Juvenal Sanso, a Spanish painter popular in the Philippine art scene, turns 90 tomorrow. Old age does not agree with him, and I have heard from people who have seen him in recent years that his memory is not what it used to be; he’s no longer the talkative jolly fellow I remember from the time I interviewed him in his Paris studio in June 1984.
I was introduced to him at the Paris premiere of Uro dela Cruz’s great long-lost film “Misteryo sa Tuwa.” The film revolved around villagers who are the first to make it to a crash site in a remote Philippine town and make away with a suitcase filled with cash. What they believe to be their passport to an easier life turns out to be the root of their and other people’s misfortune.
On our way to the metro stop after the screening, Sanso offered to treat expatriate Filipina printmaker Ofelia Gelvezon Tequi, her children and me to ice cream. There were a handful of Filipinas in the ice cream parlor at the time who looked at our group and presumed we were an interracial family who didn’t understand Tagalog, so they actually talked about us quite loudly. After we bought our ice cream, Sanso put the rude Pinays in their place by speaking to them in Tagalog. One woman in the group looked at Sanso from head to toe and asked, “Atin ba ito?” Sanso replied with another question: “Bakit hindi?” and added, “Eto nga, kasama ko ang pamilya ko.” So the lady looked at the beautiful mestizo Tequi children and said, “Itong mga ito, kamukha niya.” But, seeing my indio features, she remarked in disdain: “Ito, kamukha ng nanay!”
It was a treat to have been Sanso’s “son” for a few minutes. It made me wonder what my life would have been like if I were born with his fair skin and blue eyes. No doubt I would probably be labeled an “Amerikano,” which was a label the Catalonia-born Sanso hated. Sanso grew up in the Philippines where his family ran Arte Español, a company that manufactured wrought-iron garden furniture for the outdoors, and Spanish-style iron furniture for suburban homes with pretensions to Hispanic taste. He was educated in the University of the Philippine School of Fine Arts, where one of his classmates mocked him by saying: “Juvi, I like to have you around, because when people say my work is ugly, I know yours is worse.” Now that Sanso is an auction house staple, I want to know who this forgotten painter is and whether he actually amounted to anything after college.
I was fortunate that Sanso agreed to my visiting his Paris studio, where most of his work was done. He painted in Paris and sold the works in Manila. I was warned that one had to call in advance and make an appointment, not so much because he was reclusive, but rather to give him time to tidy up and move some furniture so you would have a small corridor to walk in amid the mess, or provide you with a place to sit.
The studio was a maze of books, cassette tapes, scattered correspondence, drawings and canvases in varying degrees of completion. One or two easels had three or four canvases stacked on top of each other, so when Sanso tired of working on one, he could flip it and work on another, or yet another. In this seeming clutter, made tolerable by classical music playing in the background, in this cramped and dark space were created the bright flowers and somber landscapes that have become his trademark, more than his signature—Sanso.
During the European summer months from July to September, when the days were long and the nights were short, sunlight would stream into his studio from a sun roof, and he would work nonstop while there was light, often until about 8 p.m. when he called it a day. Manila for him was a refuge from the darkness, cold and loneliness of winter. Paris was a place for work, Manila was a place to rest and socialize. Paris was the place where he would recharge by visiting museums, Manila was for exhibits and selling his art. Social obligations in Manila left little time to paint, so he was a man-about-town in Manila and a hermit in Paris, where his only diversion was a neighbor whose second occupation, after dealing in fur, was harassing Sanso.
One day, my interviews with Juvenal Sanso and Nena Saguil will see print, to help put a new dimension into appreciating or understanding their art.
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