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FERNANDO CUETO AMORSOLO (Filipino, 1892-1972)

Hope in the Ruins of Manila

Hope in the Ruins of Manila
signed and dated 'Manila, Feb' 1945 (lower left)
oil on canvas
86 x 121 cm. (33 7/8 x 47 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1945
Acquired directly from the artist, thence by descent to the present owner

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Eric Chang
Eric Chang

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Lot Essay

Fernando Amorsolo is widely recognized as the foremost artist of 20th Century painting within the Philippines; acclaimed for a peerless realist technique honed from the best traditions of the Spanish school, broad popularity with art patrons particularly during the American occupation years, and a prolific legacy of beautifully romanticised landscapes, awash in nature’s own light. The prevalence of his works within his native country cannot be adequately articulated, as they adorn the walls of national museums and prominent private collections; are reproduced on wall calendars, posters and postcards; and inspire succeeding generations of artists even until today. It is often commented that no Philippine artist in history has insinuated himself so successfully into the popular consciousness as Fernando Amorsolo. Genre types such as 'Planting Rice', 'Under the Mango Tree', and Sunset at Manila Bayor Harvesting were given elegant and lucid form under Amorsolo's brush, with the dalaga or beautiful Filipino maiden as his muse.

Without Fernando Amorsolo, the face of modern Philippine art would have been drastically different.

Amorsolo was born in 1892 in Paco, Manila, but spent his boyhood in Daet, Camarines Sur, amist the rice fields and abaca plantations that were to eventually grace his most famous works. His mother was the first cousin of lauded painter, Fabian de la Rosa, to whom the young Amorsolo was apprenticed at age thirteen. Under de la Rosa, Amorsolo acquired the rudiments of painting in the Spanish style, developing a mastery of portraying light and shade within a composition. This was further augmented by a period of study in Madrid in 1919, financed by art connoisseur and patron, Don Enrique Zobel. During this sojourn Amorsolo spent a great deal of time in the Prado Museum, interacting with the works of the Spanish masters such as Velasquez, Goya, El Greco and Sorolla, further refining his already rapidly burgeoning artistic technique. Like de la Rosa, Amorsolo was proficient in portraiture and genre scenes, and critically, displayed a rare ability to capture quintessentially Filipino elements with great skill and sophistication: a provincial vista of lush foliage, rippling rivers under rich tropical sunlight, robust workers in the field, and women in traditional native outfits or elaborate Maria Clara gowns.

The 1920s to 1940s are the decades viewed as Amorsolo's golden period, where his works were refined to the highest degree to achieve that evanescent splendour and breathtaking clarity. Indeed it is Amorsolo's aesthetic technique and inspired use of light for which he is most celebrated. His subject matters were usually derived from a few key prototypes, which he would then repaint tirelessly with only slight variations. These subjects were chosen for their dramatic potential, idyllic setting, heartwarming content, and nationalistic significance. Furthermore, there was a steady demand for these bucolic scenes from local and foreign patrons. Patronage aside, Amorsolo himself was fundamentally an idealist, genuinely desiring to portray the most beautiful aspects of his beloved country and immortalize these moments upon his canvas for future generations.

With the onset of World War II however, the works of Amorsolo from pastoral idyllic scenes became depictions of a country torn asunder and ravaged by war. Fearing for his family’s safety, Amorsolo dispatched them away to another house while he stayed on in their family home at Azcarraga which was located near a Japanese garrison. From there, he painted war time scenes based on what he witnessed, and these paintings became a journalistic report and emerged as a form of historical documentation of the suffering and destruction around the country.

The present lot was executed in February 1945, a short period after General MacArthur returned to the Philippines as he so famously proclaimed he would. As the fierce battle raged on to liberate the capital Manila from the Japanese occupational forces, the Japanese started indiscriminately killing prisoners of war and civilians. There is a palpable sense of anguish and sadness in Amorsolo as he sketched or painted various scenes in the city, valiantly capturing stories of heroism, suffering, and courage in the face of such adversity. Hope in the Ruins of Manila can be considered a masterwork in the wide and varied oeuvre of the artist, and is a captivating and dramatic example of his finest work. In the background, there is death around, with fire and smoke painted in strong red and grey hues signifying the bloodshed and doom that was pervading the country due to the occupation. However the sky is clear to the left, done in the artist’s typical use of chiaroscuro, highlighting the interplay of light and dark – which seems to symbolize hope and the promise of better times ahead. The main figure in the foreground is a Filipina lady cradling a baby protectively to her bosom while still moving forward, standing proudly and tall as a symbol of hope and bravery. Amorsolo paints her as well with an expression of hope and courage in the face of such adversity. To a certain extent, the Filipina lady could possibly be the artist’s own interpretation of the country itself- standing proudly and defiantly and witnessing the tides turn with the end of the war approaching. There is a sense of hope and optimism with the promise of new birth for the country, that from the depths of such despair, that the indomitable spirit of the Filipino people will not be quenched but will continue on.

Amorsolo documented the pain, suffering and tragedy based on witnessing events first hand. Some of his rawest yet most brilliant paintings were done in this period, yet have received far less acclaim than many of his other works. The present lot Hope in the Ruins of Manila is a superlative and exceptional example of this era and one of the finest and most inspirational works of Amorsolo to emerge in recent time. Acquiring materials to paint during this era was extremely difficult as well due to the scarcity of them and this painting is even rarer due to its larger composition than most from this period.

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