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Stemming Time: The Story of a Collection

When one writes historically, one usually does so from the middle, where the subjectivity of retrospect emanates. It is also the point from where history is told and the very position from which it unfurls. It creates an arc back to the starting point, which then proceeds, in a more or less straight line, to the present. The story of the Lopez collection can then begin from such a point, with the acquisition of the Burning of the Intendencia by Fernando C. Amorsolo some thirty-five years into its history.

Amorsolo, known for his idyllic canvases of the Filipina type and scenes of the peaceful rural, changed his subject palette during the advent of the war. This period had broken the spirit of a people emerging from what would be known as Peace Time, throwing Manila into unwanted chaos. Manila had established itself as a fledgling city, with a drive almost at par with its constructed site. But before the city could be experienced fully—Manila’s growth was almost unparalleled in the region—it fragmented and inevitably collapsed as a consequence of war; suddenly and horrif yingly; a city devastated and erased before people’s very eyes. Painted in 1946, Amorsolo meant the burning municipal building as a documentation of the event and as a metaphor for the blaze that was to overcome Manila.

Razed to the ground, Manila was declared an open city December 26, 1941…. Despite the declaration, the Japanese bombed the Pasig River landings on December 27, hit the Intendencia Building, and destroyed Santo Domingo church…On New Year’s eve, the fuel tanks in Pandacan were blown up, sending flames and smoke billowing up.

The burgeoning metropolis was all but blotted out. Manila’s rise, anticipated, was instead gutted and waylaid in a misstep towards Progress. In this way, Manila, bombed, became the rambling megalopolis that it is today. On its ruins, what could have been was gone and a new, sprawling city was built. There should be no space for nostalgia regarding history’s multifarious dictates. History allows for no sighs nor signs of wistfulness. For nostalgia has been said to be the disease of the twenty-first century.

Amorsolo’s Burning of the Intendencia was a work acquired by the Lopez Museum in the mid-nineties. It became part of an already distinguished collection assembled by Eugenio H. López, Sr. The painting’s entry marked a time of quiet, symbolic of the period before the rush of acquisitions and sustained programs in contemporary exhibitions. Itself an unnoticed entry, it became a subtle allusion to the new directions toward which the institution would strive. The museum—the collection’s physical and public repository—would subsequently lead local museology through creative exhibition programming and resolve to professionalize and create standards in conservation. Like Amorsolo’s burning municipal building, erasure and ground-clearing would take place. The erasure would not be the mere emptying of a site, but the creation of a palimpsest; a site where one does not forget and on which intricate transparencies are built. Through this palimpsest, one sees the past and is able to access it. During this period of aggressive acquisitions, the Lopez Museum used recently acquired works to refract aspects of the collections to create a cohesive whole.

During the 1990s, a host of works entered the museum, each an overlaying mark on the palimpsest, intersecting across and within the collection’s troughs. There were brilliant additions, each adding their own weight of importance without overshadowing the rest. There was, simultaneously, a refraction of each one’s brilliant sheen. Under the aegis of the late Lopez patriarch, Eugenio (Geny) Lopez, Jr. and the then director, Mariles Ebro Matias, acquired art works furthered and deepened the importance of the already heady collection.

One of these additions, acquired in 1996, was Fernando Zóbel’s La Vision (1961). Nineteen sixty-one was also the year that Zóbel permanently moved to Madrid. From 1959 to 1962, he painted a culmination of his interests that he called Serie Negra, a series that included this work. He described them as, “Painting of light and line, of movement. Pictures of a swift, improvised execution, like Chinese, Japanese painting. Improvisation permitted by a studied and infinite number of drawings. Line; trajectory. Imprint of movement. Painting without any fuss, without anguish, without melodramatics.” In 2003, La Vision was the pièce de resistance in the Serie Negrasection of the Zóbel retrospective at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.

This near agitation to collect somehow made up for lost time in the legacy of acquisitions that began in 1962. This, too, was the year that the remarkable mural, Pageant of Commerce (1957) by Carlos “Botong” Francisco, came into the museum. A work on the opposite ex treme of the Zóbel, it was nonetheless an important addition to the collection. No local private museum then possessed a mural by the great muralist. Because of the range of these inclusions, the Lopez continues its role as a stronghold for the creation of a relevant and broadly spanning collection open to the public.

