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Abe: Great artist at easel and typewriter; great human being

Emilio Aguilar Cruz, popularly known as Abé, is an artist, writer, and an expert in Philippine arts and culture
Emilio Aguilar Cruz, popularly known as Abé, is an artist, writer, and an expert in Philippine arts and culture

NICK Joaquin, whom experts rank as the third person in the triumvirate of great Filipino writers and thinkers with Jose Rizal and Claro M. Recto, so highly admired his friend, Abé—Emilio Aguilar Cruz—that he insisted on writing his biography, instead of contributing only a chapter in a book about him.

Astonished, Larry, Abé’s son, of course agreed. Larry is Lorenzo J. Cruz, founder of the eminently successful and consistently very good restaurants in the LJC Group. He had approached Joaquin and other writer friends of Abé to write about Abé.

Published in 2006, the handsome hardbound volume book turned out to be Joaquin’s last. Its publisher is The Juan D. Nepomuceno Center for Kapampangan Studies of the Holy Angel University. Larry, and now his estate, owns the copyright.

A serious student of Philippine cultural—artistic, journalistic, intellectual, and even social—history would be missing a lot of crucial information for his academic pursuit if he did not read Joaquin’s Abé: A frank sketch of E. Aguilar Cruz, Writer, Artist, Bon Vivant.” And also Abe’s books and essays for his views on literature, art and Philippine society.

7For Abé’s thinking (and his development as an artist at the easel), this book by Joaquin is a primary source. At first, Nick thought he would spend a lot of time interviewing his and Abé’s mutual friends (which he did too). But he was surprised to have the benefit of tapes Abé had recorded in the years before his death in 1991.

Abé had made those recordings chiefly to make his first-hand knowledge about Philippine art and its development available to the next generation.

He also, I think, wanted to straighten the record because there were mistakes in trivial journalistic and anecdotal reports about how he participated in the progress of art in the Philippines. The tapes also record Abé speaking about what some important artists, and the factions they belonged to, were saying about art.

Larry launched the Abé book project to honor his beloved Dad—and to help scholars. He has also honored Abé with an outstanding LJC restaurant bearing the painter-writer’s name.

8A year before Larry died on February 4, 2008, he had already begun to build another monument to honor Abé at the lower slopes of Mt. Arayat in Magalang town, Pampanga. About a dozen friends of Larry and Abé—among these Johnny Gatbonton, Rony Diaz, Arnold Moss, Fred de la Rosa and I—enjoyed ourselves there.

Now that place, called Abé’s Farm, has become a favorite wellness holiday resort and a base for Lenten and Easter pilgrimages in that part of Pampanga province, Abé’s native land.

It is a monument to Abé’s memory that offers not only excellent Kapampangan country cuisine, which Abé loved and shared with friends, but also art, culture and history. For recently, Larry’s daughter Lorna, who has been running the LJC Group as its president, inaugurated the museum on the life and art of Abé Cruz that her father had planned.

3Abé loved Mt. Arayat and the Magalang countryside. He gave life to these views over and over again in his canvases. The museum at Abé’s Farm proudly displays these works of art of his youth in Pampanga as well as the canvases he painted, as if he wanted top immortalize the colors and sense of wonder he felt at Mt. Arayat and environs.

The museum also has Abé’s quick portraits of the Cruz family, and, as the LJC management says, “pays tribute to his career as a writer and newspaperman, artist and bon vivant, as well as his stint as [Philippine] Unesco ambassador during the late ’70s.”
“The museum also has a section detailing the achievements of LJC founder Larry J. Cruz.

It focuses on his years as a newspaperman and broadcast journalist, Press undersecretary and BNFI [Bureau of National and Foreign Information] head, and publisher of Metro Magazine.” Soon, the museum will also exhibit items about “Larry’s contributions to the Philippine hospitality industry, as well as a detailed description of the restaurants he opened under the LJC Chain.”

9In Abé’s childhood, Mt. Arayat and its surrounding countryside played a large part in shaping the future Manila Times’ chief editorial writer’s imagination and sense of beauty.

He spent his earlier childhood and schooling in San Fernando, Pampanga, whose atmosphere was urban. There he excelled at the almost exclusive school for the wealthy families’ children. He was admitted to the school because the genteel families considered his parents respectable enough.

His father was a constabulary sergeant of the new US colony’s government and his mother was a conservative woman known for her kindness. They taught their eldest, Milyo (the future Emilio Aguilar Cruz, also known as EAC), their other children and the nieces and nephews who were their wards in a large household, good manners and right conduct—and the virtues. But professional demands on Sgt. Cruz required him to move his family to Magalang, which was a rustic setting at the foot of Mt. Arayat for a new PC facility was to be built.

After getting over his discomfort over leaving the urban culture, noises and atmosphere of San Fernando in Magalang, Milyo came to love being closer to nature.

1He had been taking violin lessons in San Fernando—because his parents thought the best career for him was in music. This was because he did not exhibit zeal for math or argumentation, which would have made them steer him toward a career in law, engineering or medicine.

