“All arts aspire to the condition of music”
Cesar Legaspi, a celebrated National Artist, spent time in community with the Philippine Modernist painters, his guides and contemporaries included stalwarts such as H.R. Ocampo, Fernando Zobel and Jose Joya. Legaspi shared their notion of communicating emotional and musical expression in painting, and the preference for articulating line, colour, tone and texture over realistic representation. The artist’s interpretation and synthesis of the human figure was more important than any accurate, photographic depiction of reality, privileging the artist’s subjectivity and imagination. Alfredo Roces notes in his book that while the Filipino Modernist painters went on to embrace the non-figurative, Legaspi included a lucid emotional dimension in his work that was significant because he kept his roots in figuration, despite working on the edge of the non-objective.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Legaspi’s fascination with the human torso, tied together with his unique grasp of colour tones and curious transparent, yet solid shapes made up his stunning compositions. Working in a time where his contemporaries were interested in manipulating the human form instead of merely representing it, Legaspi was also exposed to his friend’s reports from Europe with theories on Cubism, and to painters such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, and later Picasso. The artist was known to be colour blind, and upon the discovery of his handicap, Ocampo produced a colour chart, which allowed Legaspi to select colours from a pre-determined palette. This process gave Legaspi an interesting relationship with colour, where his application of paint depended almost strictly on colour theory, instead of a motivation based on visual momentum. This process also meant that Legaspi’s paintings took on a distinctive tonality, also present in Ginintuang Mayo. Additionally, Legaspi studied in Paris, under a professor Goetz, who convinced him of the theory that warm colours should also contain cool tones, and vice versa. This ideal comes to life in Ginintuang Mayo, where cooler, greyer shades of the vibrant red and orange, as well as the green and blues supporting the warm tones allowing them to truly shine in contrast.
Ginintuang Mayo is a warm, lively image of a celebratory moment, where four maidens dance in a circle with flowers in their hair. Legaspi’s compositional skills shine in the positioning of the four nudes. Roces notes that the negative space is used as importantly as the shapes making up the figures in Legaspi’s painting, reinforcing the dual appearance of simultaneously solid and transparent forms in his pictures. In keeping both background and figure as visual equals, Legaspi’s compositions tend to have a uniform, all-over effect where the viewer’s eye is led around the image in a gentle, yet fluid manner, accompanied by a musical rhythm that pervades his paintings.
The gallery PAG noted at its First Non-Objective Art in Tagala show that exhibited a number of important painters and included Legaspi’s work, that: “What matters is not external reality anymore, but its transformation into a new kind of shapes and lines and colors interacting on one another in space. It approaches the quality and condition of music in the sense that musical ideas are expressed with musical means.”
Indeed, Legaspi was more interested in transmitting emotions and forms through the individual components of shape and colour tones in his work, rather than the actual human form itself. This gave his paintings an expressive quality. He said: “What (body parts) look like…are of no use to the painter who must create on his canvas a beautiful feeling in form of color, line, texture, form, and space and nothing else.”
As such, there is very subtle difference between the shapes that make up the background and the figures themselves, but the artist’s masterful handle on shading allows the viewer’s eye to immediately identify the figures in the symphony of colours and flowing forms. Despite the visual similarity between the abstracted background - alluding to movement and space - and the figures, we gain a beautifully complex sense of depth.
In Ginintuang Mayo, the harmony of tones are not only aesthetically pleasing, tying the composition together with similar colours and producing a rich skin tone on the women, as well as in the background. Legaspi also indicates the effect of light falling on three-dimensional forms with his shading. The women’s bodies are sensuously formed, with details such as the dimples on the small of a woman’s back placed on an almost tangible mass, and with Legaspi’s skill, is also full of expressive emotion at the same time. While figuration is at the forefront, the artist is also able to harness and execute an abstract quality in the painting, creating a visual symphony of musical rhythm. The result is a celebration of the beauty of the female form, and exuberant, human joy. Directly translating to “Golden May,” the title also refers to the month of many summer celebrations in the Philippines.