“… before one can be a Filipino artist, one must first be an artist.”
—An excerpt from one of the late Fernando Zóbel de Ayala y Montojo’s letters to the Pfeufers, dated January 14, 1954
ON FEBRUARY 6, 2015, there will be an auction of a well preserved collection of the late Spanish-Filipino artist Fernando Zóbel de Ayala y Montojo’s art works, cared for over the years by American couple Jim and Reed Pfeufer, fellow artists who encouraged and nurtured Zobel’s then-budding talent for the canvas.
For almost four decades Zobel (1924-1984) and the Pfeufers would regularly exchange letters among each other, including the Pfeufers’ children Joachim, Martha and Eric. Zobel was based in the Philippines, often traveling to different parts of Europe, while the Pfeufers lived in the United States.
Zobel’s letters reveal so much about him as an artist and an individual. Truly gifted, he was an eternally curious thinker who produces eloquent words and intriguing images. He was a son and a brother devoted to his family. He was a friend—a grateful friend—especially to the Pfeufer couple who helped him pursue his dream to create.
Enrique Francisco Fernando Zobel de Ayala y Montojo Torrntegui Zambrano was born in 1924 in Ermita, Manila. A member of the prominent Zobel de Ayala clan, he was a brother of Jacobo Zóbel (father of Enrique J. Zóbel) and Alfonso (father of Jaime Zóbel de Ayala), and two other sisters, Mercedes and Consuelo. [Wikepedia]
Over the decades, Zobel helped shape the course of Philippine art as a painter and patron, helping establish the Ateneo Art Gallery by gifting them with many pieces of his impressive collection from the works of Filipino masters.
Zobel’s father specifically was a patron of National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, who in turn introduced the young and curious Fernando to painting through informal instructions. This served as his first foray into the arts, a passion, which grew in leaps and bounds in the succeeding years.
As a college student, Zobel took up medical studies at the University of Santo Tomas. In 1942, he suffered a spinal condition that left him bedridden for a whole year, where he did nothing but sketch and read. It was during this difficult period of his life that Zobel realized he truly wanted to be an artist, and in 1946, he left Manila for Harvard University to take up history and literature. It was in Boston that he met artists Jim and Reed Pfeufers and their children, while he was beginning to create his own body of work.
Zóbel graduated from Harvard in 1949 as magna cum laude.
The story of Zobel, the artist, would not be complete without going into his relationship with the Pfeufers and their children. While studying in Harvard in the late 1940s, he would visit the Pfeufers on 52 Walker Street Place, Cambridge and spend long hours with them talking about the arts. The couple effectively served as mentors to the young artist, encouraging his passion and providing him a home away from home.
For Zobel, who had always led a privileged life, the Pfeufers provided a very different environment. They were down to earth, politically liberal, devoted to art rather than business, and considered themselves far from affluent.
Eric Pfeufer, now 72, the youngest son of Jim and Reed, had fond memories of Zobel.
“If I’m not mistaken I think I was six when I first met him (Fernando Zobel). And through the eyes of a six-year-old, it was all magical,” he said during his visit to Manila on January 19 for the opening of The Jim and Reed Pfeufer Collection: A Four-Decade Friendship with Fernando Zobel exhibit at Leon Gallery, Corinthian Plaza, Paseo de Roxas in Makati City.
Following his graduation, Zobel returned to Boston periodically, at one time to serve as curator at the Houghton Library in 195, and again to exhibit his works in 1954. He made sure to visit the Pfeufers during his trips to the United States, in Rhode Island where the family had relocated. He would paint and sketch the couple, and each of their three children.
In 1953, Zobel painted the young Eric in oil on Masonite (17” x 7”) as a knight in red t-shirt, holding a winged helmet.
Recalling the artwork, Eric said, “I was just taken in by this miraculous person who came and arrived and then became so close with the family. It was just a completely comfortable friendship.”
For 40 years, the Pfeufers kept in touch with Zobel through countless letters. Eric and his brother Joachim would even spend a few months or more with Zobel when the latter lived in Spain. Eric was with him in fact when he founded the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in the town of Cuenca.
Eric also remembered how his family was always updated with Zobel’s works and achievements, and at crucial points, would even send them a doodle or sketch of a work in progress, a scene that had captivated him, or a sample of his calligraphy.
One letter from Zobel to the Pfeufers from Madrid shows a glimpse of their fond relationship: “I just got Reed’s lovely letter. I read it through once, as one does with letters, quickly, to see what it said. And then I read it again, slowly. It is a wonderful letter. It started many things off in my mind and I wonder if that is because of the letter or because I like you all so much that I feel I have left some important part of myself behind when I left you people.”
Jim and Reed also visited Zobel in Cuenca in 1974. For his part, Eric remembers one last visit with Zobel at the Harvard Club just a few years before his sudden death at the age of 60 in 1984.
Since his parents died, Eric has been left to tend to the family estate, which includes Zobel’s paintings, prints, drawings, calligraphy, books and letters.
This year, while sorting some of the materials left in their estate, Eric went through the files his parents had left in their home in Cape Cod and to his surprise, found not only the original Zobel works on paper, prints and notebooks but also a large abstract of “Saeta” [the artist’s first series]on paper.
“It’s a joy to see Fernando’s work re-emerge,” Eric enthused. “[It was all] a shock to me because my parents had flat files not only of Fernando’s work but of other people’s. I wasn’t very aware that these things were there.”
According to Eric, all the prints were made in his father’s studio. Zobel studied printmaking techniques with Jim and executed some of his earliest prints at the Pfeuffers’ residence.
Eric added, “Fernando had the benefit, I would say, of my father’s experience. My father had started as a painter himself and as time went by he became more engaged in etchings and various kinds of mediums.”
According to Jaime L. Ponce de Leon, director of Leon Gallery, Eric decided to bring the family’s mementoes to the Philippines and share them with admirers of Zobel’s artwork. De Leon believes that for Eric, this is the best way of ensuring their beloved friends’ works would be preserved for a longer time.
“He is now 72 years old and he wants to ensure that these artworks will be taken care of,” explained de Leon.
The auction of Zobel’s works from the Pfeufer collection will take place at the Makati Diamond Residences, Legazpi Street, Legazpi Village in Makati City on February 6.
Among the oil paintings to be auctioned are: “Garden Window with Trumpet,” showing the Pfeuffer’s eldest son Joachim’s trumpet perched on the front window of the family home; Eric’s portrait as a knight; another four-foot high portrait of Joachim; and a dark, comic portrait of Jim holding his clarinet.
Also notably part of the collection is “Nothing III” (also known as “Seated Man”), which features an expressively linear image of a man seated at a desk. It is a remarkable early Zóbel piece, shown both at the artist’s 1953 exhibition and a 1954 show at Boston’s Swetzoff Gallery.
As Eric expressed, the collection is a testament to an enduring friendship that revolved around art and love. As Zobel wrote in an undated letter from Cuenca, Spain, “Much love to you. I think of you very often… You have given color to my whole life.”