Retrospective marks centennial of ‘Amorsolo’s bet’

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The artist’s self portrait when he was 25 years old, 1938 Charcoal on paper, 60 x 48 cm

The artist’s self portrait when he was 25 years old, 1938 Charcoal on paper, 60 x 48 cm

A retrospective exhibition of the work of Constancio Bernardo (1913-2003) marks the artist’s centennial at Ayala Museum, celebrating the artist’s life and work as well as revisiting a critical gap in the history of Philippine abstraction, heretofore un-addressed with either depth or breadth.

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Comprising a total of around 100 works, the exhibition provides the first opportunity to view the full range of Bernardo’s œuvre from a career span of more than sixty years and highlights his canvases of abstraction, lauded by a number of critics from the 1950s onward as among the most important examples of Philippine modernist painting but increasingly overlooked as the decades passed.

While included in a number of group exhibitions and the subject of 22 solo exhibitions including retrospectives at UP Baguio in 1969, at the Museum of Philippine Art in 1978, and at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1990, Bernardo remains to be on the margins of the annals of Philippine art history. Dedicated to his lifelong art practice and his teaching career at the University of the Philippines, Bernardo staunchly resisted the limelight, eschewing the social scene of the art world and opting to work tirelessly in his studio.

Within abstraction, his paintings ranged from geometric abstraction to Op art and abstract expressionism—each series structured with a formal mastery and infused with a depth of feeling singularly his. Obdurate in his self-effacing silence in his lifetime, his body of work, preserved by the Museo Bernardo Foundation Inc., and Constancio Ma. A. Bernardo Foundation, prove to be the clearest evidence of enduring artistic expression.

The centennial retrospective also tracks the artist’s evolution and transitions, revealing Bernardo to be the consummate artist who was accomplished at both figuration and abstraction. Early in his career, Bernardo was identified by Fernando Amorsolo as the student at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts most likely to surpass the master himself. Upon being named the first Filipino Fulbright fellow in art in 1948, he continued his studies at Yale University. Bernardo’s yearlong fellowship was extended to four years so that he could complete both his BFA and MFA at Yale. It was during his MFA studies that he proved to be a virtuoso at abstraction. He absorbed the developments of abstract art at Yale with such intensity that Josef Albers, one of the most influential art teachers in the world and a luminary of geometric abstraction, declared him not a student but a peer.

Contrary to Albers, Bernardo’s radical shift was shunned rather than embraced by Amorsolo and his colleagues at UP. Bernardo’s manifest engagement with abstraction not only disappointed Amorsolo who had high hopes for his protégé in the field of figurative art; it also led to the archetypal interrogation of meaning in his paintings in which the human figure, still life objects, or landscape scenes are absent.

To this, Bernardo contended that abstraction allowed him to free himself from the constraints of representing only what is physically visible in the world and allowed him to give visual form to what only the mind could perceive.

This exhibition showcases not only his astounding ease with shifting from one style to another but also the rigor and discipline exemplified by each body of work. The disadvantage of his limited commercial success in his lifetime is in its own way the advantage of having a body of work that’s almost intact to reconsider in the context of the larger history of Philippine art in general and Philippine abstraction in particular and provides an opportunity for the public to be introduced or reintroduced to the work of an important artist.

The Constancio Bernardo retrospective will open on November 27, and will be on view at Ayala Museum until February 28, 2014. For details,, visit www.ayalamuseum.org.

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