Art/Style/Travel Diaries

The story behind the masterpiece: H.R. Ocampo’s beloved Maypajo

Good Friday in Caloocan, one of his final works, goes on the block June 8

Hernando R. Ocampo (1911- 1978), 'Good Friday in Caloocan' (1978), acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40" (76 cm x 102 cm)

H.R. Ocampo painting ‘Good Friday in Caloocan’ in his Maypajo home/studio © Purita Kalaw Ledesma Foundation Archives

One of the last works of National Artist and pioneering Neo-Realist H. R. Ocampo will go on the block at Leon Gallery’s The Spectacular Mid-Year Auction 2024 on June 8, 2 p.m.

Titled Good Friday in Caloocan, the acrylic work became one of Ocampo’s final masterpieces, done some time before he succumbed to heart attack on Dec. 28, 1978. The painting captures Ocampo’s enduring love of his hometown, the bustling yet close-knit neighborhood that was Maypajo in Caloocan.

In a 4 May 1978 Manila Bulletin interview with celebrated journalist Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, Ocampo talked about the local color of his beloved Maypajo: “Let somebody shout ‘Magnanakaw!,’ and the whole neighborhood runs after the thief; let there be a sick baby, and the neighbors help the mother bring the baby to the hospital. That is my Maypajo.”

Ocampo continued, “I have lived in Maypajo since I was five years old or more than 62 years. To outsiders, Maypajo is a notorious place—as notorious as Tondo and San Nicolas…But to us residents, especially to old-timers like myself, Maypajo is home and will, therefore, be always home sweet home.”

Filipino artists inevitably have their muses—the dalaga for Amorsolo, the Madonna of the Slums for Manansala, the cyclists and performers for Luz—and curiously, Maypajo, Caloocan, for H.R. Ocampo.

H.R. Ocampo at home in Maypajo (Leon Gallery archives)

Although Ocampo was born in Santa Cruz, Manila, his family later moved to Maypajo when he was five. It was there where Ocampo faced the harsh realities of life. Eager to help his financially struggling family, Ocampo became a shoe-shine boy for local and foreign customers of the nearby cabarets. Then at 17, he became a cashier in the Maypajo cabaret. (Ocampo playfully recounted that aside from tending the cash register, he also dated some of the bailarinas or dance-hall hostesses whose daily attendances he checked.)

It was not inevitable then that, in May 1978, Maypajo became the focus of Ocampo’s third solo exhibit—where some works paid homage to his beloved hometown. Interestingly it was only his third solo exhibit after four decades in the art scene.

Good Friday in Caloocan was among the seven acrylic works (all measuring 30 by 40 inches) exhibited in Ocampo’s milestone third one-man show at the Peninsula Manila Gallery in Makati. Aside from being an homage to his beloved Maypajo, the 1978 exhibit marked Ocampo’s 67th birthday. Art critic Leo V. Benesa wrote in his Daily Express review—”Ocampo’s Seven in red, white, and black—a change in color and design.”

While Ocampo first incorporated acrylic into his oeuvre in 1974, the works in the show were made distinct by the artist’s reduction of his palette to only black, white, and red. “The forms and shapes aren’t different,” wrote Benesa, “but it is the first time Ocampo has tried to paint paintings in black and white, the two-color polarities, with the color red used to accentuate the design, dramatically.

Sixty-two years after experiencing the harsh realities of life in Maypajo, Ocampo would again experience “harshness,” this time from critics and fellow artists. The notable change in color Ocampo in Good Friday in Caloocan and the other works on exhibit were his sassy response to critics lashing out at what they deemed was creative stagnation. According to Benesa, the critics deemed Ocampo “no longer as creative as he used to be, or that in any case, he is on a plateau, basking in the adulation of admirers.”

Benesa even shared a juicy tidbit about why Ocampo originally produced the paintings: “At a meeting of the First Friday group at the house of Vicente Manansala, Cesar Legaspi—one of the original Neorealists, is said to have suddenly lashed out at both the host and Ocampo for having allowed themselves to fall into the rot of complacency and repetition.” It was then revealed to Ocampo by Betty, Legaspi’s wife, that Cesar was “intoxicated.”

With the works’ fiery reds and unforgiving blacks, tempered only by the pure yet screaming whites, Ocampo made clear his stand. While indeed there were works in the exhibit that were a subtle rebuke of Legaspi, mainly When Aries Became a Bull (Legaspi’s zodiac sign was Aries, and the reds in Ocampo’s new paintings were meant to provoke him like a bull), Good Friday in Caloocan softened Ocampo’s sweet retribution by redirecting the focus towards the artist’s beloved Maypajo.

Good Friday in Caloocan evokes not only the solemnity of Christ’s crucifixion and death but also the distinctive religious fervor and culture of the Filipino, manifested so strongly during Lent, particularly on Good Friday. The fiery reds, meditative blacks, and purifying whites of Ocampo capture the Filipino penitensya ritual, no doubt a highlight spectacle in Ocampo’s Maypajo, just as it’s been throughout the country—the fasting and abstinence, the pabasa, the senakulo, and siete palabras, and the strongest visual of it all, the self-flagellation.

In Good Friday in Caloocan Ocampo had come full circle. Maypajo was where he learned the searing lessons of life. To Maypajo, he dedicated a body of work reflecting its day-to-day realities meant for a thriving art landscape. Ocampo, in hindsight, handled his peers’ criticism with much gusto and at the same time, with genteel restraint.

The Spectacular Mid-Year Auction is on June 8, 2024, 2 p.m., at Eurovilla 1, Rufino corner Legazpi Sts., Legazpi Village, Makati City. Preview week June 1 to 7, 2024, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. For further inquiries, email [email protected] or contact +632 8856-27-81. To browse the catalog, visit www.leon-gallery.com

Follow León Gallery on their social media pages for timely updates: Facebook – www.facebook.com/leongallerymakati and Instagram @leongallerymakati.

Read more:

‘Golden Period’ masterpieces of National Artists highlight Leon Gallery auction


Newsletter
Sign up for our Newsletter

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.