Vicente Manansala, 1910-1981: National Artist

Painting was his lifeblood, as it was his long love and demanding mistress. Vicente Manansala pursued his artistic career with a singlemindedness of purpose, knowing art to be his own form of self-realization and no other. Even as a newsboy and bootblack in Intramuros, he already recognized his true calling, expressing his early creativity in designing kites and making charcoal sketches from materials saved from his meager schoolboy’s allowance. At 15, he studied under the artist Ramon Peralta while doing signboards for a painting shop. The following year, 1926, he entered the UP School of Fine Arts from which he graduated in 1930. Subsequently, he earned a modest living as illustrator for Herald and Liwayway and as layout artist for Photonews and Saturday Evening News Magazine during the great era of illustration in the Philippines which brought out such talents as Carlos Francisco and Cesar Legaspi.

It was in the 50s that he came out strongly as an artist with his famous painting of jeepneys and of the Madonna of the Slums, a masterpiece of the period. He later sought to enrich his art by studies abroad, in Canada, France, and the United States. In the 60s he made it to the top in the Philippine art scene as a leading first-generation modernist in the country and as one of the most sought-after painters by art lovers and collectors. Last year, he held a successful retrospective, a summing-up of his artistic production for more than three decades, at the Manila Hotel, a show which coincided with the launching of the Manansala book in silver and gilt-edged editions by Rodolfo Paras-Perez, followed by an art auction of his work, the first to be held in lifetime of an artist.

All his life Manansala breathed, lived, and talked art. His warm and vivid personality, sparkling with humor and occasional mischief, was fueled by the love for art. With increasing fame and success, he became a bon vivant, while remaining simple at the core, but never for once abandoning his easel. Late last year, he confided to friends—perhaps feeling the first intimations of mortality—that he would cease to accept commissions, of which he had been veritably swamped, to start working in paintings (“experimental,” he called them) which would lead to a new direction in his art. The morning the artist was taken ill, he probably held brush in hand before a canvas, and when he had to put it down, could he have known that he would never take it up again?

Manansala, or Mang Enteng as fondly called, was at the forefront of the modernist movement in the 50s. But it is of particular interest to note that the exploration on home grounds of modernist idioms derived from Europe and the United States was, in the same decade, followed by a wave of national self-consciousness which raised questions of national identity and culture. Manansala, along with his fellow artists of the period, among them Galo Ocampo, Legaspi, Botong Francisco, and H. R. Ocampo, did not put to question the idea of the nationalist orientation of art. Their works of the period reflected the social environment, the Manila of the post-war period, and expressed the native sensibility and temperament.

Of the modernists who emerged in the 50s, it is probably Manansala who has had the largest and most sustained influence on the younger artists. Mang Enteng opted to work in the figurative mode, with the exception of a few occasional abstract works. But shunning Amorsolo’s rural idyls, the new artists painted the faces of the city. And it was primarily Manansala who created and developed the new imagery. From his paintbrush issued multifaceted images of Manila endowed with a distinct personality: ravaged by war but picking up the pieces and recovering by dint of creative ingenuity expressed in the noisy and ubiquitous jeepney and in the ragtag barong-barongs. Most of all, unlike the great industrial cities and commercial hubs of the West, the city of Manila through the vision of the artist had a strong folk character, where the only cosmopolitanism was of the GI Joe variety and of the creoles and Americans of the past colonial regimes who set up their industries on the fat of the land. It was a struggling city of small vendors and hawkers with their petty, picturesque trades that brought in a subsistence income. At the time, Quiapo was still the center, with its church of the Black Nazarene reeking with incense and echoing with somnolent waves of song. And all around it in the patio and spilling over the sidewalks were, and have always been, the vendors of holy rosaries, novenas, and scapulars, and of candles, slender yellow or waxy red in flat human shapes to fulfill a personal vow or beg for a miracle. Manansala’s women sat veiled and hunched over their wares, their brown impassive faces like the archaic bululs, block-like and chiseled in broad planes, their large bare feet sticking out from the hem of their sayas.

The menfolk took to cockfighting as the native machos, kerchief knotted around the head, rooster carried in the crook of an arm, reared in the game from adolescence. The flurry of the cockfight brought out the vibrant hues of folk culture in sharp transparent facets. A key painting of the period is the Madonna of the Slums, in which predominate brown tones in the representation of mother and child in figures simplified but expressive, set against the makeshift walls and roofs of the barong-barongs in the geometric and contrapuntal patterns of cubism. Another early theme was that of a family seated at table for a modest meal in quiet reverential attitudes. Also not to be overlooked are the Manansala still life of native fruits and vegetables, of fish with their spiky patterns, and of the utensils of the indigenous kitchen, the almeres, palayok, and kawali, in a delicate play of tonalities against window frames or translucent capiz squares.

Manansala’s vision of the city and his fundamentally native and Filipino approach to his subjects would influence numerous artists who would take up his folk themes within an urban context. Among them is counted Malang with his own version of folk romanticism in paintings that convey the same fragile, makeshift character of the 50s. With him are other artists, largely from UST, such as Antonio Austria, Angelito Antonio, Mario Parial who all draw on the same fascination for the folk with their small occupations and pleasures. The senior artist’s most recent followers include some Laguna artists with a strong folk background such as Manuel Baldemor and Nemesio Miranda, Jr.

His particular style derived from cubism also influenced the work of Ang Kiu Kok, Romeo Tabuena in his later style, and Hugo Yonzon. The cubist aspect of Manansala’s work rests largely in the geometric faceting of forms and the shifting and overlapping planarities. However, in Manansala, the facets and planes are broader than in original cubism and bring out on large rhythms. Here and there are incorporated linear and decorative patterns, as in the ironwork curlicues of gates and windows. He exploited to the full the implications of transparency in the original cubist style of Braque and Picasso. Unlike analytical and synthetic cubism which arbitrarily fragmented and dissected the figure into a complex abstract composition with only a few stray hints of the subject remaining, Manansala stayed close to the figure, simplifying it to its basic geometric planes but refusing to do it violence. On the whole except for a short black and white period of Crucifixions and Madonna-and-Child paintings, he shunned the basic austerity of the European style with its limited use of color and instead used colors in all its folk vibrancy, sensuous appeal, and evocative power. His compositions feature lines of perspective creating a shallow space, but these are simultaneously opposed by lines and planes which create spatial ambiguities that play on planarity and recession. His still lifes have a tapestry-like quality as the various objects, not fragmented but left entire, occupy the visual field, bright figures on a dark, ambiguous space, at times showing the influence of the 17th century Dutch interiors with their checkerboard motifs, at other times, keenly aware, in the Oriental manner, of spatial resonance. On the whole, he reinterpreted cubism according to the native Filipino sensibility as he drew his themes from the familiar environment.

Manansala’s art constituted a solution to the problems of the 50s in terms of the use of modern Western idioms and their local transformations, and in terms of the subject matter and content of art as reflecting a people’s identity. Life and art for him were one and the same as he enjoyed, through the years, his steady fulfillment as an artist. With his death, Vicente Manansala as artist is now part of Philippine art history, especially in its difficult searching years, and as man he becomes part of the national legend.

Observer, 8 September 1981, 40–1.

From FrissonThe Collected Criticism of Alice Guillermo. Download the complete book here.