March 29, 2011

Juvenal Sansó Remembers Heady Days in Paris
Article from Contemporary Art Philippines, Issue 12
Text by Jessie Ruth Granadillos

The ability to express one’s deepest thoughts and feelings through art is a gift that brings with it a corresponding burden. Should the artist decide to accept the gift and use it to create works that would move people and outlive him, he is almost always (in the early stages of his life, at least) bound to struggle to keep body and soul together. As a young man, Juvenal Sansó could have avoided this path and chosen a life of ease in the bosom of his family in Manila, but he was clear about where he was headed - he wanted to be a painter.

Sansó was born in Reus, Catalonia, Spain in 1929. When he was four years old, the Sansó family moved to Manila where his father established El Arte Español, a thriving wrought iron business that was patronized by some of Manila’s oldest and richest families. Juvenal was expected to take over management of the business when he came of age, and to this end, his father thought allowing him to pursue art studies would be a good direction to take.

But this was farthest from the young Sansó’s mind.  Chatting animatedly with friends in his cozy home, surrounded by furniture and fine wrought iron pieces that El Arte Español is  famous for, Sansó, now in his eighties, began a journey back to the past, those heady days in Rome and Paris when, as a young painter on the cusp of discovering where his talent would take him, he faced the mundane but real challenge of surviving from day to day.  The stories came one after the other - little details one would think would be lost in time, but Sanso just kept telling them like they happened only yesterday. Eyes gleaming, he transported everyone to that time when, like most young artists who would soon make names for them­selves in the art world, he took on every challenge that came his way.

“I went (to Paris) because I needed to express myself,” he said. “I dared. I dared, first of all, to leave the family business. Without knowing French, without know­ing Italian, not a word of these, I got into the top academies in Rome and on to post graduate studies in Paris.”  Sansó walked us through his struggles as a student in Paris shortly after the end of the Second World War. The Central Bank of the Philippines at that time put a limit on the amount of money that could be sent from the Philippines to those studying abroad. “It was reduced to 150 US dollars a month. It wasn’t 45 pesos to the dollar then, only two pesos, so 150 dollars was exactly that: three hundred pesos. But even this was eventually cut off completely after the war,” Sansó narrates. During this period, he was a student at L’ Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. He was left with two options: go back to Manila, or stay and find a way to cover his living expenses. He opted for the latter.

He brought a portfolio of his abstract paintings to an agent in Paris whom a friend had recommended. The agent liked them and sent them off for consideration. Eventually, these abstract works were used as the basis for textile designs by top fashion and design houses, giving Sansó a measure of economic independence. A sad note to all these, Sansó added, was that his friend did not make it in the business of textile designing.

For the first six months, he struggled with the timeliness of the designs. “There are four seasons to match them with, and in each of these, fabric producers demand certain colors and new pat­terns. In designing for this sector, the artist needs to make repeats with exact precision as to how big each roll is, and impeccably match everything head to tail. That means any change in size of the roll translates to a total adjustment in the design,” Sansó recalled.

It staggers the mind to imagine how he accomplished this at a time when photocopying machines, enlargements and computer- aided design software were non-existent.

“We did everything by hand. Working on textile designs earned money, but it was a very hard way to earn,” he said.  The young Sansó started submitting works to big and small companies alike, some of which, to his chagrin, stole his ideas. One of the most recognized companies (he declined to mention by name) pretended to try on his design in front of a mirror - glasse sans teint (glass without tint), he called it - and printed his design without giving him a single cent or any form of recognition.  The glasse sans teint is a one-way mirror with one side showing a reflection, while the other side is like a glass window. 

Not one to easily back out of anything he got himself into, Sansó persisted and ended up creating unique, much sought-after patterns for big companies like Bianchini-Ferrier, an Italian-based firm, and Synergie, a Swiss company. His most remarkable success in this field was when he was commissioned to do an entire collection for the House of Balenciaga, the biggest name in the business in the 1960s. Balenciaga printed his designs in silk.

The seed money he earned from his work for Balenciaga kept him afloat for another couple of years. After almost three years, however, he left textile designing.  Sanso then went into fresco painting, the same method that Michaelangelo used for his work on the Sistine Chapel. A timebound way to create art, fresco painting requires the artist to apply colored pigments on wet plaster with lime. (This is a difficult process requiring speed and dexterity and would faze even the most intrepid of artists).  This plaster base holds the pigment in place, in which case, when it dries (and this happens very fast), the artist must finish his design right away before the plaster sets, or he will have to scrape off the entire piece and start all over. As in everything he dipped his hands into, Sansó mastered the art of fresco painting as well. This led to commissioned work in Venice, one of them on the Palazzo Dario next to where Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim lived. She was the founder of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice and niece of Solomon Guggenheim, who established the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, New York.

But unlike other artists who had found their comfort zone and remained there, Sansó had an extraordinary need for mobility and a constant drive to explore other territories. “In each time that I had something that was beginning to bore me, like the very academic art instructionals, I left what had become humdrum. I’ve done it. I’ve done it a hundred times, if not two thousand times,” he recalled with a laugh. Today, Sansó’s works are in the most prestigious museums all over the world and in the private collections of notable art collectors worldwide. He is represented in many museums: his adopted country’s own, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, El Museo de Arte Contempóraneo in Madrid, the Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among the collectors of his works are former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former Indonesian President Soeharto, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Jean Cocteau, Nelson E. Rockefeller, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Joseph Pulitzer Jr. His childhood friend, well-known tycoon Henry Sy and his son Hans, also have in their collection some of his biggest works.

Even before he went to study in Paris and Rome, he was twice awarded the 1st prize by the Art Association of the Philippines for his pieces, “The Sorcerer” in oil on canvas, and “Incubus” in watercolor. This was followed by numerous awards in the course of more than five decades of a life dedicated to the muse. He has been given three of the highest awards in the Philippines, Spain, and France: The Presidential Medal of Merit, awarded by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on May 20, 2006, the Distinguished Cross of Isabela awarded by the Spanish King Juan Carlos on January 8, 2007, and the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres conferred on February 26, 2008 by the Ministry of Culture and Communications of the Republic of France.