The entry of these two works etched a place in the collection. Their inclusion also reasserted the increasing commitment by the Lopezes to obtain salient pieces by important and historically relevant artists. Depicting the history of trade in the Philippines, Francisco executed Pageant of Commerce with unrivaled technical mastery. Initially commissioned in 1957 for an international art fair (and would later hang in a bank), the mural is a majestic pictorial story of commercial traffic from the first exchange with the Chinese to modern travel and exchange on planes and ships. Currently hanging in the lobby of the ABS-CBN building (with the breadth and height of 7.31 by 3.65 meters), it awaits placement with the rest of the Lopez collection.

Less astounding but no less important were inclusions made between 1996 and 1997. A rigorous, critical, and historical eye established a tight net through which only a few work s could fly. Nevertheless, these years proved fortuitous. Works such as a rare Macario Vitalis, The Air Show (1986), of a size unbeknownst to many: 145.6 x 247.8 cm.; Ang Kiukok’s magnificent Seated Figure (1977); a Vicente Manansala Crucifixion (1971); as well as a germane piece by Cesar Legaspi, The Idol (1949), all made their way into the compact museum at the Benpres Building. Even works by Juan Arellano, largely recognized and respected as an architect and seen as a Sunday painter, made their way into the collection. Soon after, Arellano’s contribution as one of the first Philippine artists to take up the Impressionist palette was to enter art history and be justifiably recognized. A retrospective at the Lopez Museum allowed the painter in Arellano to receive the necessary exegesis. Through the institution’s collecting foresight, nodules in history were bared for dissection, set not only against the general history of local art, but also on the museum’s commitment to collect.

The acquisitions agenda also proved broader than that historically dictated by the Thirteen Moderns. The year 1997 also brought about the acquisition of Onib Olmedo’s Bar Scene (1993) and Danilo Dalena’s Jai-Alai Series: Talo(1997), both part of a later chapter in Philippine art history. These entries augured well for the museum that had developed beyond viewing as significant one or two artists in the development of art in this country. It had broadened its collecting policy and pinpointed both landmark works, and that of artistic production, as noteworthy inclusions.

It is thus how Pacita Abad’s “trapuntos” came into the collection in 1998. Both Fear of Night Diving (1985) andRecluse (1995) are exceptional as her more personal works, a peculiar but distinct area of Abad’s oeuvre. These two pieces involved not the political and gendered overtones of her earlier works, but rather her diaristic revelations: a trepidation of swimming in a blue-black ocean and the dark emotional aftermath of a friend’s suicide. These inclusions did not echo the collecting hand of the past, but looked to the future with less anxiety: “These works are a manifestation of the artist’s roving imagination.” Indeed, they likewise reflected the roving imagination of the museum’s acquisitive eye. Through these works we see how collecting unfolded, was added on to, and opened up the future. The matter of openness was made possible through the museum’s range of exhibitions that employed the collection as anchor, backbone, and framework. Without this active thinking process and thoughtful displays, exhibiting these collections would surely have been moribund to the notion that museums were mausoleums where things go to die.

The progressive entry of the trapunto by Pacita Abad allowed the collection a more conceptual turn: not necessarily contemporary, but with a certain contemporaneity. By 1999, a decided and sure hand in collecting was in place. The newer works of Roberto Chabet entered the collection. In Four Directions (1999), he appropriated the work of another artist by placing harmonicas onto each panel. More acuity was displayed with the coup and purchase at auction by Oscar M. Lopez of Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s The Market Place (1955). Again, the spectrum of collecting was transparent; the choices were concrete manifestations of the mind of the collecting institution:

When our focus turns away from the objects that are being collected to the people who are doing the collecting, it becomes apparent that the act of collecting is not only protective, but also anxious. There is concern about past losses, and also future uncertainties. The systematic accumulation of objects, among other things, always intended to secure the symbolic continuity of the collecting “subject” in the future…. The collection is always intended to function as a lasting mirror of the person who built it, and who is him—or herself less durable than his or her chosen mirror. —Matthias Winzen

These contemporar y works have accumulated as layers would on this metaphorical palimpsest. Each work has added strata to the main text, that is, the nineteenth-century treasures by Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo. While Roberto M. Lopez, during an interim in the eighties (a momentous pause during the political shift that handed the country to more democratic hands), made insertions into the collection with Arturo Luz’s Cyclists(1964) and Fabian de la Rosa’s Woman with Umbrella (undated), these were faint markings on the potent core collection. Examples on which these works create a layer are Hidalgo’s portentous studies of La barca de Aqueronte, a work that resonated with violence not usually associated with the romantic Hidalgo.

