Edades: How an OFW Changed the Path of Philippine Art

There’s a theory about human relationships that goes like this: each of us is separated from the other – think of it as a form of social distancing – by six other people. Six degrees of separation. The distance between a person and his friend is 1 degree, and 2 degrees for that friend’s friends, and so on.

In this way, one – including Victorio Edades – could have to do with the President of the United States or Harry Styles or Christian Amanpour or Anna Wintour. Consider this example – which is also true:

Victorio Edades, the father of Philippine modern art, baked salmon during his days in the US. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Our man Edades founded the UST College of Architecture and Fine Arts.

He mentored Botong Francisco, whom he also recruited to teach at UST.

In 1940, a handsome young thing named Salvacion Lim enrolled in UST in Fine Arts. Botong was her teacher – he said she had a ‘nice sense of color’.

Lim would become a famous fashion designer from the 1950s, eventually founding the fashion school SLIM’S, where Michael Cinco went to study.

Cinco is friends with Lesley Mobo who designed for Bond Girl Lea Seydoux who ended up in Vogue which is of course edited by Anna Wintour.

Edades belonged to a long line of OFWs – Filipino overseas workers who had emigrated to the United States for work, mainly for fishing, and settled in Seattle, where he found the climate relatively mild. And then something happened: he discovered Cezanne, Gauguin and Diego Rivera – and then decided to come home.

Back in his homeland, he was amazed that Philippine art at the time was dominated by Fernando Amorsolo and his tribe. In 1928 Edades curated what was considered the first exhibition of modern art. It was nothing short of remarkable, although he said it didn’t cause any ripples. The art experts were not quite sure what to think of the works: there were no brightly lit landscapes, no lithe women or smiling girl† Instead, Edades painted firm, substantial figures, in stern colours, browns, browns and earth tones.

It would take the artist nearly eight years to make a dent. Meanwhile, the winds of change would blow across the country: a new constitution in 1935, the inauguration of the Commonwealth the following year, and the prospect of self-government, women’s suffrage. Exciting times indeed.

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Edades and Juan Nakpil stand in front of the mural, a tribute to rice farmers, created for Nakpil’s residence. Photo from the book The 1000 Best Places to Visit in the World by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma and Amadis Ma. warrior

In 1936 he received his first commission from the architect Juan Nakpil for the film palace of Rufinos, the Capitol Theater. He would recruit a protégé, Carlos “Botong” Francisco, along with his best friend, Galo Ocampo. The work was aptly named ‘Rising New Philippines’. It would establish the artists as a triumvirate of modern art, voices to be reckoned with, and make their platform the most visited venue in Manila.

Edades would eventually settle at the University of Santo Tomas, where he founded not only the Department of Architecture but also the College of Fine Arts, recruited like-minded individuals to the faculty — Manansala, for example — and taught many other future stars, including Nena Saguil and Anita. Magsaysay Ho. He would go on to become the beloved and eternal mentor of the art world — at one point, even the president of the Philippine Art Gallery, the country’s first gallery dedicated to the cause of abstract art.

Edades: How an OFW Changed the Path of Philippine Art
“Poinsettia Girl” has become an iconic work of Edades’ fifth solo show. Signed and dated 1976 (lower right), oil on wooden board, 71 cm x 61 cm. Thanks to Leon Gallery

On March 4, 1976, he was to have his fifth solo exhibition – note his very first was nearly 50 years or half a century ago – held at the Metro Gallery in Makati. It was a favorable date as he was told on opening night that he would become the fifth National Artist for Visual Arts.

A painting from that memorable exhibition, ‘Poinsettia Girl’, has remained in the hands of a single collector until recently. It now graces the cover of Leon Gallery’s Spectacular Midyear Auction 2022 catalog and is clearly one of the highlights of the upcoming auction.

Victor Ages
The artist paints in his studio. Photo from the book The 1000 Best Places to Visit in the World by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma and Amadis Ma. warrior

“Poinsettia Girl” has become one of Edades’ most iconic works: it has been documented in multiple publications and was the star of the show ‘Edades in Retrospect’ at the Museum of Philippine Art in 1980. It depicts an unsmiling woman who, however, ornate, impervious to the flowers of Christmas, also known as the pascua, that surround her. The intense ruby ​​​​red color is repeated in her gown and make-up.

The poinsettia, which like Edades came to the Philippines from across the seas, is native to Mexico and traveled here on the Manila Galleons. Legend has it that it was a poor boy’s offering to the Infant Jesus on Christmas Day – when he couldn’t find a suitable present, he cut off a branch of a plant on his way to church. When he laid it at the feet of the Child, the leaves of the plant turned bright red, the stars twinkled and lit up the whole village.

The same can be said of Edades’ gift to Philippine modern art. Through his teachings and mentorships, he would “create the environment for modern art, both in theory and in practice,” the “prevailing ‘international style’ of contemporary Philippine painting.” His National Artist citation further reads, “End definitively the isolation of Philippine art from the currents of international culture.”

Photo of the Capitol Theater lobby with the mural 'The Rising New Philippines'
Photo of the lobby of the Capitol Theater with the mural ‘The Rising New Philippines’. Photo from the book “Edades: National Artist” by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma and Amadis Ma. Guerrero.

He would put together a group he called the Thirteen Moderns. He would thus become the linchpin connecting the spokes of the wheel of modern Philippine art—and “live to see Philippine painting transformed by its teachings.” That group would inspire Roberto Chabet, the next-gen mentor who would find the 13 Artist Awards for the CCP and blaze new paths and forge new visions. It was, after all, Edades’ greatest contribution – like the poinsettia illuminating an entire village – his emphasis on new perceptions as the true spirit of art.

[Leon Gallery’s Spectacular Mid-Year Auction 2022 is happening this June 11 at 2PM. Co-presented by ANCX, the auction gathers a staggering 142 lots made up of art from Filipino masters and contemporary artists, as well as precious antiques. To browse what’s in store, visit the Leon Gallery website by clicking on this link.]

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