To beef up its endowment fund, the Holy Angel University in Angeles, Pampanga, puts up for auction some extraordinary items from its collection: Manansala’s sketchbook filled with random images—a row of buildings, people at rest, a curled-up cat—and five individual sketches on paper. These treasures and testaments to a Filipino artist’s keen powers of observation will be part of Under the Tree: The Wish List of premiere auction house Salcedo Auctions on Nov. 28, 2023, Saturday.
Vicente Silva Manansala (1910–1981), National Artist (Visual Arts) was the first Kapampangan to receive the honor, in 1982, the year after his death. He was a flamboyant genius and pioneer of modern art in the Philippines, alongside Victorio Edades (1895–1985) and the rest of the legendary 13 Moderns.
A University of the Philippines Fine Arts graduate, he went on to win numerous grants to hone his talent in New York, Paris (studying under French painter, sculptor, and filmmaker Fernand Léger), and Zurich. He mastered the medium of oil and the spectrum of rich, earthy colors, later creating the ethereal style known as transparent cubism, which he applied to his dramatic depictions of daily life and native Filipino scenes.
Long before he was anointed one of the Big Three modernist pioneers with Cesar Legaspi (1917–1994) and H.R. Ocampo (1911–1978), however, the boy from Macabebe, Pampanga, was already adroit at capturing fleeting images, with a keen eye for magical moments. When not delivering newspapers and shining shoes in his childhoos, he was sketching with charcoal on paper: “Since childhood till the end of his days, Manansala took pleasurable walks with his most ‘companionable’ pen and ink, pencil, and charcoal, whether in the solitude of his studio or outdoors with fellow artists,” wrote Cid Reyes in Manansala drawings: Lines of Provenance in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on March 5, 2012. “Thus, from his adept and skillful hands did ceaselessly flow the numerous sketches and drawings from which Manansala derived such graphic learning and enjoyment.”
In the same article, Reyes quoted the late renowned art critic Dr. Rod. Paras-Perez, author of the volume Manansala, published in 1980: “Manansala draws almost compulsively. He fills up notebook after notebook of drawings, detail studies in pencil or in ink. Particularly when he is preparing to do a mural, he makes many specific drawings—an elbow, kneecap, a hand, fingers, the curve of cheeks.
“For Manansala, drawing is a necessity…Drawing disciplines the hand as the hand disciplines drawing.”
Reyes had written the aforementioned article for the inauguration of the Museum of Kapampangan Arts in 2012, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Center for Kapampangan Studies of Holy Angel University (HAU) in Angeles, Pampanga. HAU owns over a thousand of the artist’s sketches and studies, including those for such important works as the massive Stations of the Cross of the UP Chapel. The museum’s Manansala Gallery houses these artworks, handed over by the artist’s son, the late Emmanuel Manansala.
HAU launched the Vicente Manansala Endowment Fund to financially assist struggling Kapampangan visual artists through scholarships, grants, sponsorships, subsidies, and other means of support.
The artist’s hardbound Winsor & Newton LTD Artist’s Colourmen sketchbook measures 25.5 x 20 cm (10 x 8 in), and has approximately 60 pages. It is unsigned and undated, but is filled with graphite and ink illustrations, stamped and authenticated by Dr. Rod. Paras-Perez. There are remarkable drawn directions starting from the West 4th Street–Washington Square Subway Station in New York City on the inner cover, indicating that Manansala used this sketchbook during his stay in the city in the 1960s. The sketchbook is a personal journal of the artist’s New York days, a visual diary spontaneously documenting the sights he encountered in this foreign land—in effect, showing the viewer New York through the eyes of a Filipino artist as everyman.
The five sketches similarly capture moments in time, possibly vignettes from larger works taking shape first in Manansala’s mind. All are unsigned and undated, but have likewise been stamped and authenticated by Dr. Paras-Perez. Untitled (Woman Praying) (ink and graphite on paper,27 x 20.5 cm or 10 1/2 x 8 in) appears like the beginning of a religious painting, with soft, continuous lines tracing the woman’s folded hands in an image infused with stillness and solemnity. By contrast, the two figures in Untitled (Mangingisda) (graphite on paper, 21 x 27 cm or 8 1/4 x 10 1/2 in) are caught in mid-movement, bowed in exertion, but kinetic nonetheless.
Untitled (Man & Rooster) (Ink and graphite on paper, 21 x 27 cm or 8 1/4 x 10 1/2 in) is as playful as it gets, as the two subjects, human and animal, seem to glare at each other in intense concentration. Untitled (Female Seated in Europe) (ink and graphite on paper, 18 x 25 cm or 7 x 9 3/4 in) captures what must have been a novel sight to the artist from a tropical land: a woman asleep where she sits, but wrapped in a thick shawl. Finally, another Untitled (Mangingisda) (ink and graphite on paper, 21 x 27 cm or 8 1/4 x 10 1/2 in) also shows the single subject in motion, bent over a net, envisioned to be part of a larger scene, perhaps, with his two other comrades.
As an acclaimed artist, Vicente Manansala held eight solo exhibitions, set entire art movements in motion, and influenced generations of artists. Yet, while this sketchbook and sketches may not dominate a large space like his larger spectacular paintings, they offer intimate, unaffected glimpses into the workings of the artist’s mind. It is most fitting, then, that these unembellished, exploratory pieces will buoy Manansala’s kabalen as they set out to pursue their own visions in the world of Philippine art.