Cover Claudio Bravo painting Jaime and Bea Zobel de Ayala

Through his portraits, Claudio Bravo captured the opulence that fuelled the turbulence of an era

This feature story was originally titled as Bravo in Manila, and was published in the September 2012 issue of Tatler Philippines

Renowned the world over for the unique blend of hyperrealist and baroque Spanish-influenced art, Claudio Bravo was born on 8 November 1936 in the coastal town of Valparaíso, Chile. Largely self-taught, he displayed an early precocity for the arts, when as a young boy he badgered his friends and classmates to pose for his pencil drawings.

In his teens he spent his spare time fraternising with older artists and intellectuals, imbibing the bohemian life. At 17, he presented his first solo art show at Taller 14 in his hometown, helped by close friends. He performed as a dancer for the Compañía de Ballet de Chile and did occasional stints as an actor at the Teatro Ensayo of the Universidad Católica de Chile.

Like his contemporary Francis Bacon, he resettled in the ‘60s in Madrid, where he had fallen in love with the Spanish baroque painters prominently displayed at the Prado Museum. He admired the works of Diego Velázquez, Juan Sánchez Cotán and Francisco de Zurbarán with whom his own work shared a common aesthetic and technical virtuosity. In Madrid he achieved fame for society portraits that were done with astounding verisimilitude, executing over 300 works in less than eight years.

In 1968 Bravo accepted an invitation from President Ferdinand E Marcos to visit the country and paint him and his wife, Imelda, who first saw one of his virtuosic portraits on the Christmas card of Don Jaime Zóbel de Ayala.

It was a watershed year in Philippine life and society. Marcos was on the verge of winning a landmark re-election with the help of his running mate, Vice President Ferdinand “Nanding” López, brother of Eugenio “Eñing” López, then considered the richest man in Philippine history. The Lópezes owned the most influential media, including the leading television station, 22 radio stations, the newspaper Manila Chronicle, as well as the lucrative electrical monopoly Meralco. They were the kingmakers and the power behind Marcos’ consolidation of political power.

The Lópezes’ ascendance to the top of the political and economic hierarchy was captured in what was dubbed as the most opulent event of the century.

In January 1968 Don Eñing and Doña Pacita “Nitang” López held their fabled ruby wedding anniversary where Dom Pérignon flowed out of a fountain made of Murano glass. A cast of royal nobility—Prince Alfonso de Borbón and Baron Hans Heinrich “Heini” Thyssen-Bornemisza of the famed museum—and international jetsetters—including the Agnellis of Fiat fame and Christina Ford—flown in from Europe, Asia and North America trooped to the López mansion in Parañaque.

That night as President Marcos and Imelda celebrated the two families’ alliance amidst the realities of crushing poverty and a general breakdown in civil society. There was no talk of “oligarchs,” the “First Quarter Storm” or Martial Law and little to indicate that the Lópezes and Marcoses would be parting ways in less than four years and rewriting the pages of Philippine history.

Against this backdrop, the Chilean artist went diligently to work in Manila from January to June of 1968, being referred from one prominent society figure to another.

SOCIETY PORTRAITS

This was the era when cultural cognoscenti and tastemakers such as the First Lady, the artists Fernando Zobel and Arturo Luz curated an artistic and cultural agenda in line with Philippine ambitions and socio-political changes. For example, eyebrows were not lifted when the state staged the Bolshoi Ballet at the Cultural Centre or mounted internationally-at-par art exhibits featuring old European masters, modernist painters Picasso, Klee, or Gropius, even Imperial Chinese wares at the Metropolitan Museum, both venues becoming favourite gathering places of Manila’s culturati.

It was also the era of society matrons such as Consuelo “Chito” Madrigal de Vazquez, Imelda “Meldy” Ongsiako de Cojuangco, Elvira Ledesma-Manahan, Maria “Baby” Araneta-Fores and Pacita “Nitang” Moreno married to Eugenio López. Jewellers of note Erlinda Oledan and Fe Panlilio draped these ladies with the finest gemstones while Ramon Valera, Roberto Paras, Aureo Alonzo, Pitoy Moreno and Salvacion Lim-Higgins swaddled them in ternos and the finest European silks and Swiss eyelets.

Bravo’s favourites were the society women. He painted the Cojuangco women: Gretchen Oppen married to Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco; Tingting, married to José “Peping” Cojuangco Jnr; and Imelda “Meldy” Ongsiako, married to Ramón Cojuangco Snr. Meldy’s stunning portrait is characterised by its luminescent purple gown offset by a backdrop of shocking fuchsia, her face crowned by bouffant hair and a quarter of the canvas left unfinished. The artist would later add this tour de force work to his personal portfolio.

The López women were represented by portraits of Presentación “Presy” López, married to Steve Psinakis; Conchita La’O, married to Eugenio López Jnr; and the family matriarch, Doña Pacita López.

Prominent families of the ‘60s were captured by the painter, including Constantino and Elvira Manahan and son Constantino Jnr, as well as granddaughter Samantha Eduque. The Roxases were also captured by the Chilean painter, including Anton Roxas, Pamen Roxas de Elizalde and Pilar Roxas. The Zóbels were also prominent among Bravo’s sitters. The portrait of Don Jaime and Doña Bea was painted earlier in 1965; while the young Jaime Augusto, when he was just 10. There was Rocío Urquijo, married to Enrique Zóbel, with young Iñigo.

