Christie's is pleased to present two dynamic and dramatic works by Philippine modern masters, Vicente Manansala and Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, focusing on the cockfight - a hallmark theme within Southeast Asian art which conjures the excitement of spectatorship coupled with high stakes betting, and evokes an atmosphere of male camaraderie and native sportsmanship. Cock fighting has been, and continues to be a favourite recreational activity for many Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and is generally a male-dominated activity for its symbolic allusions to masculinity and fertility. Within the Philippines, the breeders of competitive gamecocks are traditionally hailed as 'sabungero' and are central players within the fabric of provincial life. Kahig (Lot 456) by Manansala, and Cockfight (Lot 457), a rare Barcelona-period work by Alcuaz, can be considered two of the finest portrayals of this quintessential genre subject drawn from rural life.
Vicente Manansala is the most distinguished name within the modernist movement in the Philippines. Growing up in the wake of the prevalent romantic realist genre, Manansala was twelve years old when Fernando Amorsolo, then the acknowledged leading painter of the Spanish school, first developed his iconic pastoral landscapes bathed in effervescent tropical light - rice planting, women in the fields, couples dancing, village festivities. However Manansala soon discovered that bucolic village images were less important to him than artistic texture and the interplay of colours and structure. Like the Western cubist painters, he became fascinated with how geometric shapes could cohere to develop a recognisable image, maintaining more expressionistic integrity than rendered by a purely realistic technique. Eventually, he devoted himself to developing his own cubist methodologies which permitted the flexibility and freedom to articulate a truly Filipino context. In his own words, Manansala affirmed: "When I say I am a cubist, I mean that I have taken Cubism's basic elements, reorganized them and added my own, creating my own style."
Kahig was painted at the height of Manansala's prowess in 'Translucent Cubism', the technique for which he is greatly acclaimed, portraying two male 'sabungero' at rest in between cock fighting bouts. Any Filipino will recognize the familiar scene, where two blood cocks are held in close proximity in order to raise their fighting hackles, but not loosed upon each other until released into the ring. As the excited cocks strain and rear aggressively at each other, the two sabungeros, unperturbed, continue their amiable conversation while restraining the birds by their tail feathers with a practiced hand. Kahig was originally owned by the late Ambassador JV Cruz, whose excellent collection of important Manansala works was acquired through many years of close friendship and patronage.
Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, a later peer of Manansala, was conferred the Order of National Artist in 2009. From 1949-1950 he took up painting at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts. At the same time he studied law, finishing the latter degree in 1955. Upon the recommendation of painter and art patron Fernando Zóbel, he received a scholarship grant from the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to study at the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Among its alumni were 19th century Filipino master painters such as Juan Luna and Felix Hidalgo and 20th century Spanish modernists such as Picasso and Dalí.
In 1956 Alcuaz set up a studio in Barcelona, which he maintained for forty years. He became part of La Puñalada, an informal group that included the Catalan artists Tàpies, Tharrats, Cuixart, Aragones, and Aluma among others. They were the exponents of 'neo-figurativism' and among the forerunners of modern and contemporary art in Spain. 'La Pu?alada' was the name of a caf? in Paseo de Gracia in Barcelona, where they socialized, and the term (which means: the stab) refers to the art of Andalusian knife-fighting, which has many parallels with flamenco dancing. The visual artists of La Pu?alada idealized this state, and Alcuaz had been observed to wield his brush as if it were a fencing foil.
Rodolfo Paras-Perez notes that "Alcuaz mastered not only the traditional idiom of painting but also - what can be called the tradition of the avant-gardeK.the use of both linear and suggestive colour planes evocative of some undefined, almost dream-like reality easily alludes to the abstract yet Surreal oeuvres of Joan Miró". Using Barcelona as a career base, Alcuaz exhibited extensively and regularly throughout Spain, as well as in Lisbon, London and Paris, garnering recognition and honours. Alcuaz eventually returned to live in Manila and in November, 1964, held a Ten-Year Retrospective Exhibition at the National Library.
Alcuaz' eldest son Christian dates this present lot, Cockfight, to the artist's Barcelona period, prior to 1964, although it is retroactively signed 1968. By size and importance it could very well have been included in Alcuaz's 1964 Retrospective. Often, especially if Alcuaz intended to keep the work, he left it unsigned and undated, doing so only when he parted with it - in this case, in 1968.
Alcuaz' Barcelona period was influenced by medieval Catalan frescoes: they utilized primary colours, all heavily outlined in black, with a darkly shaded surrounding field, and the modern treatment of space as a flat surface rather than the creation of an illusion of depth within an image, which was then accepted technique of perspective within European art. They also did not strictly follow the idea of proportional scale. One form would be disproportionately larger than others, a method often used by children when they make the objects most important to them the biggest objects in the image. This technique of juxtaposing an overly large central image against the secondary motifs can be clearly observed within Cockfight.
In terms of style and subject, this piece undoubtedly belongs to the Barcelona period. Alcuaz painted only several works with black birds, with this work being the largest. Another example, entitled Gazing Bird before the Approaching Storm, dated 1965, was part of the Zóbel donation to the Ateneo Art Gallery; a third work of the same period was originally from the Mauro Malang Santos collection. While figurative, they are not exact representations: the birds also bear resemblances to ravens or crows, or perhaps a peacock.