Zobel, words and pictures
Some people react to abstract art with the comment that any five-year-old can do the same dabs of paint on a canvas and be considered an artist. When some people look at the collages of Henri Matisse, Roberto Chabet, or even Arturo Luz, they wonder how throwing bits of painted paper randomly on an empty space can be considered art. Many years ago, when I was going around Fernando Zobel gallery in Ayala Museum, I was struck by the elegant abstract works and the annotations in pencil that provided clues into what he read, saw, heard, or experienced that led to a particular work.
In that gallery you had a reconstruction of his whitewashed workspace—very clean, well-organized, and even the floor was painted white so that his eye was not distracted by other colors when he painted. Visitors could leaf through a folder with copies of his letters—a delight to read whether typed, handwritten, or accompanied by spot drawings. These letters were windows to Zobel’s life and work.
Painters work with pictures in the same way that writers and poets wield words. While both means communicate and express thought and emotion, resulting in a debate over the power and effectiveness of one over the other, we have rarities like Filipino-Spanish painter Fernando Zobel who was gifted with the facility in both words and pictures. Recently repatriated to the Philippines is a cache of letters, sketches, drawings and paintings that Zobel sent to the Pfeufer family, lifelong friends in the United States. These now-historical materials are mounted in a small but interesting show in Leon Gallery in Makati that I visited last weekend, and there I saw not just words on a page but also Zobel’s search for identity and his voice as an artist.
Enrique Francisco Fernando Zóbel de Ayala y Montojo Torrentegui Zambrano was born in Manila on Aug. 27, 1924. He survived World War II and, after the Battle for Manila in 1945, enrolled at Harvard University where he earned a degree in literature and history magna cum laude, with a thesis on the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. It was during Zobel’s studies at Harvard that he met and came into the circle of Jim Pfeufer and his wife, Reed Champion, who introduced Zobel to the Boston school of art that started him on a journey to self-discovery. Zobel credited the Pfeufers for helping him to see and thanked them repeatedly “for adding color to my life.”
The correspondence reveals a sensitive soul, searching for solitude in activity, meaning in a fast-changing world. When Zobel traveled he not only narrated, he also described what he saw, sharing delight and discovery in encountering the new and unfamiliar. “Traveling alone,” he wrote, “is so lonely even for a jaded traveler like me. So much takes shape only in the sharing.” In another note from Madrid, which accompanied a gift of an 18th-century Spanish reliquary, he quipped: “This time I don’t really feel a sense of departure. The world must be shrinking. Perhaps I am expanding.”
Zobel’s letters often contain reflections on life, the seriousness made light when punctuated with his trademark humor: “Unfortunately I was never trained to leave the olive in the martini for the last. I eat the olive first and use the martini to wash it down. This is probably wicked by certain standards.”
Important to an art historian are the letters and postcards covering the years 1948-1981 that detail how Zobel approached his art and how he tried to capture the world around him on paper or canvas. An example of how he saw light and the world is found in an undated letter:
“When the sun goes down here you get an eye-breaking sunset. Almost garish. But if you sit with your back to the main spectacle you find the sky very dark indeed and the leaves on the trees pick up the pinks of the light. Very amazing; the trees and grass very brilliant and reddish-green against the dark sky. I have tried to paint this. In fact there is so much that I want to paint that I have trouble reminding myself that there is such a thing as technique. I do not know what accounts for this sense of urgency: this impulse to rush ahead and put it down. It is definitely out of line with everything I have been taught.”
I had always thought of Zobel as an artist and a philanthropist who donated the core collection “Philippine Modern Art” that formed the nucleus of Ateneo Art Gallery, as well as the collection of Spanish modern art, now exhibited in Cuenca, Spain. I was surprised to find in his correspondence references to the landmark Calatagan archeological excavations in the late 1950s:
“In our ranch in Batangas we have found some ancient Chinese-Philippine graves. Lots of porcelain—very beautiful, some jade axes, iron spears and swords, beads, what have you. Archeology is very exciting when it happens in your own backyard. I never was interested in porcelain before, but now that I’m handling and seeing it, so to say, growing from the ground I’m getting deeply involved. Lovely, slightly crude designs of wonderful fish, plants, clouds, birds. Sometimes just calligraphic acrobacy…”
All these letters and related works in one place before they are dispersed at auction next month form an inspiring story of a man’s search for himself. All these words and pictures are essential to art critics and art historians studying the life and work of a man who lived up to a fortune teller’s prediction that Zobel was a pharaoh who would become a pyramid.
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