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Federico Aguilar Alcuaz
Alcuaz, Self Portrait
News article on Alcuaz (in Spanish)
(Click image to view PDF)
By Jack Teotico
(Photographs courtesy of Contemporary Art Philippines)

It was a Wednesday morning, February 2, with the cold front bringing a bit of a chill to Northern Luzon when the text message came in: Federico Aguilar Alcuaz passed away this morning.  It was a complete surprise, for Aguilar Alcuaz was synonymous with life.  One of the most talented and creative Filipino artists of all time, he broke barriers and blazed trails with his art.

Aside from being an internationally renowned painter, he did sculpture, designed monumental tapestries, worked with ceramics and sketched, drew and painted an oeuvre that ranks among the very best, making Filipinos all over the world very proud to claim him as our own.  He was mischievous, full of energy, always with a glint in his eyes and ready with a prank or two.

He was fluent in several languages: Filipino, English, Spanish, German and a little French. Although he was moving along in age, having turned 78 and would have some lapses in memory, he seemed in the pink of health. He was still capable of doing three hour walks daily to visit his favorite sights or explore new ones in the city he so loved.

One of most-awarded

He was also one of our most awarded artists. In Spain, he bagged the Premio Moncada (1957) and the Prix Francisco Goya (1958) award in Barcelona; 1st prize at the Pintura Sant Pol del Mar in (1961); 2nd prize at the Premio Vancell at the Fourth Biennial of Tarrasa in Barcelona (1964).

In France, he was awarded the Diploma of Honor at the International Exhibition of Art Libre (1961); the Decoration of Arts, Letters and Awards with rank of Chevalier from the French government (1964); the Order of French Genius (1964).

In the Philippines, he was given the San Beda Outstanding Alumni award (1965); the Republic Cultural Heritage award (1965). He also received an Araw ng Maynila award (1966). He also received an Araw ng Maynila award (1966) and the Outstanding Manileño award (2001).

He was given the Presidential Medal of Merit (2006).  In July 2009, after a three-year rigorous selection process, he was elected to become National Artist (the election is still in legal limbo).  Alcuaz was born on June 6, 1932, in Manila. The sixth of 11 children to Mariano Aguilar and Encarnacion Alcuaz, his childhood was surrounded with art. A practicing lawyer, Mariano played the violin and piano and was also a composer. Many of Federico’s siblings played various types of musical instruments.

Mariano urged the young Federico to concentrate on playing the cello, an instrument he learned to play competently, even landing some scholarships through his skill. Federico started his elementary education at Alejandro Albert Elementary School on Dapitan Street and completed it at Padre Gomez Elementary School in Sampaloc when the family moved residences to P. Campa Street. He would sketch and draw endlessly. His studies were abruptly interrupted by World War II, and he later pursued his high school education at the San Beda College in Mendiola.

He thought of taking up law as a profession to make his father proud, but he couldn’t give up painting, so he cross-enrolled at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts while pursuing a pre-law course in San Beda.  Among his mentors in painting were National Artists Fernando Amorsolo and Guillermo Tolentino, Toribio Herrera, Irineo Miranda and Constancio Bernardo.  Juvenal Sanso, Araceli Dans and Rodolfo Ragodon were upperclassmen while future National Artist Napoleon Abueva was a classmate.

He took up law proper at the Ateneo College of Law on Padre Faura Street, Manila and graduated in 1955. Meanwhile, he kept participating in art competitions, working in a studio on the Ateneo campus where Fr. Thomas Cannon witnessed his talent and provided him with a workplace.

In 1953, he won First Prize at the University of the Philippines Art Competition. In 1954, he won First Prize at the Shell Art Competition and 2nd Prize at the UP Annual Art Exhibition.  In 1955, he exhibited at the Philippine Art Gallery, the most prestigious art gallery at that time. That year, with the help of Fernando Zobel, he received a grant from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain to study in Madrid.

Based in Spain

In Spain, he decided to base himself in Barcelona where the art scene was more robust.  There, he held exhibits at the highly prestigious Sala Direccion General, Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid, having been the youngest then at 24 to have exhibited there.  He also staged back-to-back exhibits at the Galerias Layetanas and the Galerias Manila in Barcelona. This was the year that he decided to carry Alcuaz as nom-de-plume. It is Spanish custom that one by known by one’s first name followed by the family name and then the maternal name.

For Federico, it was Federico Aguilar y Alcuaz.  Because Aguilar was quite a common name in Spain, Federico decided that he would be known as Federico Aguilar Alcuaz.  That same year, he met a winsome German woman named Ute Gisela Schmitz, a business and languages student in Barcelona. The romance blossomed quickly they married a few years later at the Senora de Nuria Church in Barcelona.  They had three children: Christian Michael, the eldest, who for several years has been handling his father’s business affairs, Andreas Frederic and Wolfgang Matthias.

