Alice G. Guillermo
June 13, 2007
A RARE show of internationally renowned artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz has opened this week at the Galerie Joaquin at 371 P. Guevarra Street corner Montessori Lane, Addition Hills, San Juan. Except for a tribute in his honor done by the Ayala Museum in 2005, the last exhibit of the artist was 15 years ago at The Manila Hotel. The art pieces now on display were sourced from the artist’s collection and from that of his family in Germany-thus they can be said to be among the best of his works.
This present show definitively affirms that Alcuaz is one of our top-level Filipino artists who have deservedly won national and international acclaim. His awards are not only weighty but of the highest order; among them are the Prix Francisco Goya (1958) in Barcelona; the Diploma of Honor at the International Exhibition of Art Libre in Paris (1961); the Decoration of Arts, Letters and Sciences, and the Order of French Genius, both from Paris in 1964. The exhibit pays homage to Alcuaz by opening on June 6, marking the 75th birthday of the maestro, and will run until June 20.
While Alcuaz is widely known to be an abstract artist of the highest order, this show at Galerie Joaquin reveals little-known aspects of his art in works done in various media and genres. He was, for one, a consummate portraitist, as shown by his highly refined pencil portrait of his German wife, and the couple of self-portraits done in his lively spontaneous style. He was also a sculptor with busts of himself done in close verisimilitude and more intimate, genial-looking than one recalls. He also painted on ceramic plates, his colorful figures and motifs enlivened by glazing. And not the least, he designed stunning abstract tapestries in the workshops of Brno, Czechoslovakia, in the 1980s.
What is probably the secret of Alcuaz’s art is that he was a true hedonist in his approach to life, nature and the world at large. This is what rings true in his work, in which his refined and sophisticated way of seeing, feeling and transforming onto canvas guides his art purely and uninterruptedly, with the least interference of common considerations. He also took a great pleasure in his materials and knew how to bring out their best properties, discovering the secrets of color and tone, as can be seen in his still life paintings and other works.
One can venture to say that some of the most elegant nudes in painting come from Alcuaz’s brush. It is in this genre where he abides by the basic classical disciplines but shuns theatrical gesture and dramatic color, and situates them in a more familiar contemporary context. It is the suppleness and ease of the nudes—they are fully at home in their boudoir—that create their harmonious poise, whether lightly crossing their legs or resting their hands on their lap, a sweet and tender vitality coursing through the body to the fingertips. The nude is usually seated beside a curtained window from which light softly blurs the contours of the sofa and backlights her figure lending a glowing tone to her skin. The elegance of the image also stems from its sparing use of color limited to light ochre for skin tones, browns, supple velvety grays and sparkling whites for brilliant highlights. Sometimes the artist plays with white to the effect that the quiet nonchalant nude may seem to sit like a latter-day Venus on rolling waves of ocean foam. To this the artist may add a burst of color, a vibrant crimson for a spray of flowers. Another nude may take a diagonal pose in a somewhat darkened room with suggestions of vegetation in the window but with only a colorful weave accessory to her long, flowing limbs. These subdued uncluttered images nevertheless convey a dignity as well as a sumptuousness that never cloys or tires the eye.
Alcuaz is also known for his Tres Marias genre of beautiful, long-gowned women with a 19th century air engaged in a variety of domestic activities. Like the nudes, his gray color scheme must have come from the influence of Velasquez and Goya, and in these he also shares kinship with Juan Luna. There is only one painting here of the series, and it shows the Tres Marias with their guard down, all elegance shed behind to hungrily wolf down a repast, their teeth gleaming with sheer voracity. This could well be seen as a counter-painting to the widely favored Tres Marias genre, in which the artist’s humor took over before he took himself too seriously in the subject.
Another series in this exhibit consists of his seascapes and bay scenes which Alcuaz took great pleasure in painting. Often, he opted for a subdued, gray palette with some impasto, but he loved the space of sky that they opened out to him. The gray tones captured the European atmosphere of days turning into winter and the melancholy air that they evoked. He painted the curving coastlines and the boats plying the water in canvases which are now recollections of places he visited, such as Barcelona where he lived for 10 years.
Indisputably, Alcuaz is master of the still life and in this, he releases his great love of painting. He takes over from Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris, as well as from Dali, but discovers his own pleasures. Often his still life is arrayed on a beach with sun-drenched yellow-ochres against a soft tourmaline sky, gently flecked with white. For the artist, the still life itself is a celebration of painting with its inexhaustible motifs, techniques and devices interacting with one another: squiggles, starbursts, open and closed forms, sharp tonal contrasts, breathing spaces—all produced with great spontaneity, humor and playfulness. Colors burst everywhere and acquire a life of their own as he creates subtle and deeply satisfying affinities between hues. Sometimes, the still life may approach realism, as in the bunch of grapes in a picnic basket by a beach, but here Alcuaz dramatizes his subject with strange, preternatural sky in which, at the end, one inevitably goes back to the basic modernist insight that the still life is not an exterior image but an original construction of the artist.
This is a show that will certainly appeal to all viewers with their own preferences in medium and genre.