Bravo Women: “These portraits would become legendary, particularly those that immortalized the Philippines’ most beautiful and elegant women. Referred to as ‘The Bravo Women,’ these became rare, prized pieces painted by one of the most impo
rtant artists in the history of modern art.”
There she was looming above us: Extremely cool wearing a caftan in her favorite pink that so flattered her olive skin, her left arm akimbo with her hand nonchalantly resting on her hip to set off immaculately carved ivory bangles that were awesome against those impossibly thin wrists. Her raven-black hair was cut in a perky bob but her smile was more tentative, not quite ready to betray a thought that had just crossed her mind. Her eyes were more unequivocal, with that glint of anticipation for what the marvelous evening had to offer.
This portrait of Chona Recto Kasten in the living room of her home was so vivid, so compelling, that we could never stop looking at it each time we came to visit. It was like there was always a new secret waiting to be unlocked during each viewing — very much like Chona herself. Although her reputation as one of Manila’s most elegant women always preceded her, one is never prepared for the first encounter. She was beautiful, yes, and always well-dressed and impeccable. But much more than these qualities, it was an innate grace and generous spirit that never failed to overwhelm. And as you get to know her, you are even more enthralled by the stories she has to tell, whether it’s about a weekend with jet-setting glitterati aboard a yacht in Capri or a promising young designer she met in bohemian Malate.
Bravo, Bravo!: A precious legacy of portraits
“He came to Manila to attend a party and have a short holiday but ended up painting and staying for a good six months!” she said of Claudio Bravo, the celebrated artist who painted her portrait in 1968. Bravo arrived in January that year with a group of Spanish aristocrats, many of whom he had painted aside from King Juan Carlos, Queen Sofia, the Infantas and many celebrities. He also did the portrait of the artist, Fernando Zobel, in 1963 and eventually Jaime and Bea Zobel’s as well in 1965. The First Lady, Imelda Marcos, also wanted one done so she asked Don Jaime to invite the artist to come to the Philippines. He finally made it to the country when the Spanish nobles were invited to the ruby anniversary of industrialist Eugenio Lopez Sr. and his wife Pacita. It was at the party where Bravo was introduced to the country’s crème de la crème who would promptly commission him for their portraits. These portraits would become legendary, particularly those that immortalized the Philippines’ most beautiful and elegant women. Referred to as “The Bravo Women,” these became rare, prized pieces painted by one of the most important artists in the history of modern art.
Originally from Valparaiso, Chile where he was born on Nov. 8, 1936, Claudio Nelson Bravo Camus took formal art lessons at the atelier of academic painter Miguel Venegas Cifuentes, but was largely self-taught. By age 17, he already had his first exhibition at the prestigious Salón 13. He was quite well-rounded in the arts — writing poetry, dancing with the Compañia de Ballet de Chile and acting at the Teatro Ensayo of the Catholic University of Chile. His true métier was of course already evident by then so that when he moved to the southern city of Concepción there was no stopping him from becoming a full-fledged portrait painter. Greater things were in store when he left for Madrid in 1961 during the rule of General Francisco Franco, whose daughter he would later paint, aside from the other famous and powerful people who would seek him out.
It was in Madrid where he imbibed the spirit and techniques of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Museo del Prado and other museums: the light effects of Diego Velázquez, the still life works of Juan Sánchez Cótan and the cloth studies of Francisco de Zurbarán. He once said, “If I had to choose an age into which I’d fit, it would have to be the 17th century. During that time artists copied nature in a conceptual way. They transformed the reality of their times as I try to transform the reality of ours.”
Inspired by these old Classical masters, Bravo developed a superlative technical virtuosity. We would discuss with Chona how amazingly the details of her portrait were rendered: the folds and creases of her caftan, the subtle coloration and veins of her ivory cuff, the way her fingers rest so naturally on her hip. Hands are very crucial in a portrait and this is something Bravo did well even with other portraits of his we’ve seen like the one of Baby Fores that has her hands serenely resting on her bosom, precariously keeping the draped crimson shantung silk in place. The black chiffon bow, which added volume to her hair, is also expertly executed in its translucence. Even the slight bump on her forehead, something she never noticed till Bravo captured it on canvas, added to the nuances of her portrait.