Atypical was his portrait of Don Fernando Zóbel, the painter, dressed in a cowl and surrounded by the medieval instruments of monastic life. The work was drained of all colours and exhibited a dreamlike composition. It is said that the portrait was poorly received by the sitter.

Other prominent personalities of the sixties were not forgotten. They included Chona Recto de Kasten, Marilou Prieto de Lovina, Leandro and Cecile Locsín, Mercedes Arrastia de Tuason, Tessie Ojeda de Luz, Maria “Baby” Araneta-Fores, Evelyn Lim Forbes, Mauro Prieto, Regina Dee, Aurelio Montinola Snr and Don Luis Araneta.

As expected, Bravo reserved his best for the stunning larger-than-life depiction of the reigning First Lady of the land. She and her husband exuded “youth, glamour and a palpable sense of destiny.” In her court she had attracted the so-called Blue Ladies, recruited from the most socially prominent families, including several daughters of former presidents—Vicky Quirino de González, Linda García-Campos and Rosie Osmeña-Valencia. In Imelda’s cultural endeavours she attracted some members of Manila’s high society, who at that time were notoriously suspicious of parvenus or nouveau riche arrivistes with suspiciously gotten wealth. Only a handful of families constituted the so-called Manila 400, including the Aranetas, Cojuangcos, Madrigals, Yulos, Sorianos, Zóbels, Roxases and Tuasons.

Bravo chose to portray the First Lady in the most austere colours which were offset by the dainty pink parasol in her delicate hands. Imelda’s dissident niece, Betsy Romuáldez- Francia, would later describe the work “as the way she saw herself or the way she wished to be perceived. In it she is lithe and limpid looking in a native dress. The portrait makes her look ethereal; she seems about to be swept heavenwards by a gust …”

Tatler Asia
Above Elvira Ledesma Manahan

These society portraits exhibited none of the coldness or kitsch of the works of other hyperrealist painters like Audrey Flack or Chuck Close. They are portraits of prominent men and women in their ascendant mode, painted patiently and studiously, all in the flesh and not diligently from photographic records, as the artist himself insisted.

HIGHS AND LOWS

With over 50 works in hand, bravo held his 7th one-man show at the Luz Gallery, then the vanguard gallery of Philippine modernist art movement. His stint in Manila transformed his use of colour, remarking that he found the light in the Philippines more intense than in Spain or in Chile. He sketched exquisite nudes. Natural, curated and found objects—like the lowly walis tingting (broom), or Chinese trade ware—in the homes of his patrons inspired him to paint bodegones or still-lifes that rivalled some of the themes of great Spanish masters like Sánchez Cotán or Juan van der Hamen.

After his return from Manila, Bravo gathered a favourable review from The New York Times art critic John Canaday, who saw his first solo exhibition’s dazzling trompe-l’oeil paper-wrapped packages at Staempfli Gallery in 1970. Although hyperreal in execution, Bravo’s art did not follow the photorealists of the period who slavishly followed the rigours of photographic accuracy, even going to the extent of painting from projected images of photographs.

Bravo insisted on working from life, stating that “always I have relied on the actual subject matter, because the eye sees so much more than the camera: half tones, shadows, minute changes in the colour or light. I think I was working more in the tradition of the Colour Field artists, like Mark Rothko, whom I still greatly admire. There was also a touch of the Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies because he, too, did paintings involving string-across-a-canvas surface.”

Born by the rise of realist artists vis-avis abstraction, Bravo achieved fame in New York, Madrid and Tangier.

In this Moroccan city, he established permanent residence in 1972, tired of a frivolous life and worn down by the demands of society portraiture. From that year on, Bravo rejected almost all demands for commissioned portraits, choosing only subjects that captured his imagination. Morocco brought his art to a newer and more varied terrain, expanding to new subject matters, including allegories, religious themes, landscapes, painted with a brighter and, some deemed, more shocking and aggressive colour palette.

Bravo’s radical realism burst into the international art scene at the same time as the American photo-realists were ascendant, with the likes of Tom Blackwell, Chuck Close, Robert Cottingham, Don Eddy, Richard Estes and Audrey Flack. Unlike pop art, theirs was obsessed with the surface and how the surface transformed itself into illusion. Hyperrealism was the perfect antidote to the supremacy of abstraction.

In the 1980s Bravo’s art took New York by storm, highlighted by his representation at one of the top-tier art galleries, Marlborough Gallery. In 1994 to Bravo’s great surprise, his first retrospective show in Chile at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes drew more than a quarter-million visitors. He had spent more than 40 years of his artistic life abroad and was virtually unknown in his own country. In the early 21st century Bravo’s works commanded prices in the stratosphere, with Sotheby’s auctioning White Package, a 1967 painting, for more than a million dollars.

Bravo enjoyed tremendous financial success, owning three villas in Morocco and apartments in Madrid, Tangier and New York. However, the trappings of a celebrity artist did not suit him.

In 2008 he removed himself from the whirlwind of the art world by retreating to Taroudant in the south of Morocco. He continued his creative life in a solitary and monastic way, working daily up to 10 hours at a stretch, and at times speaking of “the anguish of creativity.” The artist passed away in his adopted Moroccan village on 4 June 2011. His home, now converted into a museum, is maintained by Bachir Tabchich, his Moroccan friend of 32 years.