by Carlos Celdran
Bare Magazine (Editor-In-Chief: Lexi Schulze Berenguer Testa)
I grew up around naked women.
Sorry. Nude women. An entire house full of them as a matter of fact.
Nudes Descending Staircase
The home I grew up in was filled with walls of nude women. Nude women in pencil; charcoal; oil; watercolor; pastel. Dozens hung salon style along the staircase of my parents’ home. Among the collection were nudes by artists like Cesar Legaspi, Manansala; H.R. Ocampo; and BenCab. Silently they hung there, forming a greeting line for any guest who entered our home. But in a room away from the public areas was a nude not meant for the visitors eye. It was a portrait of my very own mother, sitting in the buff, executed in oil pastel by the nudie master himself, Vicente Manansala. It was a image that became so familiar to our family, we almost didn’t notice it at all. “It was done in 1973, right after you were born.”, my mother told me. “Mang Enteng wanted to paint me as a portrait of motherhood.” An odd thing to say since she wasn’t pregnant in the scene. But whatever the case may be, it was early on that I realized my family was different from those of my friends simply because of nudes being such a ubiquitous part of our home. It was taken so lightly that there was even a Manansala watercolor with my father’s handwritten words “June 1971. Happy Birthday to my darling wife, Love Mike” scribbled across the models lap. It was a move my father probably regrets, but not too much. It was 1975 after all, and the nude in Manila was at it’s golden age. Skin and the showing of it was really no big deal and the compulsion to do so was apparent.
Bomba Ka Day!
In 1970’s Manila society and media, the move to shed inhibitions as well as clothing was gaining momentum. Perhaps it was a reaction to martial law era repression; a rationalization that since we were not allowed to speak our minds, we would bare our breasts instead. It was a period when the “Bomba” Star (our local and gentler term for “Porno Queen”) reigned at the box office, the popularity of the “Wet Look” (and the wet T-shirt) was at its peak, and Gloria Diaz, former Miss Universe and the embodiment of the ideal Filipina, showed her nipples off to the entire country in a movie that hailed her as Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa – loose translation: “The Most Beautiful Animal on the Skin of the Earth”. It was a time when the micro-mini was all the rage and prim colegialas wore their Catholic School skirts hemmed so high that it established “making boso” or “sneaking peeks at panties” as the schoolboy pastime of choice. On the other side of the spectrum and in a different part of town, the honky-tonk bars of downtown Manila also reached a belle epoch. The daring Ermita Girl and her deft abilities with ping-pong balls and beer bottles (ask around for this one), confirmed Manila as the standard by which other third world red-light districts would measure their own strip joints.
The Mood for Nudes
Yes, the sexualization of Philippine society was on and it was shifting to high gear. At the fore was the relationship between the flourishing Philippine art scene and the Manila based culturati class. All pumped up on the steroids of Imelda’s state sponsorship, together they set the mood for the nude in mid-1970’s painting and sculpture.
In the years preceding World War II, the arts were dominated by the philosophy of a group of self-proclaimed “conservatives”, found in the likes of sculptor Guillermo Tolentino, painter Fernando Amorsolo et al. Their portrayals of the naked human form was in strict keeping with western (read: Greek) ideals of formal classical beauty. From the time of Juan Luna (late 19th century) until the era of Vittorio Edades (mid 20th century), the exposed human body in art was a firmly analytical-slash-metaphorical enterprise. It was used either as a subject of academic study or as a mere instrument to express a larger idea. The nude, in all it’s copied western proportions, was usually depicted as an allegory for life, death, agriculture, terpitude, or what have you – or merely plopped down like a lawn ornament amidst a bucolic Philippine landscape.
But thanks to a group called the “modernists” (painters Vittorio Edades, Vicente Manansala, et al) whose experimental forms rebelled against the conventions of the preceding “conservatives”, the nude had expanded it range. By the 1970’s, with the establishment of the sexual revolution and the Marcos martial law culture machine, the nude was eventually stripped of all of its preconceived notions and given the opportunity to run naked. Some artists approached the nude purely as a subject, an icon to manipulate as freely as a can of soup. Others saw it as a pure art. An investigation of basic forms from which to draw out further inspiration. Sketching the body became an almost religious act. An exercise in the foundations of art. Definitely a logical place to start for a country obsessed in establishing it’s own cultural identity.
