Zobel Y Sus Contemporaneos: Like Winning in a Lottery

  • December 13, 2018

Last November, Hiraya Gallery puts together a collection of works by artist Fernando Zobel de Ayala, capturing his restrained exuberance and intensity of focus

“Manila in the 50s was incredibly exciting for a painter. Beginnings are always exciting. I have been fortunate indeed to have lived through three different, equally fascinating, moments in art: abstract expressionism in America, the birth of Philippine modern painting, and in Spain, the birth of the abstract school in the 50s. It’s like winning first prize in a lottery.”

Palpable and contagious were the late Fernando Zobel de Ayala’s passion for art, which the Fil-Spanish master shared with this writer in a long-ago interview. He was born in Manila on August 27, 1924. In 1933, his family traveled to Europe and settled in Madrid. His studies in Spain and Switzerland were interrupted by the Spanish Civil War when the family moved to San Juan de Luz. They returned to the Philippines in 1936. In 1941, he pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree and studied medicine at the University of Santo Tomas during the Japanese Occupation in World War II.

In 1946, he entered Harvard University as a student of Philosophy and Letters. He graduated magna cum laude. His graduation thesis was on the works of the Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca.

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Zobel, Untitled, 79 x 79 cm
Zobel, Untitled, 79 x 79 cm

Aba, Isang  Zobel – pintor!”

His first solo exhibition took place at the Philippine Art Gallery (PAG) in 1952. His presence and participation invigorated the local art scene during the post-war period. In a separate interview with this writer, Purita Kalaw Ledesma, founder of Art Association of the Philippines (AAP), enthused, “Oh, Zobel was the best thing that ever happened to us at that time to lift the stature of the artist. Well, you know who Zobel was! Everyone was amazed when he became an artist and joined the AAP. ‘Aba, isang Zobel – pintor!’ He was a pintor all right. Here was this millionaire painter hobnobbing with all of us. He was a regular fellow, who just wanted to be like the rest of the painters. He used to sell his works at P50! He used to call himself ‘bargain basement Zobel!’”

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Adrian Moya, Untitled, Oil on Canvas
Adrian Moya, Untitled, Oil on Canvas
Miguel Angel Moset, Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 46 x 55 cm, 2005
Miguel Angel Moset, Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 46 x 55 cm, 2005

Catalyst of Art

Back in Spain in 1958, Zobel established friendships with Spanish abstractionists Gustavo Torner, Antonio Saura, Eusebio Sempere, Manolo Millares, and Gerardo Rueda. It was then when he started his collection of Spanish abstract art, which later formed the nucleus of the Museum of Spanish Art in Cuenca, at the Casas Colgadas or the “Hanging Houses” perched on a cliff in Cuenca, Spain. In December of 1960, Zobel decided to retire from the family business in the Philippines and dedicated himself entirely to his art. He settled permanently in Madrid, though he continued to exhibit works at the (now defunct) Luz Gallery.

Zobel died en route to Rome, Italy on June 2, 1984. He was buried with honors in Cuenca, Spain.

Such a glimpse of the life of Fernando Zobel is essential to our many millennial art lovers who are, alas, only of late discovering the works of this Filipino-Spanish master, who was a catalyst in Philippine contemporary art. In Spain, too, Zobel was a catalyst of Spanish abstraction. Fittingly, Hiraya Gallery presented the show “Zobel Y Sus Contemporaneos” at the Makati Shangri-La last November, which also introduced to the local art scene the works of his peers and followers, such as Adrian Moya, Miguel Angel Moset, Bonifacio Alfonso and Luis Buendia. These are the artists entranced by the charms of Cuenca.

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Luis Buendia, En el Mercado, Crayon and Graphite, 45 x 32.5cm, 2017
Luis Buendia, En el Mercado, Crayon and Graphite, 45 x 32.5cm, 2017
Bonifacio, Untitled, Mixed Media on Paper, 13.5 x 20, 1985
Bonifacio, Untitled, Mixed Media on Paper, 13.5 x 20, 1985

Apotheosis of Spanish Temperament

It has been said that when it comes to the handling of black, nothing can compare with the dark, brooding intensity of the Spanish abstractionists, their spirit unflinchingly turned inward as if contemplating itself, a mirror veiled in darkness, from whence a streak of white blazing light emerges as its sole redemption, an exhalation and deliverance from the depths. Zobel’s works are, in fact, an apotheosis of this uniquely Spanish temperament, though the artist is represented in this show with a work that conveys the wispiness of wind-brushed pale browns and mustards.

The works presented by Hiraya Gallery are of a decidedly less perfervid nature, but no less entrancing for their contained exuberance and intensity of focus. Trained as a follower of Zobel, Adrian Moya was initiated into the rites of calligraphy. In Miguel Angel Moset’s divination of nature, vegetation and forests are the retinal reflections of a sensibility. Bonifacio Alfonso’s works in mixed media and graphite are synchronized impulses of figuration and abstraction. Luis Buendia’s collages are vestiges of the sheer delight in the tearing-ness of material.

“Zobel y Sus Contemparaneos” is a foretaste of the artist’s winning in a lottery.

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