Pounding Rice

Pounding Rice
signed and dated 'MANANSALA 49' (lower right)
oil on canvas
98 x 86 cm. (38 5/8 x 33 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1949
Acquired directly from the artist
Thence by descent to the present owner
Private Collection, USA

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

A prolific member of the pre-war Thirteen Moderns and of the post-war Neo-Realists, Vicente Manansala is respected as one of the most influential artists in the Filipino modern arts sphere, seizing the nation and its characters to shape a vision of Philippine modernism that is strongly anchored on social and folk themes. Having lived through the Second World War, Manansala fled to Masantol, Pampanga during the Japanese Occupation, where life revolved around pastoral pursuits like fishing or farming. Rural scenes and genre pieces began to emerge in the artist’s paintings; scenes from farms, harvests and winnowing rice.

However, disillusion among the war ruins of Manila in 1945 kept memories of the country’s pre-war days as a nostalgic sentiment of a lost Eden. In the same way the belle époque represented a lost and glorious past for a post First World War Europe, memories in the Philippines were treasured as talismans of hope severed from a sense of faith and community.

It is within this climate of change and uncertainty post-war Philippines that Manansala painted Pounding Rice (Lot 8) in 1949, a deeply moving and powerful work celebrating the toils and strengths of the Filipino people as they work the land for food and sustenance, framed by the artist’s depiction of a rich and fertile rural landscape unspoiled by civilisation. Painted with an aura of verisimilitude so distinct from the artist’s well-known ‘transparent cubism’ style of painting, the painting is a rare and early work from Manansala’s oeuvre , executed shortly before his studies abroad at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Canada through the UNESCO art fellowship in 1949; a seminal trip that marked his introduction and foray into cubism which greatly characterised much of his later work.

In Pounding Rice, the artist portrays a group of farmwomen engaged in the activity of rice pounding, an agricultural process of dehulling rice or turning rice into rice flour for food. Gathered around a simple mortar carved from a tree stump, Manansala monumentalises the three figures in the centre of his canvas, directing the viewer’s gaze and attention to the dramatic scene unfolding as the women stand firmly and barefooted, anchoring themselves to the ground while alternately dropping a heavy wooden pestle head to the mortar of rice. With great determination and concentration, the leftmost woman grips her pounder with both hands, raising it high in preparation for the intense labour as her fellow pounder grasps the side of the mortar, one arm pulled back as if ready to strike. It is not only strength that perseveres in this solemn scene, but also a calm resilience as the homemakers quietly engage in their task without signs of anguish or protest. Sitting serenely in the background behind the women is also an older lady calmly sieving the freshly mortared rice as she too is busy at her own task. Through this Manansala extols the various facets of Filipino culture, where the strong and calm work together in harmony to sustain a life of pastoral paradise.

The intimate composition of the piece is also reminiscent of El Greco’s vivid and striking subject-portrayal, almost theatrical as the women appear to be staged within the picture plane, an intricate play with light serving to elevate the importance of the painter’s main subjects. Stylised lines used by Manansala exude the energy and vigour imbued in the movement of rice pounding, as the flowing brushwork simultaneously highlights a sense of femininity within the three able-bodied women, rendering them with a quality of elegance and grace amidst their gruelling undertaking.

The admiration Manansala had towards fellow painter Carlos V. “Botong” Francisco between the years of 1948 and 1949 also markedly influenced his painting subjects; particularly in the way he composed figures present in works from the period. Yet what is most compelling in the painting is not only the subjects, but also Manansala’s schematised handling of volumes; the obviously studied relationship of forms and the allusion to Paul Gauguin, who was the source of Francisco’s artistic inspiration.

In particular, Manansala’s lyrical choice and incorporation of colour in Pounding Rice calls to mind the intense blues, greens, yellows and red ochres used by Gauguin himself, pure colours employed not only for their ability to mimic nature, but also for their expressive emotive qualities. Indeed, Manansala muses, “What produces the work actually is what takes place inside me. When I paint, a great deal happens. There’s the subject, the canvas and the tools but it is what takes place inside me that produces the work. I start with a feeling. I see something, and if I feel strongly enough about it, I think of a way of attacking it. I paint not what I see but what I feel.” As the viewer’s gaze lingers on the muted rays of a dawning sun gently caressing the women in a pinkish hue and bathing the earth in its warm terracotta glow, shades of blue painted in movements of sky and cloud lends depth and a sense of dramatis and gravitas for whoever beholds its splendour.

The equilibrium between both artistic technique and emotional expression is certainly exemplified in the present work as Manansala forges a new national consciousness together with a demonstration of his love for his nation and its people. Presented by the artist himself to the current owner of this visual masterpiece, himself an avid art collector, Pounding Rice is an impeccable pictorial symphony of nature and colour that fuses nostalgia with the power and might of ordinary Filipino men and women, pushing forward together in unity and strength for the future of their country.

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