In Magalang, he became the virtual leader of the church choir for he, a child, was the only one who could read the musical notes. But he missed all the reading he could do in the libraries of San Fernando. Then he found a reading room in the barbershop in Magalang, which had old magazines and newspapers.

The 14-year-old Milyo astounded Magalang by winning a crossword puzzle solving competition, beating one of the town’s respected schoolteachers. It was also from Magalang where the teenage EAC came to be a nationally published—and prize-winning—writer of fiction in English. From Magalang he also contributed funny cartoons for Manila publications.

Before he could finish high school—where his self-studies had made him a very good writer—his father decided to send him to Manila to enroll at the Escuela de Bellas Artes, in those days you did need a high-school diploma to go to an art college. There he immediately found doing still life sketches and paintings of “ketchup bottles” and other dead things boring. But he watched the great Fabian de la Rosa paint and the other instructors, among them Fernando Amorsolo.

4He was only 23 when, already a bon vivant in “Peacetime” Manila, he was offered a job as an associate editor in the most respected magazine then, the Philippine Graphic—whose legendary Agustin C. Fabian was chief editor and the respected Jose Luna Castro was the associate editor. Mr. Fabian was a fan of Abe’s cartoons, short stories and articles. But Abe at first turned down the job (which his close friend, Joe Luna Castro, had told him about).

After a time—when Abé was ready to heed Joe Luna’s exhortations for him to take life a more seriously and hold a proper job and stop being a freelance and cartoonist—he did take the Graphic associate editor’s job. The pay was P150 a month, a salary that other journalists in the USA’s PI or Philippine Islands had to labor for ten years to get if they survived the race to the top of their newspapers or magazines.

It was in December 1938 when Abé decided to say yes to Joe Luna and Mr. Fabian and formally entered the world of journalism.

From Nick Joaquin’s last book

■ The book cover of ‘Abé: A frank sketch of E. Aguilar Cruz’ by Nick Joaquin

At this point I will give you, with permission from the Larry J. Cruz estate, huge parts of Chapter 7, “Artist at the Easel” of Joaquin’s Abe: A frank sketch of E. Aguilar Cruz biography.

(Paragraphs by the author begin here)

All through the immediate postwar period Abé was totally into journalism, and eminently was the editor of the era, a role he rejected.

“In fact, I never considered myself an editor, certainly not in the American sense of the term. That’s why members of my staff loved me, because I never played the tough editor who shouted orders and rebukes. That kind of editor has no sense of joy in his work. I was popular at the office because I wasn’t only gregarious but I truly liked the people I worked with. Before the war newsmen were gentlemen. But after the war everybody wanted to become the kind of investigative reporter who slams into homes and offices, third-degrees people as though he had a right to do so and bullies the public as if he had never heard of a citizen’s right to privacy. Such braggarts were taking advantage of the exaggerated postwar reverence for the press and press freedom. I detested that system, the press ideology then.

The journalist, writer and painter is sometimes found working in his Philamlife writing room

I felt embarrassed when addressed as editor. I looked on journalism as just a way of making a living while waiting for the day when I could go back to painting.”

He had not really stopped painting.

“I was not even what’s called a Sunday painter, or maybe I was worse than a Sunday painter: I made painting just my way of killing time. I always had my watercolor bag with me—and two years after the declaration of martial law I had an exhibition, a major one, because I was exhibiting oils—though I had no practice with oil. You can only use oils as you use watercolors, which is what I did for some time, until I discovered anew the art of brushwork. You make the brushwork visible by thickening the paint. For a time I did that by combining thick paint with ink.”

This should not give a picture of Abé as a discontented newsman using journalism as a stopgap. He liked the work and particularly enjoyed the company of the top journalists of the day.

(Part of his history was enjoying years as editor-in-chief of The Daily Mirror, the afternoon daily that was the Manila Times sister paper.)

“The end of that history is President Marcos, who shut down the Mirror (and the rest of the press) when he imposed martial law in 1972.”

That was when, says Abé, he turned into a “professional painter,” leaving behind him his time as a dabbler. Realizing he had become serious as an artist, he gave himself his first serious studio: an apartment on the second floor of an Ermita high-rise on Arquiza corner of Mabini, Before he knew it, the second floor became the hive of painters and writers renting apartments there for a studio or a nook in which to write the Great Filipino Novel.
The ground floor was occupied by the shops of the so-called Mabini artists: the conservative school still carrying on the Amorsolo Filipiniana for the tourist trade. Abé was without snobbery and he respected the craftsmanship of these Amorsolo sequels. In fact, he joined them in their sketching excursions.

12He himself was at that time into nudes, learning anatomy on his own, since he had skipped art school. An oddity was his pregnant nude but those who said they were a first in Philippine art don’t know Philippine culture. The nude pregnant woman was a staple in prehistoric native sculpture, probably as magic to ease a pregnancy or to bring it on.  If Abé did not know that he was led that way by racial memory.

“When I devoted more and more time to painting—this was early on during martial law—I found myself developing into a portrait painter. I had done a few portraits before, but as favors to friends. Now, however, I was being approached by people I hardly knew. And when I delivered the portraits they would hand me a check very casually. Was I becoming a true professional painter? Privately, I preferred to define myself as a ‘gentleman painter,’ as if afraid of the term ‘professional.’ But I found that being a professional, instead of hurting the intellectual life, helped to promote it. Your integrity becomes involved.”

