Purita Kalaw-Ledesma: The Woman Who Changed The History of Philippine Art
This feature story was originally titled as The Advocate of Artistry, and was published in the May 2010 issue of Tatler Philippines
The walls and peeling paint in the small room and gallery, like the exterior walls of the National Museum in which it was housed, were pockmarked. The office of the newly formed Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) was scarred by the war that ended just two years before, but it was what Purita Kalaw-Ledesma could get. Having earlier gone out of her way to find former students and contemporaries from the University of the Philippines’ Escuela de Bellas Artes (then in Padre Faura and later known as the School of Fine Arts), Kalaw-Ledesma set up shop and placed in motion an alumni association that would change the status of artists and the market demand for contemporary art in the decades to come.
In her long life from 1914 to 2005, she did not just see art history change; she brought it about. Then and now, artists and educators give her large credit for the eventual acceptance of contemporary art in this country; and justifiably so, as the organisations she spearheaded and closely supported (the AAP, the Philippine Art Gallery and the Printmakers’ Association of the Philippines, among others) provided venues for artists and art enthusiasts to exchange ideas and voice out notions of the modern in exhibitions, talks and other public programmes. She was also the founding president of the Concerned Citizens of the National Museum—now the Museum Foundation of the Philippines—that continues to promote the National Museum as well as history, culture and the arts in general.
For a larger public, Kalaw-Ledesma carefully recorded and thoughtfully wrote about the Philippines’ initial incursions into modern art in The Struggle for Philippine Art (1974), the icon and standard-bearer of Philippine modernists in Edades: National Artists (1979), and the history of the Philippine Art Gallery (PAG), one of the first spaces devoted to contemporary art in The Biggest Little Room (1987).
By publishing these—the Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation shouldered the costs for all but one of her books—she chronicled events that marked the professional lives of her artist and writer friends and left us primary material and information that today help us fill the last chapters of our art history books.
RESISTANCE TO MODERNS
Persuading the public to accept modern art was a difficult task. Resistance was loud and vehement from a public that witnessed modern artists repeatedly win the AAP competitions. A walkout by conservative painters and the installation of their works in a salon des refuses of sorts across the street from the AAP exhibition venue ignited public debate. Not only did the press accuse modern artists of not knowing how to draw, but it charged them with intentionally rendering subjects as ugly and distorted. The sweeping victory by the Moderns at that AAP competition—viewed as biased—led to the heated exchange of articles between the modern painter Victorio Edades and the classic sculptor Guillermo Tolentino. Despite the emotional debacle, these debates were healthy and instructed readers on what it meant, in the opinion of the writers then, to be a modern- or classically-inclined artist.
From the viewpoint of Kalaw-Ledesma, it was no longer possible for Filipinos—after having gone through war—to continue painting bucolic images of planting or harvesting rice. She insisted that “ugliness was part of life—like old age and suffering” and described art as “not an escape from our daily problems; it was an interpretation of life, a mirror of all its beauties and sordidness.”
In her, the Moderns had not only a proponent but an effective Solomonic arbiter and peacemaker. As the AAP was a veritable Bermuda Triangle containing both ardent followers of the Moderns on one end and Conservatives on the other, Kalaw-Ledesma provided a balance for this combustible mixture. She encouraged respect for the other's opinion, something that she would be known and appreciated for throughout her life. The AAP in subsequent competitions under her stewardship awarded the Moderns and the Conservatives two separate sets of prizes.
As the AAP charter members met regularly, their ranks swelled to include like-minded artists like Hernando R Ocampo, Cesar Legaspi, and Vicente Manansala. In 1949 they called themselves the Neo-Realists, acknowledging their break with classical traditions as practised by Fernando Amorsolo. In 1950 the founding of the PAG saw another energetic champion for contemporary art in Kalaw-Ledesma's friend, Lyd Arguilla. The latter—sometimes at personal expense—exhibited, sold, rented out and promoted works by the Neo-Realists and other contemporary artists through the PAG, which she ran. Kalaw-Ledesma was a vibrant member of this circle.
In the early 1950s artists like Arturo R Luz, Fernando Zobel, Cenon Rivera, and Elizabeth Chan returned from studies abroad. Participation in biennales and exposure to Western artists forced local artists in part to take stock of what made Philippine art Filipino, elements that the larger public abroad seemed to want to understand.
