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A great artist who was not named NA

/ 02:23 AM July 09, 2014

I should have written about it sooner, but other more urgent subjects got in the way. But better late than never.

I am referring to the retrospective show of the late painter Hugo Yonzon Jr. at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Too bad the show has ended, but the brouhaha over the noninclusion of Nora Aunor in the latest batch of National Artists has made Yonzon a timely subject. He deserved to be a National Artist, but he was ignored by the panel that chooses the nominees and submits the list to the President for the award.

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Not that Yonzon coveted the award. He couldn’t care less. Modesty is not a virtue of many artists, but Yonzon, although a talented and accomplished one, was different. He was a very humble man. Unlike some artists who ask friends to nominate them, the award never entered his mind. Unlike some artists who park themselves in newspaper offices to have their press releases published, he did not court publicity although he had many friends in the media. He did not need the publicity. His beautiful paintings were bought quickly. And anyway, he was too busy turning them out. It was the art collectors who coveted his paintings.

Although he was a very prolific and versatile painter (his output probably equals or surpasses that of Fernando Amorsolo), he had very few one-man shows during his lifetime (only six, I think). Why? Because he could not gather enough paintings for a one-man show. Collectors snapped up his paintings as soon as he finished them, sometimes even before the paint had dried.

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I once asked him why he did not exhibit more often. “Simple,” he replied. “Whenever I finish a painting, some guy comes to the house, sees the painting, and wants to buy it. So I sell it to him. After all, that’s the reason I paint—to sell. That why I could not gather enough paintings for a one-man show.”

A fast worker, Yonzon finished, on the average, two paintings a week at home. That did not include the paintings he finished outside his home—at the art department of the Daily Express (now defunct) and elsewhere—that his family did not know about.

Yonzon kept an easel, canvases, paint and brushes at the Daily Express art department, and when he had no assignment from the editors, he painted while engaging in endless banter with other artists.

He had reason to keep painting and selling. He was prolific not only as a painter but also as a father. He had 14 children, a feat few men can equal. I asked him once how many grandchildren he had, and he replied, “I have lost count.”

The reason Yonzon’s paintings are very popular is that he had a style suitable for almost any buyer, whatever his taste. That was obvious in his retrospective show.

His early paintings are what is called in the art world “modern.” Indeed, he kept winning top prizes in the modernist category of the Art Association of the Philippines’ annual shows. His early barong-barong, squatter shanties that are a favorite subject of Filipino painters, are dark; the vendors and people in processions are thin and tubercular. One painting in the retrospective show shows only some dark stone ruins, similar to a painting by Cesar Legaspi.

Yonzon admitted to having been influenced by Legaspi, with whom he worked at Philprom. “It was Cesar who taught me the tangents in composition,” he said.

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Some of his paintings are semiabstract. There is one with nothing but rocks and water. There are two paintings on the same subject: an abandoned, decaying boat on a beach that evokes much loneliness. One version has the boat farther away, with rocks in the foreground; the other has the boat in close-up, showing the rotting planks and the moss growing on them.

His later works are lighter, happier, with brighter colors. The farmers, fishermen and vendors have happy faces, their clothes are colorful. The women are all beautiful. Even the carabaos look happy.

Yonzon attributed his versatility and varied style to his long experience as an advertising artist. “In advertising,” he said, “you have to be able to work in many styles to suit the client’s taste.”

A coffee-table book on Yonzon will be published in October.

* * *

A parting shot on the National Artist award. Show biz folk are up in arms that the President did not include Nora Aunor among those proclaimed National Artists. But do not forget that the award is a presidential award, not an award of the CCP or the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. The two groups only makes the nominations, the President makes the final choices.

They are like the Judicial and Bar Council, which only nominates possible appointees to the courts. It is the President who chooses his appointee, he cannot appoint anyone not in the JBC list.

It is the same thing with the CCP-NCCA list of nominees for National Artist. The President has the final choice. In sports, it is called “referee’s call.”

Besides, the original seven arts are only painting, sculpture, literature, music, dance, drama (plays), and architecture. Motion pictures, fashion design, and “historical literature” were not included.

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TAGS: Cultural Center of the Philippines, Fernando Amorsolo, hugo yonzon jr., National Artist, National Artist of the Philippines, nora aunor
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