La Punalada

It was in Barcelona that Alcuaz started to flourishing as an artist. He became part of a group of artists who regularly met at the La Punalada restaurant.  The regular informal social gatherings were called tertulias. Here, the group discussed issues of common interest over good food, wines, cheeses, good bread-many of these items finding their way as subjects in the artist’s still life paintings.  The Punalada group had quite a stellar line-up, having been founded by noted artists Rusinol, Casas and Picasso, trailblazers in the modern art movement rebelling against the Salon artists in Spain.

Alcuaz and his contemporaries notably Muxart, Aluma and Aragones, the group began making a mark for themselves with the strong expressionist colors, deep contrasts and highly textured surfaces.  He stayed in Europe for nine years, until 1964, when a major car accident caused him to return to Manila to recuperate.  He joined the robust Manila art scene from 1965 to 1969, after which he found himself constantly shuttling between Manila, Barcelona, Germany and New York. He maintained a 150-sq m studio in Barcelona at the 4th floor of a building on Aragones Street, which he kept as his main studio away from Manila until 1997.

Tapestries, Portraits, ‘Tres Marias’, and Landscapes

For the next 30 years since 1969, Alcuaz maintained a frenetic pace as an artist and came up with some of his stunning and most exciting works of art.  He flew regularly to Czechoslovakia, particularly to Brno, located just outside Prague, where he worked on creating tapestries.

He would fly to New York to attend art events or the intriguing cityscape.
Whenever he was in Manila, he would work on a major project. This was his portraiture, capturing Manila’s glitterati and literati on canvas. In the ‘70s, he started painting a series of women in Filipiniana attire, which he called his “Tres Marias” a theme akin to the “Three Graces” several European masters have been painting since the Renaissance.

Vista Manila con puerto al atardecer

Another favorite subject was landscapes. He developed a keen interest in it, thanks to Toribio Herrera. He started with the barong-barong of Pasig and moved on to painting New York’s rooftops, the gray winter of Central Park, Santander, Barcelona, and other cities he had visited.  Noted art historian and critic, Rod Paras-Perez describes him as the “epic troubadour of the urban landscape” capturing wide angle views of Manila, Makati, the Intramuros skyline, Binondo or the Manila Bay sunset.

Abstracts, and the Barcelona series

Alcuaz also painted very powerful abstracts on canvas or paper, using oil, watercolor and mixed media.  These were a blend of geometric or planar shapes, patterns, line, masses and colors, which he presented in various arrangements combining his modernist and surrealist concerns.  Some enterprising “artists” and unscrupulous businessmen have attempted to clone some of these abstracts, those familiar with the master know that the confidence, strength in composition, and spontaneity in execution are characteristics very difficult to replicate.

In 2008 Alcuaz and his family unveiled a collection of never before exhibited works called the “Barcelona” series, most it showing recognizable images. It usually had a still life arrangement at the foreground, highlighting fruits, lemons, wine glasses and goblets, jars. On the background, there would be a landscape featuring cloud formations, palm trees, a seacoast, window and shutters suggesting summer houses. Most of these paintings were finished in the artist’s studio in Aragones St.

Study in contrasts

Alcuaz has had exhibits in leading galleries in Spain, the United States, Germany, Poland, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore. His works are included in the collection of some 20 museums and cultural institutions in the world, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid; the Museum of Modern Art of Krakow; the Museum of Modern Art of Warsaw; The Philipps Cultural Museum of the Netherlands.

Alcuaz was a study in contrasts. Although he conducts himself with great decorum akin to an Old World gentlemen and could be withdrawn at times, he was a prankster nonpareil.  He was known to have pitched peanuts at other guests at hotel lobbies, and crept under the table to put sugar into a lady’s shoe who had takien it off in a formal function. He could also be found playing a battery powered portable keyboard at five-star hotel lobbies, to the amusement of some guests, and the consternation of others.

He could rattle off entire lines of poetry he learned during his school days, and just as easily forget the name of the Walled City of Manila (Intramuros).  To others he could be a pest but to many, he was charming and most charismatic.

The National Commission on Culture and the Arts and the Cultural Center of the Philippines unanimously decided to bestow on him the National Artist Award in 2009. This was most certainly deserved and uncontested.  However, politics reared its ugly head when some quarters using the concept of “presidential prerogative” under the Arroyo regime took out one of the very deserving awardees from the recommended list of four recommended by the NCCA and the CCP and inserted four new names.

No one contested the award being given to Federico Aguilar Alcuaz. In fact, many were even wondering why it took so long for him to be given such a recognition.
We can only hope that the new dispensation has the willpower to implement the recommendations of the NCCA and the CCP and finally grant the award to those who underwent the process and were duly recommended.  But no matter.  Federico Aguilar Alcuaz is one monument of a man. In the hearts and minds of the Filipino people, he will always be National Artist.

The burial of Federico Aguilar Alcuaz was on Wednesday, February 9, 2011 at the Loyola Memorial in Marikina City.

The author is executive editor and publisher of Contemporary Art Philippines magazine, and author of the book “Federico Aguilar Alcuaz.” He has worked closelfy with the family of Alcuaz on several of the artist’s major exhibits and retrospectives. E-mail him at jackteotico@gmail.com.