While the 1950s witnessed the struggles and successes of contemporary art in the public eye, it also saw new patrons make their initial purchases. Being in the midst of these vibrant artistic circles provided Kalaw-Ledesma with the chance to form the nucleus of her now-famous collection, rivalled only by the collection formed by Fernando Zobel, which he later donated to the Ateneo de Manila. In full support of bringing critical thought into the arts through writing, Kalaw-Ledesma would later endow the UP College of Fine Arts with a professional chair for art criticism.
Kalaw-Ledesma spent half a century promoting Philippine art that encouraged Filipino artists and art writers to band together. Along the way, she drew, painted, and collected art, helping painters, sculptors, and printmakers survive the vicissitudes of the market. In 1981 she donated a sizeable number of paintings, prints, sculptures and jewellery to the Museum of Philippine Art (MOPA), then under the directorship of Arturo Luz. The museum's second floor displayed a survey of contemporary Philippine art, the highlights of which were the 1950s and 1960s works from Kalaw-Ledesma's donation.
She would regain ownership of the collection some years after the MOPA closed its doors. When the works were turned over to the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP), it was difficult for the government to maintain and show the collection in its entirety. Kalaw-Ledesma's gentle manner masked a will of steel, whether taking the government to task on previous agreements or selling real estate. As a single mother, she managed a household on a tight budget and carefully planned her children to receive the benefits of an enlightened education. They all travelled. Kalaw-Ledesma continued to work hard and eventually grew her inheritance to cover substantial properties in Makati and Pasig. She often reminded her daughters—Rita, Connie, Ada, and Wally—to be financially independent of their husbands, as she and her mother were.
"Rice Planters" by Napoleon Abueva (Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation Collection)
"Playhorse A/P" by Manuel Rodriguez Snr (Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation Collection)
Ada Mabilangan, the third sibling in the family, commented that her mother and kin were hard acts to follow. The strong women in her family included Kalaw-Ledesma's mother, Pura Villanueva-Kalaw, the first Carnival Queen in 1908, suffragette and successful realtor, and her sister and sister-in-law, Maria Kalaw-Katigbak and Eva Estrada-Kalaw, both senators. Her father, Teodoro M Kalaw, was a distinguished public servant, columnist, politician, and director of the National Library. Kalaw-Ledesma belonged to an ilustrado family whose members upheld the notion of noblesse oblige, the tradition of nobility giving back, which she passed on to her children. A gallery that will enable her collection to be publicly accessible is slated to open in 2012 on two floors of a new 32-storey building in Legaspi Village, Makati City.
THE TEST OF TIME
In her opinion, contemporary artists and galleries had come into their own in the 1970s. By then, professional artists and government institutions that supported the arts, many under the auspices of Imelda Marcos, had begun to shape the minds and artistic inclinations of the public. In 1969 the CCP was inaugurated and two of the featured works that greeted visitors were The Seven Arts, a bronze sculpture by Vicente Manansala, and Simula (Genesis), a large painting (that functioned as the main theatre's firewall) by Hernando R Ocampo, who both became National Artists. Kalaw-Ledesma herself received the Presidential Pro-Patria Award for the Promotion of Fine Arts and the Araw ng Maynila and Tandang Sora Awards for Fine Arts, some of the highest honours given by government to private citizens in this field. There was no doubt about their place in the larger picture.
Perhaps it was because galleries were flourishing and remarkable things were happening to artists that Kalaw-Ledesma soon after decided to devote more time to concerns she felt were increasingly important. She wrote in her 1994 memoirs: "I have gradually felt a certain detachment towards things, as if nothing were important enough except family and friends; not glory nor fame. Not even wealth—only family and friends." So it is for this larger family of friends and the art-loving public—developed out of her efforts in the past—that the Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation will use its collection to provide a survey of the pivotal moments in the development of Philippine art. The display will stand as a reminder of Kalaw-Ledesma's quiet insistence on the dignity of the artist, professionalism in the trade, and the need for the public to understand notions of modernity in all its nuances. She wrote simply and perceptively about the makers and markers of modern art in the Philippines, why she saw a life-enhancing purpose in the arts and worked indefatigably so that others might find similar fulfilment. With her books and by example, she took the public through an exciting and tumultuous journey from the pockmarked rooms of the first AAP into the gleaming marble halls of the Cultural Centre. Undisputedly, art practitioners in this country could not have found a better champion.