For Elvira Manahan’s pose, her fingers can be seen coquettishly gesticulating as was typical of her effervescent personality. Elvira was so animated, in fact, that Bravo never completed her portrait because she kept talking and moving about during the sittings.
The effect of light was also something Bravo had mastered, using it skillfully to depict textures and subtle changes in color. He found the light in the Philippines more intense than in Chile or Spain and it actually transformed the way he painted. The tropical colors fascinated him and he began to enjoy colors more. It was here where he dared to use what he calls “electric” colors in his paintings.
But aside from technical excellence, what distinguished a Bravo portrait was the styling done by the artist. “He was the one who looked through my closet and chose what I should wear,” Chona related then. The caftan was perfect for Chona’s relaxed, uncontrived style, not to mention that it still looks right today, 44 years after it was painted. Bravo was actually notorious for sending some Spanish nobles to purchase a piece from Cristóbal Balenciaga when he couldn’t find any of their dresses to his liking. The artist always admired the spare, sculptural creations of the fashion designer and this shows in his choice of outfits for his subjects. Jewelry was also kept to a minimum, if used at all. Most of the women of the Philippine portraits had no jewelry on except for Chona’s ivory bangles and Baby Fores’ pearl earrings, classic pieces that did not date the art works.
Although he had met Chona on many previous occasions, it was de rigueur for him to get to know his subjects more by talking to them, visiting their homes and observing them at parties so that he could find that special something that was unique to each person.
For this reason, changes were sometimes inevitable as the sittings progressed. Tingting Cojuangco, for example, already had a dress chosen from her wardrobe but after a few sketches Bravo was not happy. “The idea he wanted to convey didn’t satisfy his feelings which is why he first drew me in three different expressions. Not liking the results, he tore the sketch,” Tingting related in “A Portrait of Claudio Bravo as an Artist,” a 2004 article she wrote for this paper. Finally, Tingting wore “a Filipina lavandera’s or washer woman’s dress” produced by the subject’s mother Lita Delos Reyes and her friend Villa Brille. Bravo then asked her to just let her hair down and sit comfortably by the windowsill to get available natural light. In the final portrait, the simplicity of the sheer kimona top in piña and the woven striped patadyong brought a kind of pastoral innocence to complement her lovely face, another timeless look achieved by the artist.
At times the subjects would prefer to wear a particular color like Katherine Young who wanted to be in blue but Bravo insisted on white. Since her husband agreed with the artist’s choice, Katherine relented and wore a white silk alaskin gown. She was also initially asked to sit for the first sessions but the artist changed his mind and asked her to stand instead. Reluctant at first because this was more tiring for her, she eventually obliged as Bravo regaled her with amusing stories. Despite the initial awkward beginning in their relationship, the two ended up getting along splendidly — enjoying wonderful repartee all throughout the sittings. She was also happy with the final result where her white gown was set against a white background, placing the spotlight on her face and her clasped hands.
For Imelda Ongsiako Cojuangco, Bravo felt no dress in existence could match what he wanted to capture on the canvas. He considered her the most beautiful lady he had met in the Philippines as he once told the couple, Johnny and Tats Manahan, who visited him in Tangier, Morocco in 1981. Fondly calling her “The Spider Lady” because of her sense of drama, he decided to use voluminous swathes of purple taffeta which he himself draped on her with just her right hand to keep his “couture creation” in place. With her long, swanlike neck, a massive bouffant hairdo and a shocking fuchsia background, this is probably one of the most stunning portraits he has created and is in fact the only Manila portrait represented in the artist’s 2005 book, Claudio Bravo Paintings and Drawings.
But perhaps the most monumental of his Philippine portraits would have to be the one of Regina Dee. Done towards the end of his stay when he was probably already getting “portrait fatigue,” it was actually one that he wanted to do and conceptualized in his mind even before meeting her. He wanted a Chinese lady and when he met her he knew she was perfect. He asked her to have a white gown with a black opera coat made and asked her to sit with the coat gathered around her as she adjusted her long white gloves. To complete the tableau, he painted ominous clouds billowing in the background. You could almost hear the aria of a Puccini tragedienne reaching a crescendo in the background.
