StyleStyle/Travel Diaries

The magnificent Fernando Zobel

Two works by the renowned modernist go on the block this September

Fernando Zóbel (1924–1984), ‘Ercavica (Arc¬–Orgelia),’ signed (lower left) and dated 1959 (verso), oil on canvas, 21 1/2" x 29" (54 cm x 74 cm), P8,000,000; property formerly from the Jim and Reed Pfeufer Collection

Reprinted from the catalogue of Leon Gallery

The Philippines’ leading auction house holds this year’s Magnificent September Auction.

Leading this edition’s highlights are: an early work by Fernando Zobel titled Siga-Siga, which debuted in the artist’s very first one-man show at the storied Philippine Art Gallery in February 1953; H.R. Ocampo’s Fifty-Five A, which was a special token for the artist’s closest confidante and intellectual sparring partner, Jose Fernandez Zaide; and an extraordinarily rare copper plate of the Juan Luna portrait of the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, first governor-general of the Philippines and founder of Manila.

There are two Larawan works from BenCab’s monumental series, and a personally evocative and epic work by Romulo Galicano, titled Poor Man’s Meal, which he has described as being most reflective of his life’s experiences.

Also included in this magnificent sale are important and distinctive works by acclaimed masters such as Fernando Amorsolo, Victorio Edades, Arturo Luz, and Rafael Enriquez.

The Magnificent September Auction 2022 is on September 10 at 2 pm.

View the catalog online:

Register to bid online:


‘Ercavica (Arc¬–Orgelia)’ 

Provenance: A gift from the artist to Jim and Reed Pfeufer, Joachim Pfeufer Vincent Price Collection, acquired from above by the present owner

Exhibited: Galería Biosca, Zóbel: Pintura y dibujos, Madrid, 1959

Literature: Magaz Sangro, Antonio. Zóbel: Pintura y dibujos. Translated by Sofía Molina de Starnes. Madrid: 1959. Reprint, Madrid: Galeria Cayon, 2015. Black-and-white illustration on page 119, with photo caption on page 118

Fernandó Zóbel would come into the orbit of the couple Jim and Reed Pfeufer at the start of his artistic career. Reed Champion Pfeufer, in particular, was a gifted artist, a member of the Boston expressionist school which influenced Zóbel’s early works with a mix of symbolism, romanticism, and “Byzantine mosaics.”

The Pfeufer son, Eric, writing in A Four-Decade Friendship with Fernando Zóbel (León Gallery, 2015) would recall the remarkable bond they had with the artist. “Seventy years ago, Fernando Zóbel de Avala Y Montojo showed up at our doorstep in Cambridge, Massachusetts, clicking his heels together and bowing respectfully, while making his formal introduction to the Pfeufer (Foy-Fer) family. To a young boy, he seemed magical; always bringing fantastic presents, creating cartoons, and telling whimsical stories as well as becoming as close to my parents and siblings as any other member of our actual family. He often affectionately called us his ‘Poofers.’

“Over the next almost 40 years, until his untimely death in 1984, Fernando kept a strong bond with us. His occasional personal appearances were supplemented with graciously bringing us individually to visit him in Spain. Most profoundly, however, was the unbroken chain of communication through a wealth of lovingly written letters between Fernando and each of us, and in particular with my mother, Reed Champion Pfeufer. After their initial meeting, Reed and my father Jim took Fernando under their wing in assisting him to develop his artistic ambitions. They were both artists, although my father had moved on to specialize primarily in poetry and graphic design. As head of the Graphic Design Department at the Rhode Island School of Design, Jim was able to bring Fernando there for a year in 1954 as a visiting instructor. Many of Fernando’s conversations with my mother, both verbally and in letters, centered on his own triumphs in artistic self-discovery, as well as expressing a genuine appreciation for Reed’s talent. To my sheer joy and amazement, in the last year, while rummaging through the house left to me by my parents, I discovered flat files and boxes filled with Fernando’s forgotten artworks and letters…And just as Fernando sponsored me to visit him in Cuenca as a young adult, I feel that he has once again reached out and given me one last posthumous gift—to be here with you for this wondrous celebration of his talent and artistic legacy. I am truly blessed to have known him.”