This type of Hidalgo echoes across his more distinctive canvases in the Lopez collection. He utilizes not only the painterly quality of oil, but also the singular movement of brushstrokes to depict motion. La barca de Aqueronteexemplifies this through the sway and churn of water and whitewater bubbling around a “mournful boatman,” elements integral to the central column of twisting bodies. In El asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante y su hijo, Hidalgo exploits the expanse of a grand stair way and the movement of a mob snaking its way across the wide steps. With Per pacem et libertatem, Hidalgo’s study moves us towards hope. If his previous works meditated on mythical crossings by Charon and repaired us back to historical events like Bustamante’s assassination, here he look s towards the future, in much the same way that Luna’s España y Filipinas look s for ward with hope. Acquired in 1965, when Renato Constantino was director, España y Filipinas walks the path of the cult of objects. Here, the work becomes an “object that looks back at you,” and dares you to look to the future. The work has at least two versions, one owned by a museum in Cadiz and the other by the Lopez. When España points out the way ahead, we actually return to a point in the past when both Luna and Hidalgo won in the Madrid Expositions. Without these bars of recognition, the two would have sunk into oblivion and not been given the accolades that ring through art and history books. They have instead become important (enough) to be included in prestigious collections. The act of collecting positions these works within a conceivably logical archive, so that the tasks of remembering, sifting, evaluating, shepherding, and being considered come into play. Thus this object is not only allegorical on its own terms, but becomes (often unknowingly and uncritically) part of a moment that engendered it into history, and thus into inclusion.

Collections are categorical in nature. The elder Eugenio knew this, and his sophistication grew with his choices. “Characteristics that maintain successful collecting are the passion for the possession of every thing and later the systematic cataloguing of these possessions.” Eugenio chose to collect portraits by the two giants, Luna and Hidalgo. Portraits ranged from a soldier bandaging himself to chulas staring coyly; from a girl in her garden to women working and models posing for artists; nobles and military men with glittering medals abound. One also finds portraits of intimacy, of brothers, sisters, friends, lovers, and wives. There too are portraits laden with metaphor—Una franchuta and El borracho—both by Luna, making reference to persons from the streets. The encounter with a roomful of these portraits becomes telling as the paintings spill over to reflect the collector. It is, as Winzen writes, the attempt to convert time into something material that protects the collector from the winnows of forgetfulness and loss. Collecting becomes the act of future progeny. The portraits of the collector and his family (also rendered by significant artists) are to enter the hall of portraits in some distant future. Here they become part, as well as the subject, of their own collecting.

It is thus only fitting to create an arc back to the most recent acquisitions, as suggested earlier—a return to the present. It seems appropriate that in 2001 Alfonso Ossorio’s work becomes part of the collection, represented by the thick conglomeration that is entitled Wrong Keys for a Peacock (1961). Delightfully encrusted using a variety of objects within a framed universe, the work is a collection in itself. Ossorio was also a collector, and his fixation with material led him to create bulbous work that characterized his artistic practice. We also see the present through Lee Aguinaldo’s refraction of Rembrandt. His work From Rembrandt: Woman Bathing No.2 (1990) was purchased in 2007 largely because of its direct reference to the idea of masters. Here, he uses Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing (1654) as subject matter. Aguinaldo created an echo of the original, leaving only traces—the lifted dress and an arm—two of three elements in the original. He erases every thing but the floating images on a black background.

In the end we come to the beginning. But what is the beginning? Is it the moment of the present as we unfold the past, or the kernel from where we locate the passion for the collection’s start? Indeed before the palimpsest, there is the core, the original reading for the collection in its entirety. We see through the myriad transparent accumulations of Zóbels, Amorsolos, Magsaysay-Hos, among others, the genesis from which we are to read these accretions. Did it all begin with the first Luna and that initial Hidalgo? We rifle through to the future and see Rembrandt refracted. A collection thus allows us to move back and forth and rummage for what we need, allowing us the strengths of the past and the present, fending off anxieties of the future. It is only precise collections that allow us to do this. The drive to collect is a strong one, and the commitment to spaces gone public, stronger. Stephen Gould in his book Finders, Keepers, qualifies this passion for collecting as “…a full-time job, a kind of blessed obsession.” And for the Lopez Museum, while we not only discern the initial and unceasing motivation for collecting as the desire for legacy, we also witness the strong commitment to relevance within the public sphere. The collecting being a blessed obsession that in turn has been shared—the past, the future, and the present—stem time from being lost, and culture being forgotten.

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