Passions and Obsessions

Alfonso T. Ongpin: Pictures in an auction

Lolo Ponso is known as the first significant collector of Filipino art

Alfonso T. Ongpin in the late 1940s (age 61-64).

It’s interesting how, in the time of the worst economic downturn in 37 years, the Filipino premium art market is perhaps the most vibrant and liquid it has been for decades. Part of the story is that the upper segment of society tends to be more insulated from the downturn, but also, if one buys art as an investment, it’s a better long-term deal, these days. Art pieces will outperform business investment, or even the stock market right now, although growth is always dependent on the existence of a liquid art market.

What is something “worth?” The standard answer, from a business perspective, is “what someone is willing to pay for it.” To those who value art, that is only part of the value, as each piece may speak to them in a way that cannot be defined by mere monetary value.

There exist people in the world for whom art is meaningless. It is possible that they are more concerned with the basic levels of their hierarchy of needs, or that they fail to make an intellectual, emotional or even economic connection to the work. This does not make them inferior human beings. I simply point this out to show that art only has the meaning that people confer, or even project, upon it.

The León Gallery, in the last decade, has established itself as a bright light of the heritage art market in the country. I think they deserve credit for their curation and scholarship, which has enhanced the value of the pieces they bring to market. This is exactly what I mean by the value of art conferred on it by people.

León Gallery’s Asian Cultural Council auction on February 27, at 2 pm, will feature several works that once belonged to my great-grandfather, Alfonso T. Ongpin, who was born in 1885, and died in 1975. Some of these works are owned by descendants, others by third parties, but all are connected to him, and some are dedicated to him in writing by the artists themselves.

Alfonso T. Ongpin in 1913 (age 28). The black band signifies the year of mourning upon the passing of his father in December 1912. He had married Ezperanza Roa in February 1912.

Lolo Ponso (his family called him “Poncho”) or “ATO” is known as the first significant collector of Filipino art. Art collectors serve an important cultural function, because they confer both cultural and economic value upon art, and in doing so, they define the terms of that value. In their way, León Gallery’s team is fulfilling the same role.

His father, Román Ongpin, who is commemorated by the street that bears his name in Binondo, established El 82, effectively a department store, that eventually specialized in art supplies. As a result, he grew up surrounded by artists, and many of his friends since his youth belonged to that community. It was only natural that he began to collect art. Because El 82 was the source for their materials, some artists either paid or gifted the family with their art pieces.

Alfonso provided framing services and maintained a gallery. He did a lot of research, and throughout his life was the foremost authority in authenticating the provenance of Filipino artworks. He also became the country’s first art restoration specialist, developing what he called the “Proceso Ongpin” for cleaning paintings and restoring the colors to their former brilliance.

Alfonso Ongpin also became the country’s first art restoration specialist, developing the ‘Proceso Ongpin’.

ATO was a gifted writer (he wrote primarily in Spanish, his first language, but also in English, his third language), and photographer. He was the first art scholar and researcher of what I would call the ilustrado period in Philippine art, and eventually he became an authority as well on art in the period we call “Peacetime”.

Here are some of the pieces from the Alfonso T. Ongpin collection, offered by León Gallery in this auction.

‘Sorprendidos’, by Juan Luna y Novicio, painted in 1887, is one of Luna’s most intriguing and mysterious paintings, suggesting a story of forbidden love, or scandal.

The painting depicts a man on a boat, whispering to a lady in red, standing on the steps of a dock, and bending down to listen. Behind them, on the right side, is another woman, gesturing with open hands, suggesting almost cartoonish shock or alarm. The scene takes place in a real-life location, the Palazzo Ruzzini (it is today a hotel), along a canal called the Rio Paradiso.

By not telling its story in a literal, or simplistic manner, the painting assumes the nature of a roman a clèf, (novel with a key) challenging the viewer to decode its “real meaning” beyond a pretty picture.

Luna was newly married to Paz Pardo de Tavera, and he painted this work in Venice during their honeymoon. León’s catalogue entry suggests that the painting depicts Luna’s view of his treatment by Paz’s mother, a haughty mestiza, who during their courtship, looked down on him as an indio presuming to marry her daughter. In other words, the ‘clèf’, or key, to understanding this mystery is the racial and social tension between the emergent indios of the ilustrado class, and the tradtionally racist Spanish-dominated society in the country.

Since the 16th century, society in the Philippines had been organized along a strict and well-defined racial hierarchy, with Spanish-born whites (peninsulares, or mainlanders) at the apex, overseas-born Spaniards (insulares) next, various grades of mixed race (mestizos) beneath them, and indios next, above Chinese immigrants (sangleyes) and ethnic minorities living outside settlements (salvajes). This hierarchy was codified and enforced by different tax rates and requirements to participate in forced labor (polo), which was essentially indentured slavery.

The educated ilustrados, like Luna, advocated the Romantic-era ideal that all men were created equal by God, and that no races were intrinsically superior or inferior to others— a view that is still being fought to this day. Because this painting expresses that, it is intrinsic, not only to the Filipino cultural experience, but inarguably, to the human experience. Given this interpretation, the cultural value of this painting is almost incalculable, as it not only demonstrates Luna’s technical mastery, but also depicts a defining social theme of the era.