Coffee, talk and painters’ nude   

Even before he became a painter in earnest, Abé was associated with the artists known as the Saturday Group because they gathered on Saturdays at the Taza de Oro coffee shop on the bayside boulevard. At the Taza de Oro they met to talk art, especially nude, and from the coffee shop they sallied forth together to some agreed-on destination for group sketching and painting. It was because of his association with this group that Abé became known as a “nude painter,” a tag he would later justify. Hernando Ocampo was the organizer and moving spirit of the Saturday Group and it passed away when he did. But during its active Saturdays (the Marcos years) Abé was its zealous camp follower, even when he was already involved with another art group that also tabled together at the Taza de Oro for coffee, talk and sallying forth on painting sprees.

Abé, now himself a recognized painter, was so fast at easel that some collectors estimate he did a total of 5,000 oils and watercolors, but Abé thought a more likely guess would be 3,000.

This busiest art year of his was interrupted when he was appointed ambassador to the UNESCO and had to stay seasons (1978-1979) in Paris. This city he loved turned out to be different from the city of his brief summer visits. A Paris you had to live in from winter to winter was more than Abe could stomach, and after two years of frigid Paris, a quavering Abé cried quits.

The Dimasalang Group

The other painters’ group he was identified with, he discovered through two paintings he discovered in one of the shops below his studio. Those two small oils struck him as different from the Mabini art around them, by not being innocent and mock-rustic.

Instead, they were deliberately artful and sophisticated. Abé bought both paintings and was told the painter’s name: Sofronio Y. Mendoza, but as artist he signed himself SYM. Abé did not “discover” SYM, who was already known to the knowing; nor did Abé put together the cabal that SYM led.

But Abé did give a name to this all-artist bunch, which included Romulo Galicano, Ibarra de la Rosa, and Andres Cristobal Cruz. Like other colleagues, they lived in the “apartment” of a slum flophouse in Sampaloc on Calle Dimasalang. So Abé christened them the Dimasalang Group. They would later move to urbane lodgings in Novaliches, but the name Dimasalang Group stuck to them.

The Dimasalang Group having passed its apprentice period—the 1950s—and became sellable Abé, himself already a best-selling painter, introduced it to is most generous customers who included Imelda Marcos, the President’s lady, and her Blue Ladies.

The Dimasalang Group mostly painted in the style of its leader SYM (Sofronio Y. Mendoza). But Abé’s influence led the bolder members in search of individual styles and as they became disparate from one another, the Dimasalang Group disintegrated. SYM himself migrated to Canada.

In fact, so effective was Abé’s influence on his contemporaries that it may be said to have been his most important contribution to Philippine art. When he came on the scene, Philippine painting was dominated by modernists, on the one hand, and Mabini artists on the other; it was his influence that turned heads toward impressionism. Young artists who had rejected Amorsolo were likewise led to reject modernism and try a kind of neoconservatism. Rather did Abé’s influence push them to use their own eyes and set down on canvas the impressions of what they saw, using the strictest economy of means. Only thus could they develop their idiosyncratic style.

Abé had laughed when SYM defined him as artist: “good but lack discipline.” Precisely to escape that “discipline” had Abé shunned the grooves of academe. The artist must be free at every moment to paint, as he likes: if his work is to be expressive of him.
For Abé, each work of his must express him, and him only.

“From landscape to nudes to portraits, I land on the streets doing ordinary persons on the streets, especially young girls in their daily wear. Then from the streets I soared to the skyline: doing cityscapes viewed from the top of high-rises. I think I was the first to do this kind of work. Alcuaz would also do high-rise views but I preceded him. And then I tackled the traditional: legendary subjects like ‘Daughters of Sinukuan’ and classic themes like the ‘Three Graces,’ which I Filipinized, sometimes as native nudes using three models but oftener as idealized Filipinas using one model for all three.”

(End of paragraphs from Nick Joaquin book)

* * *

National Museum exhibition

Abe would have been 100 next June.  To commemorate his centenary the National Museum opened a group exhibition of works by the Dimasalang Group, including those of Abe. The exhibition — at Gallery 15, 3/F of the National Museum in  Padre Burgos Drive, Rizal Park, Manila — ends on July 27.

The exhibition was launched November 6, 2014. National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, National Artist for Visual Arts Ben Cabrera, NCCA Executive Director Adelina Suemith, National Museum Director Jeremy Barns, National Museum Assistant Director Dr. Ana Labrador, members of the Dimasalang Group, Sofronio Y. Mendoza (SYM) and Romulo Galicano, and LJC Restaurant Group President Lorna Cruz-Ambas.

Over 65 art works by SYM, Galicano, Andres Cristobal Cruz, Ibarra de la Rosa, and Emilio “Abe” Aguilar Cruz are on exhibit. Abe’s heirs are donating his select paintings from this exhibition.

The National Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, from 10 am to 5 pm.


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Today’s Front Page December 12, 2019

Today’s Front Page December 12, 2019