BenCab: Life as an art form
Filipino artists have copied human face and likeness from prehistoric times to our day: from the time two figures on a boat were fashioned in clay to adorn the cover of the Manunggul jar, to the portraits captured in pencil, charcoal, oil or acrylic by National Artist Benedicto R. Cabrera at the dawn of the 21st century.
“Larawan,” the Filipino word for portrait or picture, would have been a perfect title for the exhibition of portraits by BenCab, which is ongoing at the Ayala Museum; except that it could also refer to the Filipino translation of National Artist Nick Joaquin’s play “Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino” or the series of works by BenCab inspired by faded 19th-century photographs of Filipinos. “Mukhang BenCab” was first proposed as a catchy alternative to describe a human face drawn or painted by BenCab, but then the title could also mean a work of art done “in the style of” BenCab. To avoid confusion from double meanings and multiple references, the simplest title, “BenCab Portraits,” frames a significant body of work, often overshadowed by his much-coveted, and rather overpriced paintings from the “Larawan” and “Sabel” series.
BenCab has been drawing since he was but a child of seven and continues to draw well into his 70s filling sheets of paper, big and small, with lines and shading that capture face, form and character. Like a journalist or historian who fills notebooks with text, BenCab has filled countless notebooks and sketchpads with images drawn from life and memory. Many of these images are portraits that range from mere doodles to line drawings, from rough sketches to finished work. In his rapidly drawn portraits we discern an integral part of BenCab’s body of work, the steps to painting, the arc of a creative process. Like practice to the athlete or musician, doing portraits hones the skills of observation, improves the ability for representation, and sharpens the consummate draftsmanship that remains a hallmark of BenCab’s work.
One cannot say that BenCab was born with art, but rather art grew on him, thanks to the influence of his elder brother Salvador, a prolific painter, and the world of komiks (with illustrated stories by Francisco Coching), and the fantastic characters created by Mars Ravelo. BenCab’s natural talent was recognized early on when, as a sixth grader in the Balagtas Elementary School in Bambang, Tondo, he won first prize in a poster contest, reaping P100 for his pocket and the realization that art could be a livelihood. In high school, BenCab augmented his allowance by drawing science projects for his classmates and peddling pencil portraits of James Dean and Elvis Presley copied from fan magazines and from popular music magazines, then known as “Song Hits.” In an age before digital cameras and smartphones, BenCab caught his surroundings in his mind’s eye, committing images to paper, especially the faces of pretty classmates he found attractive and drew in secret.
Admitted to the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, the 17-year-old BenCab enrolled in formal art classes where he was trained to draw, paint and sculpt academically under figurative artists Dominador Castañeda, Ireneo Miranda, Carlos Valino and Anastacio Caedo. He also explored other media and methods unlike those taught in his studio classes in academic, figurative and commercial art, thanks to the inspiration of his professor Jose Joya, a leading abstract artist. Dissuaded from pursuing painting as a major, BenCab took to the commercial arts track that served him well doing layout, illustration and art work for various publications after leaving Diliman. After winning some prizes at art competitions in and out of the university and armed with this early recognition, BenCab left the University of the Philippines without a degree in 1963, only to return, half a century later, to receive an honorary doctorate in the Humanities.
He took a desk job in the United States Information Service where he did layout work. He recalls that among his early portraits was that of US President Lyndon B. Johnson and this was used for one of the local USIS (United States Information Service) publications. He then took on odd jobs as illustrator and layout artist with Liwayway and Mirror magazines, including three years as illustrator with the Sunday Times Magazine. During this time BenCab found his way to Ermita and Malate, then the center of Manila’s artistic and literary scene in the rowdy 1960s and there made lifelong friends. Here he caught the collecting bug, starting off with antiques acquired by barter. In those days, some dealers would accept a drawing or a painting by the then struggling artist in exchange for a santo from the Spanish colonial period, or a piece of Ming dynasty porcelain. Decades later his accumulation of art and antiquities would fill what is now the BenCab museum in Baguio.
An artist’s life story comes out in an exhibition of a hundred BenCab portraits—many publicly exhibited for the first time—that come in different sizes, shapes and mediums. BenCab self-portraits made in the past 50 years document both life and times. These portraits do not just copy a face, they make each face tell at once a story that is that of the sitter and a story that, through art and memory, has formed part of BenCab’s personal and public history.
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