Naturally, Manila’s alta sociedad, spurred on by the validations of the cultural community, was quick to get in on the act. Sessions for sketching nude models (which usually had a young proportionally pleasing woman as the centerpiece, never men) were all the rage. It became as common as the lunchtime fashion show and was held in eclectic places like the Taza the Oro coffee shop, and the Rustan’s Department Store (at their Galerie Bleu). The art of the nude had somehow elevated itself to a social event. Many prominent figures showed their support by hosting sessions in their very own residences, yachts, or business establishments. “Yes, I hosted the Saturday Group in my Greenhills residence,” quipped former Miss Philippines Myrna Borromeo. The Saturday Group, of course, being the most famous of these naked luncheoners, counting painters Cesar Legaspi, HR Ocampo, Manuel Rodriguez Sr, and Alfredo Roces as members. “I had an appreciation for the arts”, she finalized, “even though I wasn’t really into the nude.”
On the flip side of all this happy nakedness, the trend seemed to have had a backlash. It created a lot of mediocre copycat groups which produced works that were unspectacular to say the least. Held as often as once a week, the titillation of these bare events soon wore out their audiences and Manila’s famously fickle patronage class moved on to the next big bright and shiny thing.
The Matron as Model for Manansala
Naturally, alongside the rise of the nude art form was the act of nude modeling itself. Both had found acceptance by the blue haired crowd with some of them even willing to shed it all themselves. The artist of choice for many a Manila matron was definitely National Artist Vicente Manansala. It was the combination of his affable character, propriety, and impeccable use of line and space which drew ladies all the way to his studio in SanFrancisco del Monte (then Binangonan) just to pose. In the early 70’s, it was Chona Recto Kasten, daughter of Nationalist Senator Claro M. Recto and Lucy Cruz, wife of the late Ambassador to the Court of St. James JV Cruz, who pioneered nude modeling as a fashionable activity. Although Mang Enteng and his wife Aling Hilda, maintained a friendly relationship with many models of this period, he was especially intimate with Mrs. Lucy Cruz, the Ambassor, and their family. Altogether they would fulfill the roles of model, patron, and talent scout for Mang Enteng. “On and off for many years, I would drive my friends to model for him right after a night of partying” says her son, Louie. “I had to because his studio was very hard to find.” Ironically, Mang Enteng was just getting up to start his day as they were wrapping up theirs. “Most of the time, they would just fall asleep on a bean bag in his studio as he sketched them.” It was a perfect relationship that only the 70’s could create.
The Declining Nude
By the mid-1980’s, with the departure of the Marcoses and the death of Manansala, the decline of the nude sketch as a society collectible was evident. Tastes were changing all around and the immediacy of photography was being opted over the allure of a charcoal drawing. “Yeah, I posed in the nude, everyone was doing it. But I was also one of the few with the guts to actually exhibit it.” says Evelyn Lim-Forbes, social activist and Tai-Ping Rugs heiress. “But I was of a different generation, this was the early 80’s, these were photographs.” Out went the long sittings for a sketch as the works of photographers Jaime Zobel de Ayala, Wig Tysmans, Neal Oshima, and Butch Baluyot became the names of choice when it can to preserving ones posterior for posterity.
The End of an Era
Its now the year 2003, and an odd mix of neo-conservatism and commercialized sexuality has now taken over the land. Gone is the Bomba Star of yore and in her place, we are given the “Prosti” appeal of Aubrey Miles and the pedophilic fantasies of Maui Taylor. The school skirt hem has fallen to an all time low; the honky tonks have long since moved to more shopping mall-like environments by EDSA; and the nude portrait of the society matron has become practically extinct as a whole. The nude figure itself, although still edgy in the works of painters like Kiko Escora and Jojo Legaspi, has finally been crowded out by the larger voices of abstraction and alternative media. Only three years past the millennium and the nude has become just one subject among many battling for the patron’s peso. And just like the portrait of my mother – which is now stashed away in a closet – the nude movement, despite all it’s freshness and idealism, has become just another icon to be stored with the rest of one’s memories from the 1970’s.