Looking at Chona’s portrait, we would always be amazed how her spirit would come through. There is a certain intensity in a Bravo piece that has made critics classify him as a hyperrealist, or even a photorealist, descriptions that simply horrified him. The use of the word “photo” would annoy him particularly because he never painted from photos. For him, the eye saw so much more than the camera. His later works would also be classified as superrealist, an American phenomenon that conveys a detached quality or what the art critic Irving Sandler would describe as “cool, clean and distanced from the self.” But this wasn’t quite Bravo either. Perhaps aside from the Renaissance-Baroque sensibilities that shaped his imagination, you can say there’s a hint of the surreal and fantastical that betrays his Latin American roots, giving his works an added depth, an otherworldly quality. Even if he painted mundane objects, there was always a sense of mystery, pointing to something more than their outward appearance. But Bravo actually always felt like an outsider in the world of modern art, declaring “I have my own boat, my own sails, my own wind.”
After his Philippine sojourn, Bravo’s fame grew in the international art scene. His first exhibit in New York at the Staempfli Gallery in 1970, reviewed by The New York Times as an art dealer’s dream, opened to critical acclaim. Tired of the whole social scene in Madrid, he left Spain and moved to Morocco in 1972 where he lived and painted for the rest of his life in relative solitude, acquiring a house and studio in Tangier, an ancient house in Marrakech and a sprawling villa near Taroudant. He was able to paint without the pressures and constraints of portrait commissions, giving his imagination free reign.
The move marked a whole new phase in his art as he imbibed the new influences — the landscape, the people, the colors and of course the Moroccan light which again transformed the way he painted as well as his choice of subjects which ranged from beloved objects to the people around him which he would portray in mythological and biblical allegories. When Johnny and Tats Manahan were in his Moroccan studio, they saw some of his paintings in progress like “The Bacchanal” and “Arachne” and “Minerva” which were indeed totally different from his previous works, with even more superb draftsmanship and a different feel because of more intense lighting and color. During their visit, he was actually so in love with the red color of Tats’ shorts that he had to use that shade in one of the paintings which formed part of his first exhibit in 1981 for the Marlborough Gallery in New York. This gallery presented him as one of its exclusive artists together with noted artists like Fernando Botero and Rufino Tamayo.
The following years were even busier as he mounted exhibitions all over the world, emerging as one of the most highly-valued living artists. He started concentrating on object paintings like crumpled paper, packages and textiles which were very much in demand in the international market. Prodigious as he was, he always stayed true to his métier, working hard till his untimely death from epilepsy on June 4, 2011. He left an impressive oeuvre, some of which forms part of the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Peter Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Museo Rufino Tamayo in Mexico and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Chile, among others.
The collection of Manila portraits is his most precious legacy to the Philippines, considered by him to be the last big group of portraits that he completed before concentrating on painting objects and still lifes. A Bravo portrait, in fact, became so covetable because he generally stopped doing them except for the occasional commission, making these Philippine portraits even more priceless.
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The Manila portraits will be exhibited together for the first time since 1968 in “Claudio Bravo: Sojourn in Manila,” which opens on Sept. 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila.
The exhibition, which coincides with the National Day celebration of Chile, is a joint project of the Embassy of Chile led by Ambassador Roberto Mayorga and the Energy Development Corp. (EDC) led by Oscar Lopez. Technical partner is the Lopez Museum. The show is on view until Oct. 22.
On weekends during the exhibition run, there will be activities like talks by the authors of the catalogue/book, Cid Reyes and Liliane R. Manahan; a live drawing session to be conducted by a noted portrait artist; a sketching and styling session of drapery, hair and makeup to be participated in by fashion designers and stylists, with the sketching session led by a noted artist. The latter activity is in keeping with Claudio Bravo’s habit of styling his sitters himself to conform to his ideal of volume and space. For information, call Margarita Villanueva of the Lopez Group Foundation Inc. at 634-3715 or visit www.metmuseum.ph.