According to the poet Wallace Stevens there is a “universal poetry” of which poetry and painting are manifestations. Just as the relationship between literary poetry and painting is recognized as long and distinguished, so was the friendship shared between the Filipino painter Hernando Ruiz (H.R.) Ocampo and poet and compatriot, Rafael Zulueta da Costa. Both were lauded as representatives of the nation. Though working in different mediums, together they endeavored to explore and interpret the intangible qualities and details of their country’s national struggle in new ways. These ultimately became embedded in the history of their nation.
Given he began his work as a painter late in life and was not particularly prolific, H.R. Ocampo’s works are rare to come by. So too, is his practice shrouded in mystery as there is no specific institution devoted to his oeuvre. A slow and methodical painter, the artist was pedantic and spent a great deal of time on each piece. H.R. Ocampo kept a list of collectors ready to purchase his completed pieces and sold them as the paint was still drying. However, the artist honored his friendship with the poet, Rafael Zulueta da Costa by gifting him the present lot. Passed down through generations, Christie’s is delighted to have the opportunity to renew the legacy and enrich the provenance of Playmates.
Discouraged from his creative tendencies as a child, H.R. Ocampo studied law, commerce and creative writing, had a career in politics and advertising before finally turning to art. As one of the inaugural members of the pre-War writing collective called “The Veronicans” he collaborated with many of the great Filipino writers. He experimented with poetry, though eventually he found his purest voice through painting and devoted all of his creative energies to the medium. Informed by the Filipino Social Realist artists before him (Pablo Baenz Santos, Papo de Asis and Jose Tence Ruiz, among others) H.R. Ocampo would ultimately lead the Neo-Realist art movement in the Philippines as a member of both the eminent Thirteen Moderns and the Saturday Group. Posthumously dubbed as National Artist for Visual Arts in 1991, the self-taught artist’s paintings were made up of intuitive, bright and abstracted biomorphic forms that became exemplary of Filipino Modernism. His nationalism manifested in each piece he painted, invoking the colours, landscapes, climate and spirit of his country as well as the struggles faced by his compatriots in the aftermath of World War II. In the words of the scholar Jonathan Beller, “Ocampo’s paintings are saying something not only about visual transformation but also about linguistic transformation; they would speak about a transformed situation of the human being in the Philippines. In many respects Ocampo’s paintings are paintings because they cannot be words or, for that matter, political activity (in the traditional sense).”
During the 1950’s H.R. Ocampo’s works retained a quasi-figurative style that resonated with strong nationalist sentiments in the wake of the Philippine’s newly gained independence from the United States. Later, H.R. Ocampo’s works would evolve to abstraction and totally divorce from referentiality. Painted in 1958, Playmates, was completed at a time when H.R. Ocampo was unconcerned with the images semblance to nature, and rather, sought to articulate the nationalist struggle of his country. In Playmates he returns to the motif of faces that invoke traditional Filipino masks used during celebrations and ceremonies, as well as a book on African tribal masks that the artist cited.
A later incarnation of his 1956 Masks (Fig 1.), the figures in Playmates are formed by a myriad of intricate dots and short fluid strokes of vivid paint. Ocampo worked and painted using the stippling method, where oil pigments are directly applied using small subtle touches with a palette knife. Ocampo’s characteristic shapes within his canvasses are softly graded into shadow, which creates a sense of motion and gradient amidst the undulations. In a display of his acute sensitivity to colour, the faces take shape in amoebic daubs of vivid blues and yellows or earthy reds and browns. As well as depicting a thronging celebratory crowd, these faces suggest an ambiguous dialogue about the politics of seeing. Frozen in space they fixate on viewers with haunting gazes. Their expressions shift, appearing both autonomous and merging with the larger picture as they quiver and flow with the luminous colours of the oil painting. A visual symphony of biomorphic forms, the fluid shapes of the canvas bring each face to life. In this way the piece exemplifies H.R. Ocampo’s compositional goal of “unity, coherence and emphasis” which reflects his desire for a nation that exhibited these same attributes.
As well as its many striking painterly qualities, the present lot is enriched by the fact that it was passed between two artists who innovated new types of dialogue and a creative language that expressed their political aspirations for a stronger, more unified nation. Playmates reiterate the sentiments expressed in Rafael Zulueta da Costa’s iconic and commonly cited 1940 poem, “Like The Molave.” The poem echoes the yearning for a nation of people as strong and resilient as the hardwood molave tree:
Like the molave, firm, resiliant, staunch,
Rising on the hillside, unafraid,
Strong of its own fibre; yes, like the molave!