‘In the last year, while rummaging through the house left to me by my parents, I discovered flat files and boxes filled with Fernando’s forgotten artworks and letters’ – Eric Pfeufer

In 1959, Fernando Zóbel held his first solo show in Spain at Madrid’s Galería Biosca. Titled Zóbel: Pintura y dibujos, it was the first time the gallery, then under the directorship of Juana Mordó,  exhibited an abstract painter. The exhibition consistsed of Zóbel’s seminal Saetas (Arrow) and lauded Serie Negra, which established and consolidated his principles in abstraction. This piece, Arc–Orgelia, was part of that landmark show and belongs to Zóbel’s later Saetas. But to understand the context of this work means looking back at Zóbel’s artistic journey during the 1950s.

Fernando Zóbel’s artistry can be summed up in three phrases: heightened exploration, deep contemplation, and bold evolution. The 1950s witnessed these factors converge to engender the Zóbel we have come to know. The Spanish art historian Francisco Calo Serraler particularly notes in his essay Zóbel: The Affirming Years that the late 1950s was when Zóbel “veere[ed] decisively towards the path of abstraction and develop[ed] his unique artistic approach.” In one way or another, Zóbel’s close friendship with the Pfeufers engendered his artistic maturation and journey towards his iconic Saetas.

In 1955, through the help of the Pfeufers, Zóbel became a resident artist at the Rhode Island School of Design. There, he had the opportunity to visit an exhibition of works of a then relatively unknown Mark Rothko at the Providence Museum titled Recent Paintings by Mark Rothko. Zóbel became fully engrossed with Rothko’s art, particularly in his employment of colors that brings out all the work’s expressiveness. He would later remark: “Rothko’s demonstration convinced me completely…I felt obliged to paint, but I had abandoned the need to represent. This left me in a vacuum…that turned into two years of experiments and into a huge pile of destroyed paintings, until I found my theme in the technique that led to the series of Saetas.”

Zóbel had also crossed paths with Alfonso Ossorio, with whom he bonded until late at night while drinking Scotch at the latter’s East Hampton home. Through Ossorio, Zóbel rubbed elbows with Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, two of his foremost luminaries, along with Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Zóbel traveled to Japan the following year on an Ayala business trip and visited Kyoto, notably the Temple of Rioanji, its sand garden, and the Daisen Temple. Of this, he wrote: “All the huge trees are here but in miniature. An equivocal effect, mildly soothing, mildly crying, and, in the long run, quite irritating.” From there, Zóbel would later incorporate elements of Zen aesthetics into his burgeoning new style. These encounters engendered a critical juncture in Zóbel’s creative expression—an artistic coming of age.

From there, the seminal Saetas blossomed. The series reflects Zóbel’s discovery of his distinct creative language—his bona fide expression of asserting himself as a compleat abstractionist. Zóbel’s primary concern with the Saetas was movement captured by the inherent power of painterly gesture and medium rather than the reinterpretation of recognizable objects—thus a non-objective body of work. In his conversations with Rafael Perez Madero and published in the latter’s La Serie Blanca (1978), Zóbel describes his Saetas as “movement expressed metaphorically through the use of line…movement observed, sensed, never imitated, but, I hope, translated.” Zóbel also noted that the Saetas were inspired by the Japanese sand gardens he visited in 1956. “All those meticulously drawn lines with the rake transmit a disturbing effect,” he says.

By the time of the creation of Arc-Orgelia, Zóbel had broadened his Far Eastern influences. The discovery of numerous Chinese porcelains in his family’s estate in Calatagan, Batangas, further sparked his interest in Chinese art. In 1958, Zóbel took Chinese painting and calligraphy lessons under a Shanghai painter, Professor Ch’en Bing Sun. Thus, the later Saetas resoundingly echo Zóbel’s Oriental sensibilities. In Arc-Orgelia, we may discern Pollock’s swift gestural strokes and Rothko’s particular application of background colors. But Zóbel’s familiarity with Oriental aesthetics veered from the dazzling expressionism of his influences. Instead, it projected an immense sense of calm—deeply contemplative, almost poetic, and mystical. Zóbel’s Arc–Orgelia, and his Saetas in general, serve as an avenue to enhance his self-reflection and feed his soul—a painter attuned to his spiritual sensibilities. In the words of Rafael Perez Madero, “They convey a serenity more conducive to contemplation than to opinion.”

