"In my works I always celebrate the women of the Philippines. I regard them with deep admiration and they continue to inspire me - their movements and gestures, their expressions of happiness and frustration; their diligence and shortcomings; their joy of living. I know very well the strength, hard work and quiet dignity of Philippine women, for I am one of them."
- Anita Magsaysay-Ho
The Filipino Woman has always been the heroine of Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s paintings, a constant source of inspiration for her across her artistic career. Women Feeding Chickens (Lot 9) is an excellent example of Magsaysay-Ho’s celebration of the nurturing and hardworking spirit of women, a sisterhood she identified with, bound by the discourse of their work.
Recognised as the only woman to be named one of the Thirteen Moderns in Philippine art, Magsaysay-Ho was the foremost female artist that emerged from the Filipino Neo-Realist movement in the 1950s, alongside the likes of Vicente Silva Manansala, Cesar Legaspi and Victorio Edades. She studied under various teachers, of which the most influential was, arguably, Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Arts Students’ League (ASL) in New York, who introduced her to modernist concepts that led her to develop the iconic style of painting that she is known for today. Her ability to absorb new artistic influences and inject her own individual sensibilities by internalising them sets her apart from many of her contemporaries.
Women Feeding Chickens depicts women clutching traditional woven baskets whilst surrounded by chickens in the fields. A sense of rhythm prevails over the way they are composed—a characteristic that is typical of Magsaysay-Ho’s paintings—reflecting the way in which these women diligently labour in the fields, displayed both in the foreground and background of the painting. Strategically inter-weaving the baskets into the compositional structure of the painting, Magsaysay-Ho choreographs her women into a circular flow of movements and gestures, creating a self-contained ecosystem of communion and intimacy. Indeed, these women – with their lowered eyelids and enigmatically shy and delicate smiles that seem almost impossible to catch – appear to be lost in their own harmoniously blissful world, unaware of the viewer’s gaze. Engaged in the act of daily tasks, we are not made privy to Magsaysay-Ho’s women and are merely privileged to observe from the outside, a simple act of feeding chickens that becomes elevated to a mysterious secret ritual.
In some ways, Magsaysay-Ho’s works draw parallels with the Master of Filipino genre painting and an early teacher of hers, Fernando Cueto Amorsolo. Known for his romanticised depictions of everyday local life, Amorsolo had a similar penchant for painting women. In Women working in a field, a volcano in the background, Amorsolo illustrates women at work in the fields, surrounded by the Filipino landscape. Much like Women Feeding Chickens, they are deeply absorbed in their tasks at hand and immersed in their own world. However, Magsaysay-Ho presents an alternative vision to Amorsolo’s beautiful village maidens, rendered using a soft sfumato technique. In contrast, the women in her world are sure-footed and sturdy, their strength expressed through two-dimensional delineated forms that reflect a clarity and presence. The artist eschewed the traditional conventions of figurative representation, favouring the use of heavily stylised angular planes and soft pointed triangles, creating facets of light and dark tones that continuously bounce across the canvas.
On one hand, Women Feeding Chickens retains a tightly cropped pictorial field, typical of Magsaysay-Ho’s compositional technique in which the female figures dominate the foreground. On the other, unlike most of her works, she apportions a significant part of the canvas to showcase the undulating forms of the local landscape through the large gaps of negative spatial intervals placed between the isolated female forms, which she customarily keeps closely knitted. Compared to some of her earlier works, there is a much greater sense of distinction between foreground and background, as well as a greater sense of depth created by the scaled figures that intersperse the lush fields. As such, Women Feeding Chickens can be considered a depiction of Magsaysay-Ho’s deep love for her country and her people, as well as an homage to the bounty of the land. Furthermore, the cyclical narrative of the way in which the unwanted husks from harvested grains are returned to the earth as chicken feed, emphasises the respect afforded to the lands and its produce.
The present lot is an exceptional specimen from her “Green Period” and is larger in scale than most other compositions. This ‘green period’, which spanned the mid-to-late seventies, was named after the distinctly green tones that permeate the canvas arising from her depiction of foliage, vegetation and various produce. The female figures tend to share this tonal quality as well, their skin seemingly burnished with a green hue that is diffused seamlessly for a lustrous effect, bathing the canvas in a soft emerald glow rendering the canvas almost like a precious pane of translucent jade.
The women appear almost as if to blend into their surroundings, symbolising their connection to the lands and the harmonious relationship between Man and nature. This accordant relationship is of particular significance for Magsaysay-Ho at this point in her life, for having spent years away from her homeland, Women Feeding Chickens is imbued with a strong sense of nostalgia and memories of life in the Philippines. Women here are not representative of individualised people, but are rather compositional elements that exist on the canvas to capture the nurturing and hardworking spirit that encompass the essence of the Filipino Woman.
The trope of the peasant woman working tirelessly in the fields is not one that is unfamiliar to the canon of Western art. French Realist Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gleaners drew much ire at the 1857 Paris Salon for his sympathetic depiction of the rural working class. Like Millet, Magsaysay-Ho was a champion of the provincial labourer, using her artistic gifts to elevate their status as subjects worth honouring in her work. However, unlike Millet, there are no political undertones in Magsaysay-Ho’s works; her world is one that pays homage to the modern Filipina, in which a joyous and uplifting harmony prevails over a universal sisterhood that she identifies with.