There are few things more remarkable than art that still delves into reality. On one level, there is the reality of recognizable forms and faces. On another is the complex of relations that constitute our worlds, for better or for worse—the kind of reality that can both be the object of the fetish and the appreciative eye.
The two senses of reality in art is what for me is the subject of the Metropolitan Museum’s current flagship show, Claudio Bravo: Sojourn in Manila. Presented in cooperation with the Energy Development Corporation and the Chilean Embassy, and with the assistance of the Lopez Museum, the exhibit explores both the work Bravo created in a brief stay in Manila in 1968. The Lopezes were the ones who invited him to Manila on the occasion of the patriarch Eugenio Lopez’s 40th wedding anniversary with his wife Pacita, though Bravo later insisted that it was the Marcos couple who invited him. He has since become well-known for his still-life paintings, and like the writer Paul Bowles, moved to Morocco where he died in 2011. His sojourn is the subject of an article in the latest Rogue issue, which I was told was actually better written than a more controversial article in that same number.
A small number of people were invited to an exclusive tour last Saturday with the exhibit’s curator Tats Manahan, niece of one of those depicted in Bravo’s portraits. Manahan led us through the exhibit’s different rooms, telling stories about the people behind the portraits and highlighting Bravo’s own acknowledgment that his time in Manila was a turning point for him as a visual artist. She also emphasized how Bravo’s familiarity with classic art influenced his craft and style, most notably that of the Renaissance.
What interested me was the subject matter of Bravo’s work. These were, in many ways, the same people who comprised the economic and social elite of his time. Their names are names which, in my time, still resonate: the Montinolas (who own FEU), the Ayalas, the Lopezes, and yes, even the Cojuangcos and the Prietos (who own one of the biggest broadsheets in the country). The then-President, up for reelection a year later under stormy circumstances, appears in a painting which is dramatically different from his later depictions as a caudillo and a monarch in all but name. His wife’s own portrait was, Manahan assures us, more acceptable to its subject.
But what was more interesting was that it was portraiture. We rarely get to see portraits in most art galleries in Manila these days—I do recall seeing one such exhibit at Finale Art File sometime earlier this year, in a space made memorable by a recent independent film. It seems that what has since come into favor is art that aims to deconstruct, or even to abandon constructiveness altogether, or even to celebrate the sheer joy of abstraction without understanding, privileging it as creativity.
Bravo would not have wanted this. In a quote posted on the wall of the exhibit, he reminds younger artists that the work of art requires patience and effort, and the quote, in the wider context where it is posted, is somewhat contentious. It would perhaps would make some contemporary artists peeved enough to say, “That’s his opinion and that’s not what we need right now.” Then again, it is the same kind of attempt to define the state of the art that Patrick Flores of UP Diliman rightly critiqued last year—an attempt to ignore or downplay the social processes and relations that shape art in our country.
For as much as Bravo’s work shown here is about the careful craft, the almost-lost art of drawing from life, the literacy of the ars liberi shown in sketches and paintings, this exhibition is really about how much art’s value is in its role in society. Here it is the preserve of a legacy built carefully by families whose place in our society these days is being challenged by the “new rich,” the people who are trying not only to define the economic contours of our time but also the way that art is “used” in this new context. It was at the opening night for this exhibit when a friend reminded me that what the new players tend to miss is that “Rome was not built in a day,” and that it is not merely a matter of ever-fluctuating auction prices.
So yes, I agree that what is at stake here is not just an art vs commerce matter. It is a matter of art and society as a whole, of which commerce plays a constitutive but not all-defining part. It is a matter of being honest that the legacy of art in our country is a multifaceted one, and that there is room for the real in our art in every sense.
Claudio Bravo: Sojourn in Manila is on view at the Metropolitan Museum until 20 October 2012. For more information visit the Metropolitan Museum of Manila website.
Next up in my Thinking about Short Film series: the former life of Dexter Calliope.