Cover "Soft Wisps of a Sea Breeze" by Juvenal Sansó, from the Fundacion Sansó Collection

His surreal landscapes and floralscapes, among other series in his decades-long career, transport his patrons to visceral reflections—making him a creative force that will never fade into oblivion

The country's art community joyfully celebrated Juvenal Sansó's 92nd birthday last November 23—a feat that not so many masters of the Philippine art scene from his generation have achieved. In his twilight years, Sansó continues to create striking paintings that are deeply appreciated by today's generation and continue to inspire younger artists who want to strive for brighter careers ahead of them.

Museum director Ricky Francisco of the Fundacion Sansó talks with Tatler about the life and art of Juvenal Sansó and connects us with the esteemed master himself to know his thoughts and inspirations, and what art means to him.

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Señor Sansó, as he is affectionately called, was born on November 23, 1929, at the capital city of Reus in the province of Tarragona of the currently autonomous region of Catalonia, northeastern Spain.

It was the birthplace of architect Antonio Gaudí and was an important site of textile, wine trading, agriculture, and livestock farming industries, among others. However, the political atmosphere in Catalonia was tumultuous even before Sansó was born. For decades since the 1870s, Catalan nationalism has grown to a predominant force, and so was its leaders' fight for the autonomy of the region.

The precursors of the Spanish Civil War forced the family of Sansó to emigrate to the Philippines before it went full-blown in the latter part of the 30s. The artist was five years old then when he left Spain.

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His father, Jose Sansó-Pedret established in 1934 a wrought-iron business in the Philippines, which eventually became the Arte Español. Living at the heart of Paco, Manila, Sansó enjoyed his childhood by being captivated by the beauty of the city's nature like those of the ancient acacia trees that lined Isaac Peral and the Pasig River which was then viable for swimming activities.

His happy childhood and teenage years were interrupted by the Japanese Occupation in the early 1940s. Their family residence succumbed to fire and Sansó was heavily traumatised after being saved from a bombing attack that deafened his one ear. "Sansó's reactions to the trauma from World War II were a turning point of sorts in his artistic career," says Francisco on behalf of the artist. "The horrific experiences during the war caused Sansó's disassociation from the happy, sunlit world that the subject of most of his artworks in the late 1940s to 1950s, leading him to create subjects that were misshapen and disfigured, grotesque even—subjects that represented the darkness of the human soul," Francisco explained further.

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Above "Incubus" by Juvenal Sansó, 1951, gouache on board, from the artist's private collection. This piece, which reflects Sansó's war-time trauma, earned him first prize in the Art Association of the Philippines art competition

In a book by art critic and historian Rodolfo Paras-Perez entitled Sansó: Art Quest Between Two Worlds, the master discussed his interpretation of grotesque imagery: "Can we call them art as catharsis? There is absolutely no doubt that they were the result of the brutal war that hit me at my most formative and wide-awake teen years. I was trying to be a little Amorsolo as we, in our generation, were trying to be . . . I could have stopped there as most of my colleagues did for it was a very painful form of psychoanalysis to face oneself."

I've come to realise that, if there is any talent, it is the will to do. The desire to do, and do till you learn.
Juvenal Sansó

Like most artists of his generation, he was taught by the esteemed National Artist Fernando Amorsolo at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman. After being privately taught by Alejandro Celis, a renowned artist and teacher during the early 20th century, he pursued his passion at the said prestigious school and was taught as well by cartoonist and watercolourist Irineo Miranda and sculptor National Artist Guillermo Tolentino. 

In the same book of Paras-Perez, Sansó shared that Miranda motivated him to explore further his capacities as an artist. "I was certainly a year behind my colleagues in techniques and I was really having a hard time. I kept on erasing till I would make holes in the paper," he said. However, with Miranda's persuasion, Sansó "[came] to realise that, if there is any talent, it is the will to do. The desire to do, and do till you learn."

Sansó also sat in some classes at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), which was deemed as the home of Modernists, and became captivated by their unique style and techniques, particularly those of National Artist Cesar Legaspi, Galo Ocampo, and Antonio Garcia-Llamas.

"I learnt a lot from the abstract painters," Sansó said, as quoted from Paras-Perez's earlier mentioned book. "Among these is that the subject is secondary. Painting is how you arrange things. A painting of a beautiful rose does not make it a beautiful painting . . . what the abstract painters showed is that first, there is the distribution of your pigments on a given surface and then comes the subject," he said. 

Francisco said that although he studied in two polarised schools of art, the fusion of these elements may be observed perhaps in his much earlier works only. But Sansó became more prominent in the arts scene with his mid-1950s to late 1960s works that are more aligned in style to Max Ernst, Edouard Goerg, and other expressionists in terms of subject matter, mood, colour palette, overall composition, and treatment.

In an art competition in 1950 by the prestigious Art Association of the Philippines, founded by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, Sansó won first prize with his oil pastel on paper work entitled, Sorcerer, and again in the following year with his 1951 gouache on board masterpiece entitled, Incubus.