The discovery of numerous Chinese porcelains in Zobel’s family’s estate in Calatagan, Batangas further sparked his interest in Chinese art


Despite the travails of his various personal crises at the time, i.e., balancing his work in the family business and his passion for painting, Zóbel still emerged triumphant in discovering his true artistry, much like Oriental art’s essence of finding one’s true nature. Since Zóbel’s Saetas are meditative in essence, they are also images of structured spontaneity. Calligraphy, movement, and space sublimely come into play in an orderly, logical manner. Antonio Magaz Sangro wrote in the exhibition catalog of Zóbel: Pintura y dibujos: “But the most expressive affinity between Zóbel’s painting and Far Eastern calligraphy lies…in its improvisational style, that direct execution, both carefree and unwavering, which gives his paintings a fresh and spontaneous air. Yet, just as a Far Eastern artist will not improvise, experimenting exhaustively with numerous prior drafts, so too Zóbel, who, as Lope de Vega said of himself, is quite capable of completing a work ‘in hours twenty-four,’ does not undertake a painting without having produced countless preliminary drafts.”


Fernando Zóbel (1924-1984), ‘Siga-Siga’ signed and dated 1952 (lower right)
oil, tempera, casein, and ink on board, 31 1/4 “x 19 1/4” (79 cm x 49 cm), P10,000,000
(Property formerly from the Don Enrique Zobel Collection)

Provenance: Acquired directly from the artist and the Philippine Art Gallery by Mr. Enrique J. Zobel

Exhibited: Zobel: Paintings (First One-Man Show), Philippine Art Gallery, February 8, 1953; Leon Gallery, Mid-Century Moderns: Important Modernist Paintings from the Philippine Art Gallery, Makati City, August 29, 2017

Literature: Contemporary Philippine Art: From the Fifties to the Seventies, Manuel D. Duldulao, Vera-Reyes Inc.,1972. Illustrated with a black and white plate, page 44; photo caption on page 45 with the listing as “Collection: Mr. E. Zobel”

Guerrero Nakpil, Lisa and Ramon N. Villegas. Mid-Century Moderns: Important Modernist Paintings from the Philippine Art Gallery. Makati City: Leon Gallery, 2017. Published to accompany the exhibition of the same title at Leon Gallery on August 29, 2017. Full color illustration on page 37, with accompanying text on page 36

Kalaw-Ledesma, Purita. Philippine Art Gallery: The Biggest Little Room. Makati City: Kalaw-Ledesma Art Foundation, 1987. Black-and- white illustration and photo caption on page 99; catalogued in the roster of works exhibited at the Philippine Art Gallery, on page 163

Villaverder, Fernando. Zobel Contrapuntos. Translated by Sofia Molina de Starnes. Makati City: Ayala Museum, 2017. Published to accompany Zobel’s retrospective at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. Archival photos of Zobel with the painting reproduced on page 56

Zóbel’s influence is pervasive, and the history of contemporary Philippine art cannot possibly be written without him, since he contributed so much to it. It cannot be denied that Zóbel helped enhance the climate for modern art through his lectures. There have been other “explainers” of art, but it was Zóbel who created the chic atmosphere which drew in flocks of students, artists, writers, and patrons to his slide-full talks. He added a dash of humor to the substance, and people came back for the rich platter of hearty helpings. From his art appreciation courses came some of the leading art critics of today, like Emmanuel S. Torres and Leonidas V. Benesa.

Zobel also bought the works of his contemporaries and those of the coming generations. He filled up his walls and rooms

Apart from his being one of modern art’s prime builders, Zóbel had other important contributions, among them his appreciation and respect for the works of his contemporaries and the young forces that were to follow. Zóbel pitted his taste, honed sharply by superior education and cultural background, against the judgment of the future, and backed his convictions to the hilt. He bought the works of his contemporaries and those of the coming generations. He filled up his walls and rooms, and by 1960, his collection had grown to a significant proportion and a true reflection of the scope and character of Philippine art. Zóbel donated this collection, rich with prime Ocampos, Manansalas, Sansos, Joyas, Bencabs, and others, to the then Ateneo de Manila, giving birth to the Ateneo Art Gallery on June 19, 1961, which formally opened to the public on August 15 of the same year.

Zóbel’s main influence, however, was in his art, which made an impact on the generation of the ’60s. His paintings in the early ’50s were figurative, peopled by old ladies, urchins, contractors, coffee-grinding machines, and baroque houses, as well as literary characters, as in the surrealistic watercolor Stultifera Navis (Ship of Fools). This representational style was to find its climax in Carroza, his prize-winning entry at the 1953 Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) annual show.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Sign up for’s Weekly Digest and get the best of, tailored for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.