Amorsolo: Acquired taste
Luxury originally referred to a state of great comfort and extravagant living. Luxury used to be discreet and kept within the confines of a Forbes Park mansion. However, tastes have changed. Once treasured and inherited pictures painted by the likes of Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fabian de la Rosa, and Fernando Amorsolo have sold on the auction block fetching prices way below contemporary art by BenCab, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, and Fernando Zóbel. Watching the art market for over a decade now, I am surprised by auction darlings, artists whose work only sell at auction. These have no exhibition history, no vetting by art critics and contests.
Marketing and social media have given a new spin on luxury: It has become a brand or object whose quality is hyped up to make it desirable or aspirational. All the stops are pulled to generate irrational buying behavior from those that can afford it. The range is quite varied these days. Luxury is not limited to old master paintings or lola’s diamonds. For some, luxury means wristwatches, handbags, or sneakers that sell in the secondary market for millions. For others, luxury is having a Porsche, Lamborghini, or Lexus parked in the garage. Luxury reminds us of President Noynoy Aquino, sensitive to public opinion and the optics of it, who gave up a “third-hand” Porsche 911 and sold it in 2011, at cost, for a reported P4.5 million.
What is luxury in a country where 18 percent live under the poverty line? That’s an estimated 20 million Filipinos who don’t earn enough to cover basic needs. Luxury reminds me that the world has changed a lot since we emerged from lockdown. Clear skies I enjoyed from my bedroom window have been replaced by haze from pollution. During lockdown I relished the quiet, empty streets and woke up to birds chirping by my window; today it’s heavy construction next door and traffic punctuated by the occasional ambulance siren, or worse, “wang-wang” announcing the passage of some “feeling VIP.”
Browsing through the latest Leon Gallery catalog, I noted a bounty of works by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo in its forthcoming auction. Mostly repatriated from the US, these were preowned by expatriates who took home a memory of their stay through the sunlit cheerful canvases of Amorsolo. He made hundreds of paintings of prewar Philippines, freezing in time a world that was no more. Buyers in Amorsolo’s Azcarraga Avenue studio ordered paintings off a photo album. Price was computed based on size, framing, and the number of human or animal figures desired. Glimpses of the commercial side of Amorsolo’s work emerge from his postwar correspondence, many patrons thanking him for their paintings and ordering more, while some commissioning portraits and sending black and white photographs of themselves, front and side view, with Amorsolo replying in one letter:
“I will be very glad to make the painting. The size is O.k., but from the proportion of the foto the figure will be a little smaller than half life-size. The painting will cost five hundred pesos (P500.00), or two hundred fifty dollars ($250.00), at the size you mentioned, the frame not included. I shall need one month to finish it. Should you agree with the price and decide to order, one important detail I shall need is the color of her complexion.
“In case you wish me to proceed with the painting, I shall, with your kind permission, undertake to make the painting a few inches bigger without a change in the cost, in order that the disadvantage of proportion may be remedied.”
I don’t know how Amorsolo replied to the return of Col. Henry McClean’s portrait with this note: “I am going to ask you to redo the entire portrait as to obtain a better likeness and at the same time a flattering one. Please do nothing about it until I send you some more photographs in order to refresh your memory.”
Amorsolo was at the height of his power before the war; paintings of this period sparkled in light. He peaked in 1949 and from then his paintings became worn and uneven due to failing eyesight, manual dexterity, and the skill of his assistants. I used to think Amorsolo was commercial until I encountered a luminous 1927 Amorsolo two decades ago. I realized then that two or three in a hundred of his paintings are a real treasure. With a multimillion-peso windfall, I would choose an Amorsolo that appreciates over a Porsche that sheds 20 percent off its value as soon as you drive it out of the dealership. Now, how does one apply for a job at Pharmally?