November 14, 2006

By Juvenal Sansó

So many happy coincidences led to my entering the fascinating realm of printmaking. First there were the conferences with Fernando Zobel at the Ateneo where he dazzled me with his grasp on culture in general and when he pointed out the myriad possibilities in that field, making Rembrandt, Goya, and some other etchers speak to me personally, then and three. These lessons never left me as it was quite a few years later in Paris when I had the opportunity to plunge head-first into the craft…a world of alchemy, of meeting copper in acids, of frenzied contacts with a polished plate that would hold no trace of my impulsive, explosive outbursts with the varnishes, brushes, almost anything that had yet to leave a mark at the magic moment of dropping, affectionately, this metal into the acid. Then starts the revolution though only outside of the etcher, for the acid is a dark as a well-waxed old narra floor. Only experience will tell you when to get it out before a hole may go through and through with disastrous results for the plate, victim of the overkill with no repairs possible. You learn to do the delicate prodding with a sharp steel point using the depth of the grooves without the nascent indentations that hold the ink from which the lines, body and soul of the print emerges. Numerous are the falls and disappointments along the way till, with a pounding heart, you lift your paper that has been inked through the two compressing rollers of the hand-activated press. But there are also real moments of visceral joys and physical love for your newborn! Many!

The second of the coincidences is that my first one-man show of prints is also the first one-man show of prints in Philippine art history… and one of my first print clients (who had recommended me to Lyd Arguilla of the Philippine Art Gallery) was Fernando Zobel.

The third coincidence comes now with honor of showing my prints now at Ayala Museum, right next to the permanent showing of Zobel’s works in this same venue.

I have been flattered when asked by young artist (more often that not by their anxious parents) whether there is any kind of “magic” formula to achieve some success in the arts. If there is one, then I must confess that I did not discover it except through hard, hard work—perseverance and crazy blinding compulsion no matter what - to be able to express sincerely, authentically, what moves the heart… on and on!

I left a family business to pursue a “quite impossible dream”…with an allowance authorized by the Central Bank of the Philippines of a “royal” US$150 per month to work in Rome where I did not speak the language. What saved me is that I had learned at UP Fine Arts how to draw enough to allow any regular entrance into the Accademia di Belle Arti…I had something I could offer in exchange for the scholarly hospitality. After a year, I thought I was not advancing in the sleepy but splendid antique city and decided, kamikaze style, to go over the Alps and into Paris, again without knowing the language. I had enough baggage to pass the test at the Ecole Nationale de Beaux-Arts in Paris. A year was enough to tell me I was repeating myself in the nude classes of the very old fashioned type. So, the ever adventurous in me sought something new and I was accepted in the Fresco Mural Painting atelier at the same school despite knowing that frescoes are very rarely commissioned anywhere in the world. Thus not thinking of any lucrative results or breath-taking popularity successes… basta tuloy ako! Again I had something to offer with my fresco technique and luck came along to knock on my door in the guise of…of Madonna mia! doing the fresco murals for one of the most beautiful palaces on the Canal Grande, the Palazzo Dario, in a dream art city: Venice! Having Peggy Guggenheim at arm’s reach, and she being a friend of the owners where I was “frescoeing” we became quite friendly along with the jet-set, then called café society. It opened doors I would never have dream of, and through the years it facilitated my career no end. Zoom, from close to zero to international collectors and museum directors…my advantage was, again, that I had a technical backbone and substance to deserve some respect and interest to keep opening more doors that remain open to this day.

My next kamikaze bit was to leave the fresco technique and be accepted by Professor Edouard Goerg in etching courses in the same academy in Paris. I sincerely wanted to learn and work hard so I could overcome some of the most difficult obstacles along the uphill, life-long journey to gain internal illumination. This soul-searching is painful for the artist/painter/etcher in his quest, more so in this groping inwards that it is the lifeline of any cathartic creative endeavor. The ultimate spark deep down oneself is quite a mystery that keeps us away from complacency and easy self-seductions. It is a baffling and dizzying as looking into one’s own eye!

William Blake in his Paradise Lost explains convincingly the travails of the creative man thus:

So he with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on with difficulty and labour he!

Etching crossed my path and precise moments of self-doubt, depressive stretches induced by several reasons including the material one such as when the Central Bank decided to totally cut our “regal” US$150 per month allowance. I had no savings obviously. These were very hard months in my life as I had to transform myself from an art student to a professional competing in the open high seas of an independent career…hardly speaking French, specializing in a field with arid pecuniary rewards, some sentimental unhappiness and profound loneliness. But the marvelous, magical difficult art of the print gave me great lift in creating on a different sensorial level. I was also changing as a person with my age and times. Etching is actually the perfect mirror of my transformation from depicting dramatic, expressionistic items to a more serene and happy state of mind. Professor Goerg must have felt my transformation, for one day, he said that I did my dramatic subject very well (coincidentally his type of work was very much like my expressionistic depictions), but he requested me to do a flower. Seeing my negative frown, he said: “do it your own way; I wish to see the other side of you.” Since the mid-fifties, I have not stopped doing flowers! In this Ayala Museum retrospective, one can very well see the different avatars flowing on the present joyful, colorful horizons.

Etching my catalysis and it energized the thorough development in my new approach to self-expression, for this technique shows my profound engagement with freer technical sequences and levels of expression. This is turn affected my way of painting, too. I think myself for having followed all the academic teaching of UP Fine Arts, but there is a time when, if one as some backbone and something to say, one breaks off as it already happened within my first period, within my school days as I swayed away from the Amorsolo world into what has been called the “Black Period.” The best example of this transformation into expressionist pictorial language gave me the first taste of recognition from my superiors and peers when I became the top winner in the Art Association of the Philippines’ yearly competition. I then won with my works, Sorcerer and Incubus, thus twice First Prize within 12 months of my submitting works to this vulnerable association.

With etching, I learned NOT to be a slave of the brush and this was not a minor contribution to my development technically and mentally. I realize what I needed most in subsequent attachment to liberty was, unwittingly, to change an organization of my senses and time, and to use, aside from brushes, just about anything that left a stain, a line, a mark, a nuance preferably by starting at peak excitement as I had many copper plates, then proceeding to another phase of completing the spontaneous first explosive states of mind. In UP, we used to start paintings, and then finish this before starting a new one. From then on, I knew I work best by taking advantage of my changing compulsions in their climatic time. Then on to a phase of “caressing,” on to the finishing, polishing…possibly altering minor abrasions or making slight improvements and afterthoughts. But it is etching, as a medium that does not allow much messing around in the late phases.

An unfortunate result of my going on in with a newcomer’s luck, overtaking some of the senior elements in the class who then refused to teach me as they did other new students was they were scandalized by the ways I was attacking with gusto and unconventional techniques I had improvised. I had a bad time in an idealistic war with this little group of old-timers who slavishly followed the most conventional of methods. To them, I was an affront. The word “merde” was inscribed on a piece of paper for my information; some “kind heart” dropped it on my working desk. Eventually, we almost came to blows! Yes, but, the etching survived for the honor of presenting them here and now. Here at Ayala Museum, here in the Philippines!