The Philippine art community is mourning the passing of Anita Magsaysay-Ho, whose slit-eyed, bandanna-wearing rural women—shown cooking, selling fruits and feeding chickens—became iconic figures synonymous with the Filipina.
In a statement, the National Museum of the Philippines expressed “great sorrow” that “one of the greatest Filipina painters” is gone.
Salvador “Buds” Convocar, president of Saturday Group, seemed to sum it up best when he said, “We have lost a national treasure.”
Magsaysay-Ho, 97, had long been regarded with something akin to reverence by her peers in the visual arts and many others beyond it. Partly, it had to do with her skills, as she excelled and gained fame with her egg tempera paintings, a difficult medium involving elaborate techniques of applying paint layers and glazes—this, while the method was being abandoned by others of her generation.
But the respect accorded her also had to do with her personal bearing. Her reserved demeanor, even as she was making headlines way into her senior years, inspired awe and admiration.
“Despite her fame and place in the Philippine and Southeast Asian art world, she remained this quiet presence who knew of her own achievements but remained humble,” affirms Ana Maria Theresa P. Labrador, PhD, assistant director of the National Museum.
Labrador believes Magsaysay-Ho’s greatest legacy is her successful blending of her conservative, academic training from the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts, Art Students’ League in New York City and Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, USA and her practice of modernist techniques and themes.
“Her place on the cusp between traditionalists and modernists of Filipino art has served her in good stead,” says Labrador. “Rather than viewing these two styles as contrasting forces, she perceived them as complementary, showing this consistently in her works. This is one of the reasons why she is not so easily categorized by ordinary art historical precepts.”
The late artist is also hailed for being so prolific even as she was slowed down by age and ailments. Magsaysay-Ho left behind a prodigious output of drawings as well as paintings using egg tempera, oil on canvas and acrylic.
Her works can be found in institutions like the National Museum, the Ateneo Art Gallery, the UST Museum, the Lopez Museum and the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Countless others are part of private collections.
Just like the women she depicted in her works, Magsaysay-Ho made an indelible mark in the field she chose to be part of.
She was the only woman shortlisted by Victorio Edades as among the so-called “13 Moderns” ushered in a new style of art in the Philippines in the 1950s, in stark contrast to the established academic style espoused by Fernando Armorsolo.
The Moderns also included the likes of Carlos “Botong” Francisco, Vicente Manansala, H.R. Ocampo and Cesar Legaspi—all of whom, along with Edades (and Amorsolo) —have been named National Artists.
Ma. Victoria Herrera, officer-in-charge of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Visual Arts and Museum Division, Production and Exhibition Department, singles out Magsaysay-Ho’s determination to pursue an artistic career at a time when the art world then was dominated by men.
“She would be in the same league as the female stalwarts of the post-World War II art world that included Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, Lyd Arguilla, and Nena Saguil,” Herrera points out.
Convocar concurs, “She showed the way that a woman can compete and contribute significantly to the development of Philippine Art. She had one of the most recognizable styles in painting with women as her subjects.”
Says Labrador, “Her distinction as one of the first women artists who held their own against the male-dominated Philippine art world has created a paradigm for many female painters that came after her.”
Sari Ortiga, owner of the Crucible Gallery which has exclusively represented Magsaysay-Ho since the ’90s, comments how the artist was able to establish something distinctively Filipino but with a contemporary touch.
“What’s most special about her work is that she was able to give an identity to the Filipina, but it is still a modern interpretation,” Ortiga says.
As Herrera stresses, Magsaysay-Ho’s stylized rendering of the rural Filipina—with slit eyes and wearing white bandanas—made her works instantly recognizable. “Her many versions of this subject matter gained her the title of the ‘female Amorsolo’ although like the other modernists, working on traditional themes was only a means to explore media and new techniques that the conservative school then did not encourage.
Herrera cites for instance that the artist’s famous work Laughter is painted directly on an unprimed piece of wood. “Also, her decision to take on the old medium of tempera (which she learned during in her studies in the Art Student League, NY), a medium that was not too familiar to other Filipino painters, was in many ways ‘modern’ for that period.”
Convocar notes there will most likely be renewed clamor for the artist’s works now that she has passed away.
There had already been an increased demand for her paintings in the last decade or so brought about by the record-breaking sale of her In the Marketplace in a Christie’s auction of Southeast Asian works in 1999. Depicting her iconic women in a typical market scene seemingly engaged in lively haggling, the 58 x 76 cm work fetched a whopping P15 million.
That sale, describes Ortiga, sent shockwaves not only in the Philippine art scene, but also in the Asian art scene. “It’s the precursor to the success of younger Filipino artists like Ronaldo Ventura and Geraldine Javier in the auctions today.”
But even as the sale made news in 1999, Magsaysay-Ho herself was reportedly baffled as to why In the Marketplace went for such a huge price. Nevertheless, that was followed in succeeding years by other noteworthy sales of other works of hers at various auctions.
Acquiring pieces by Magsaysay-Ho is widely regarded as a good investment since these are expected to increase in value over time.
“But more than that, I think a number of serious collectors recognize her significant role in the history of Philippine painting and would like her to be duly represented, particularly by her early works,” Herrera says. “I think most of Anita’s works that found its way in the auction houses in the past decade are from the 1960s or earlier. Her tempera works are especially highly valued both because these are early works (late 1940s) and that she did a very limited number in this medium.”
Many in the art world have long been calling for Magsaysay-Ho to be declared National Artist. However, she could not be nominated as only Filipino citizens could be considered for the honor. She had become a naturalized Canadian as she and her family lived abroad as part of her husband’s work.
Ortiga said she could have simply opted to reclaim her Filipino citizenship, but that Magsaysay-Ho didn’t bother to do so because she wasn’t interested in the accolade.
According to Labrador, when she interviewed Magsaysay-Ho in 2000, the latter was quite ambivalent about the National Artist award. “Afterwards, I wrote that the dated and insular provision in the law that the awardees must carry a Filipino citizenship made her ineligible to be a National Artist. It is perhaps just another milieu that makes her difficult to categorize. As I wrote then, and which I still believe now, she occupies the niche which she has demonstrated in her body of work, (that) her two worlds—of academic and modernist art-making or even being Filipino and not quite considered as one—can actually create one, even better world.”