At the great age of 93, Betsy Westendorp will remind you of America’s beloved painter Giorgia O’Keefe, the American pioneer of modernism, who lived up to the grand age of 99. Both obsessively painted flowers: O’Keefe with her enlarged petals that harken to female sexuality, and Westendorp, with her lush cascading blooms of Philippine orchids. In contrast, however, O’Keefe was a recluse and led a hermitic life in the desert of New Mexico, while Westendorp was an amiable presence in Manila’s elite society.
For the first time in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, a non- native born artist is being accorded a prestigious retrospective exhibition. The show is billed as Passages: Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp.
The Met Museum has assembled over a hundred works of Betsy Westendorp that span over seven decades. The curator of the show, Dannie Alvarez, presented the works based on a progression of themes that define the art of Westendorp.
First are the portraits of her parents, Carlos and Isabel, her sister Maribel, and brother Carlos Jr. Executed in her youth, these works attest to Westendorp’s conviction that a portraitist is born and not made.
Next are the landscapes and the seascapes, all distinguished by their impressionistic brushstrokes, capturing a scenery of passing time, particularly of Madrid. In this section, too, the barong-barong is an inescapable subject. On several canvases, Westendorp has recorded the squatter shanties when Makati was still grassland, long before the area was transformed into a glittering glass and concrete city. On the other hand, the seascapes are all impressions of Manila Bay, which Westendorp depicted at sunrise and, more preferably, at sunset.
Understandably the major part of the exhibition is devoted to the theme of flowers. Among the most favored subjects in Western art—especially in the 17th century when the Dutch artists brought the art of flower painting to its zenith, cramming extravagant blooms of flowers of different seasons in one bowl—the theme of flowers curiously never interested our major painters. If at all, as in the art of the late Anita Magsaysay Ho, flowers were subsumed in the category of genre, which depicts aspects of everyday life, where people are engaged in familiar activities such as watering the plants or arranging flowers in a domestic interior. It was Westendorp who, one might say, picked up the cudgels on behalf of flower painting in Philippine art.
Through her lavish and profuse blooms of sunflowers, hydrangeas, birds of paradise , and more famously, the native species of Philippine orchids—Westendorp awakened our eyes to the beauty of our nature. Significantly, Westendorp never presented them as cut-flowers typically arranged in a vase or bowl. She prefers instead to present them in all their opulent splendor in situ—in their original and natural setting, such as a garden, in the woods, or by the pond.
The final theme in Westendorp’s show emanates from her love of the Philippine sunset. Later in her life, she concentrated on the configuration of the skies when, as darkness starts to envelop the sea, the fading sunlight starts to pierce through the cloudscapes. Her friend, the late distinguished Spanish critic, Elena Flores, titled this series of works Atmosferografias or atmospherics. Westendorp shares that in these works, mostly in large-scale canvases all verging towards pure abstraction, the viewer can sense the complex nuances of the artist’s personal emotion. In retrospect, one discerns that, while the art of Betsy Westendorp has always been justly celebrated, in her life she has had to unjustly endure the pain of losing her beloved husband Tony, her only grandson Ian, at the young age of 26, and Isabel, Ian’s mother.
Unable to fly back to Madrid for the internment, Westendorp poured her contained grief onto the canvas from which emerged a dark and dense cloudscape
Indeed, one large work which Westendorp christened Passages— from which the title of the retrospective show was derived—was painted upon the shocking news of her daughter Isabel’s illness and imminent death. Unable to fly back to Madrid for the internment, Westendorp poured her contained grief onto the canvas from which emerged a dark and dense cloudscape, a hollow rimmed with incarnadine red and shot through with a beam of light, signifying a transition to another life. It is, for Westendorp, nature’s own outcry.
Born in 1927 in the city of Aravaca, some kilometers away from Madrid in her native Spain, Betsy Westendorp is also descended from a Dutch grandfather, who was assigned in Malaga and married a Malaguena. She was named after a grand-aunt, her godmother named Betsy Westendorp-Osieck (1880 – 1968), who was a noted Dutch floral and landscape artist.
Westendorp was candid enough to share that, since childhood, her interest in drawing overshadowed her school studies. When, years later, she expressed the wish to enter art school, her abuela put her foot down. The Westendorp family was conservative Catolico Cerrado and the grandmother feared that Betsy would see naked male models in the art school. Instead she hired a private tutor to come to the house to give art lessons to her granddaughter.
What led to Westendorp’s seemingly pre-destined connection with the Philippines was her marriage to a Spanish-Filipino by the name of Antonio “Tony” Brias, an executive at San Miguel Corporation. The couple were introduced to each other in 1950, in a situation not unlike one often sees in Hollywood romantic movies. After a whirlwind courtship, they were wed, after which Tony brought his bride Betsy to the Philippines in 1951. She was 22 years old. The union was blessed with three daughters, named Isabel, Sylvia, and Carmen, all born in the Philippines.
After doing the portraits of the Spanish royal family, Westendorp and portraiture became interlinked
After a 14-year residency in the country, the Westendorps returned to Madrid in 1976. The turning point in Westendorp’s career as an artist was an invitation from then Philippine ambassador to Spain, Luis Gonzalez and his wife Vicky Quirino-Gonzales to present an art show in celebration of Philippine Independence Day. Taken by surprise since all she had were portraits of her family, arrangements were made for Westendorp to come to the Palacio de la Zarzuela, the residence of the Spanish royal family, to do the portraits of the royal children, known as the Infantes de Espana: the Infanta Dona Elena, the Infanta Dona Cristina, and the Infante Don Felipe, now the reigning King of Spain Felipe IV.
Thence, Westendorp and portraiture became interlinked. A portrait commissioned by Philippine Airlines president Benigno Toda and gifted to then presidential daughter Imee Marcos, who was in Madrid, led to the eventual invitation to paint the portraits of President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos. The occasion signaled Westendorp’s return to her adopted country. Here she painted the portraits of the some of the country’s political, business, and cultural leaders as well as glamorous society ladies.
It must be said, however, that alongside Westendorp are two other Spanish artists who have played critical roles in Philippine modern art: Juvenal Sanso, who was born in Reus, Spain, and who arrived in the Philippines at the age of four, and the late Fernando Zobel de Ayala, himself of Hispanic parentage and born in the Philippines. All three have been recognized by the country with a Presidential Medal of Merit, the highest award next to the Order of National Artist.
In art history, there are precedents of artists who were not born in the country to which they have bequeathed the finest expressions of their art. To wit: El Greco—the Greek—who propelled the Spanish Renaissance, the German-born Holbein as the court painter of Henry VIII of England, and the stow-away immigrant to New York, the Dutch-born Willem de Kooning, who spearheaded American abstraction.
In this tradition belongs Betsy Westendorp-Brias, the Spanish lady who, even at 93, continues to extol in her art the beauty and magnificence of nature and our country, truly as if to the Philippines born.
“Passages: A Celebration of the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp” is on view until March 15, 2021.
*the 3D tour also has buttons near the title wall that leads guests to the 2 videos above.