The artist left for Europe to enhance his learning on art. He studied at the Academia di Belle Arti in Rome after establishing residence in Paris. In the latter, he enrolled at L'Ecole National Superieurs des Beaux-Arts. From that point, Sansó explored further his full potentials as an artist until he found his artistic identity.

"I think that because Mr. Sansó's art was a way for him to cope with the trauma of war, his take on beauty had a more wabi-sabi quality to it," said Francisco.

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Above Sansó in Venice, Italy

Sansó has made a name for himself by taking unique perspectives on landscapes, seascapes, and floralscapes that instead of rendering them in perfection as how his professor Amorsolo would, he would rather expose its nuances and flaws. "He focused on a beauty that was touched by melancholy and solitude," Francisco described. "He focused on beauty that intimated the graceful submission to external forces beyond human control like the tides, time, the wind, and decay. His subjects were weathered rocky coasts, shipwrecks, the baklad (bamboo fishtraps), solitary boats, and windswept trees. Even his flowers from the 60s to the 80s were not glorious blooms, but rather gnarly growths that seemed more like coral or plants that grow and bloom despite the harsh environment," the museum curator explained further.

Sansó introduced fresh, new styles at the dawn of the 21st century by revisiting his early works from the 50s to the 70s, Francisco said. He reinvented his opera set and costume designs drawn on black paper by doing it in "reverse painting" manner, which is painting on the opposite side of the surface and turning it over. His 1972 colourful lithographs of Breton Houses were reimagined using acrylic as medium on canvas. He also made canvas versions of his painted slides from the '70s to the early '90s. There was also his "Moderno Series", wherein he utilised very colourful and figurative—realistic even—style of painting, making it a far offshoot from his stylised "Brittany Series" that collectors know him well for. He also began making floral paintings on vases, which is called "En Vase Series". Another version of this was his "Cuadro Series" where the flowers frame another composition at the centre of the painting.

Being one of the country's most prominent and respected figures in the visual arts scene, Sansó was adored not only in auctions and exhibitions but as well as by budding artists of subsequent generations for his kind and generous heart. Francisco said that through artist Leslie de Chavez, he found out that Sansó would often visit his alma mater, UP College of Fine Arts in the 1990s to donate a fund administered by the college where students having difficulty in their finances could get money to enrol.

"We also have a letter in our archives which was written by Mr. Sansó in the 1980s prior to a medical procedure, instructing his sister to set aside a specific amount to be used for this [charitable] purpose, and to ask his friends to help her administer it," Francisco added. "We believe that it was because he had a hard time in Paris, trying to make ends meet. Instead of focusing hundred per cent in art making, he wants to share his success with the younger artists this way."

Fundacion Sansó launched the Fine Arts Student Stipend Program in 2016, providing select students with a regularly monthly stipend to aid in their finances and cover for art supply necessities, and whatnot.

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Aside from aiding select art students, Fundacion Sansó's primary mandate is to preserve and promote the legacy of Señor Sansó. This includes the authentication of his works, ensuring that real works are recognised especially in auctions and private purchases, as well as warning the public of fake works attributed to the artist. Francisco also leads the thematic, curated exhibition of Sansó's works in their museum in San Juan, Metro Manila as well as in art fairs, malls, and more.

The foundation educates as well the people about Sansó's life, his advocacies, and of course his art through retail merchandise, social media programs, and publication of books. Most recommendable is the major book, La Definitiva Sansó, the last full manuscript of the late eminent art historian Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete. Interested artists and enthusiasts may also grab a copy of After the Deluge Comes the Dawn, authored by Jack Teotico and Francisco, or the Sanso: Setting the Stage, where Francisco talked more about Sansó's opera set and costume designs from the 1960s to the 1970s.

"I have had the pleasure of getting to know Mr. Sansó within the time that [his] museum was established in 2014," Francisco narrated. "As a person, he is very refined and very mindful of others. I remember when I was accompanying him through an exhibition, and there was a table whose corner was at a narrow path, he held my back and cautioned me to move away from the corner saying 'you might hurt yourself'," Francisco recalled. "He is always so mindful of the welfare of those around him. Personally, I appreciate how he is like my lola in not wanting to waste anything . . . People who went through the war are like that . . . and it shows when he makes his art . . . He will only stop painting when he used up the paint he allocated for the piece. And if there was some left over, he would use it to start a new piece."

Amidst tragedies and challenges, Sansó continuously emerges from the ashes and manipulates his painting medium to showcase beauty. Surprisingly, that seductive allure is enhanced, completed, and magnified by details that are grotesque, flawed, and broken. But isn't that the true picture of life? Truth resonates in every Sansó masterpiece as each exposes the invisible and ignored. When one looks at a painting by the Señor, one sees and feels this truth . . . and the sensation is far from forgettable.

How indeed to seduce the distracted eye of the beholder . . . this is the aim and dream of every painter! The great masters never miss a trick in seducing the eyes.
Juvenal Sanso (from his talk in the video "Sanso: By The Book")
  • ImagesRicky Francisco / Fundacion Sansó
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