in the variations.”
When asked for the origin of these motifs in his art he replied:
“From nature. From everything around me. Fish forms from the fried fish we eat at our table. Leaf forms from the plants all around, and the flames or tongues of fire evolved from the leaf forms. Masks from a book I picked up on African masks, and then from another book on the art of the South Pacific for which I definitely felt an affinity… I paint from nostalgia and specifically from memories of my childhood.”
It is difficult to know the life and work of Ocampo today because there is no public institution with a study collection of his paintings. To complicate matters, there is only one monograph on Ocampo whose pictures provided fodder for the brisk trade in counterfeit works. With many fakes in the art market today, it is important to turn to the comprehensive collection of Paulino and Hetty Que that traces the development of Ocampo’s art from its figurative social realist beginnings to the abstraction he is remembered by. The Que collection allows us to train our eyes and sensibilities from authentic works.
The Ocampo works in the Ques’ collection are found in their bedroom, in the most private part of the house, suggesting that these are their favorites, the most prized in an already enviable collection of Philippine art. Sharing their collection with the public in a retrospective of sorts helps us to see H. R. Ocampo anew and come to appreciate one of the greatest of Filipino artists.
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