According to family lore, Luis Araneta, a true gentleman, paid fair prices for the works he bought from Alfonso, and did not exploit his privation

Alfonso T. Ongpin owned this work for many years, and sold it to Luis Ma. Araneta, likely during World War II, when he needed the money to support his family during those times of extreme hardship. The two were close friends. Ongpin advised Araneta in building his collection, and many of its key works came from his collection. According to family lore, Luis, a true gentleman, paid fair prices for the works he bought from Alfonso, and did not exploit his privation.

Nipa Hut, by Emilio Alvero (1886 – 1955), painted in 1925, depicts an idealistic vision of bucolic rural peace, simplicity and natural purity. It is similar to the work of Fernando Amorsolo, who was a contemporary and classmate of Alvero at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts. The signed work is dedicated in the artist’s own hand to Alfonso T. Ongpin, on the upper left.

Like Amorsolo’s pastoral scenes, this painting depicts an idealized world. It celebrates the humble abode of the majority of Filipinos at that time, made entirely of natural materials, but ingeniously adapted to provide both shelter and harmony. Little did he know that this unspectacular, but beautiful type of dwelling would be largely replaced, a century later, with ugly shanties made of cinder blocks and corrugated iron, and that the surroundings would be littered with plastic waste.

Alvero was a lifelong friend of Alfonso T. Ongpin, and had been friends with his father, Román; they were brothers in Freemasonry. Alvero designed the Ongpin family monument at the Cemeterio del Norte, which has Masonic Golden Mean proportions. This monument was designed in collaboration with Román when he was still alive. It was ordered from the firm of Hermann Rampendahl in Hamburg, Germany, and shipped to Manila. It arrived and was assembled in time for Román’s death on 10 December 1912.


The Ongpin family monument at Cemeterio del Norte

Rio de San Juan, 1927, by Teodoro Buenaventura (1863-1950). Signed and dedicated to Alfonso T. Ongpin.

San Juan River is, today, an open sewer, with biologically dead black water. To think it once used to look like this

I wonder if the artist was already commenting on the rapid urbanization threatening the beauty of Manila at the time. It is even more poignant today in the context that the San Juan River has been identified as the most polluted part of the Pasig river system. It is, today, an open sewer, with biologically dead black water. To think it once used to look like this.

Unlike Amorsolo, who generally had people in his landscapes, Buenaventura’s works focus on nature, and his use of color is elegant and distinctive. It should be remembered that by this time, painting was already consciously competing with photography as a medium for capturing natural beauty. While color photography was still far off in the future at that time, Buenaventura’s subtle and masterful technique captures a human nuance of vision that no photography could, even today.

In 1927, San Juan was still rural, and had many farms, and urbanites were beginning to buy these estates and build country homes there. It was possible to live in San Juan and commute to Manila for work even without an automobile, as the Meralco tranvia lines extended to Santa Mesa and Santa Ana, a short calesa ride away.

Teodoro Buenaventura was considered a pillar of modern realism, but was equally well known as an art educator. He established his own academy, and was later a founder of the UP School of Fine Arts. Among his many distinguished students was Mauro Malang Santos. He was also the father of Cesar Buenaventura (not related to the eminent business executive of the same name), who made his own distinguished reputation in the 1950s to the 1980s. The elder Buenaventura initially discouraged Cesar from studying art, but later relented and trained him. Cesar Buenaventura would later study under Fernando Amorsolo at UP.

Botocan, 1930, by José Pereira (1901 – 1954). Signed, with a note to Alfonso T. Ongpin.

I had never heard of Botocan, and the internet identifies it as a barangay of Diliman, Quezon City, just outside the UP Campus. It is today a low-rise urban district, and looks nothing like this painting. If indeed this is the place, the view must be of the Antipolo and San Mateo mountains, which in 1930, must have been unobstructed. In a sense, the artist is looking east through a mild ‘telephoto lens’, beyond what is today the campus of the Ateneo de Manila University and the city of Marikina. This is another poignant memory of natural beauty, today erased by overpopulation driving increasing urbanization. Diliman in 1930 still had a lot of forest, and it must have been possible to walk for hours without seeing people.

The style is a highly developed impressionism, verging on abstract, with a bold explosion of colors. It’s as much about the medium, and its ability to convey meaning, as it is about the subject itself. This break away from classic realism had begun to gain acceptance earlier in the century in Manila, and while it was by no means mainstream, it was a new way of seeing.

Pereira was the chief artist of the Philippines Free Press, an important weekly news magazine at that time, and he drew its editorial cartoons. He retired from the publication in 1938, due to tuberculosis.

About author


Rafael Alfonso Salvador García Ongpin, or “Apa” has been a reporter, photographer, news anchor, newspaper and magazine writer and editor, actor, TV host (including the Binibining Pilipinas pageant), and TV producer and director. He was the founding bassist of the Blue Rats blues band and was a partner in Club Dredd, the seminal rock club of the 1990’s. After earning his MBA in 1997, he worked as an executive in the hotel, quick service restaurant, travel, logistics, radio, publishing, gaming, property and software businesses. He is a management consultant, book author, magazine editor and entrepreneur in the boat business. He is married to Ana Ysabel Rapadas, and has three sons.

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