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Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, the woman behind Philippine visual arts

January 31, 2010

She championed Philippine art at a time when there was low or practically no public regard for them. Ayala Museum will exhibit this week her trailblazing collection of Philippine masters
A REVERED NAME IN ARTISTIC and cultural circles, the late Purita Kalaw-Ledesma will always be remembered for helping shape the direction of the visual arts and elevate the stature of Filipino artists.

She championed Philippine art when people were too busy picking up the pieces of their lives after the war, a time when few people paid any attention to artists or their work.

“My mother wanted to be an artist but since it was not a profession one’s family would like for their children at that time, she became a patron of the arts instead,” says Ada Mabilangan, one of Ledesma’s four daughters.

But Ledesma continued to paint as a hobby. Her subjects included her trips to China, nudes, landscape and portraits. She would often invite the Saturday Group of Artists to their house for painting sessions with a nude model.

“At that time, my sister and I lived across the street. Of course, our husbands were very interested in those sessions. My son who was only 5 years old then would see his grandmother sketching the nude model,” Mabilangan recalls.

Ledesma’s passion for the arts had been inspired by her mother Pura Villanueva-Kalaw (beauty queen, writer and suffragette) and father Teodoro M. Kalaw (an illustrious nationalist, scholar, historian, author and statesman).

“Our grandmother was an unusual woman at that time. She also had a lot of scholars who were mostly writers and poets,” Mabilangan says. “Our grandfather was the first director of the National Library. He was a very nationalistic man involved in independence missions under Quezon.”

Gentle soul

Underneath Ledesma’s gentle manner was an independent mind which she fearlessly expressed whenever she deemed it necessary.

“She was a quiet and gentle soul. She was never argumentative or confrontational. She was soft-spoken but she was made of steel. She would give way to things she considered minor but to those involving principle, for example, she wouldn’t budge. That’s why when she made a stand, people respected her,” Mabilangan says.

Ledesma never taught her daughters Rita, Ma. Consuelo, Wally and Ada how to paint. She would get art teachers for them instead. “But she never pushed us to make it a profession,” Mabilangan says. “She was a hundred-percent hands-on mom, even to her grandchildren. She would often verbalize to us that we were the most important in her life.”

Mabilangan also remembers how their mom would help her in her school projects. “When I was the editor of the Assumption College magazine, she would bring me to Cesar Legaspi who would help me with the magazine’s cover. At that time, who could have known that Legaspi would become National Artist? Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the cover he made.”

Like her father, Ledesma was “approachable.” She would tell her daughters how they joked with their dad. “They were sometimes irreverent with him. That was how we were with our mother,” Mabilangan says.

But the most admirable trait of her mother, Mabilangan says, was her insatiable appetite for knowledge. “She was always curious and she loved to learn.” As proof of this, Ledesma finished two master’s degrees: Education from UP in her late 40s and Art Education from the Asian Institute of Arts in her 70s.

Art collection

In the 1940s, Ledesma began collecting the artworks of most of her contemporaries: Vicente Manansala, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Nena Saguil, Rosita Jose Guerrero, Carlos Francisco, Galo B. Ocampo, Cesar Legaspi, Alfredo Pestano, Emilio Aguilar Cruz, Jose Tupaz, Eduardo Salgado, Mario Felipe, Eduardo Perinond and Gabriel Custodio.

In her autobiography, “And Life Goes On,” Ledesma described them as “a humble lot. Most of them perhaps didn’t even dream that they would someday become the masters of Philippine contemporary art.”

In the early years, public esteem for artists was low. There was no such thing as an art market, and many academically trained artists ended up in the art department of a newspaper or advertising agency. Parents discouraged their children from pursuing art as a career because the common impression was that those who became painters were academic failures. Further, it was the common belief that there was no future in painting.

Ledesma had accumulated more than a thousand collection of paintings, sculptures and drawings of various artists from different generations.

A large part of Ledesma’s art collection has been donated to the Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation, which offers scholarships to deserving students.

Exhibit

On Feb. 3-May 2, the Ayala Museum will mount “A Vision of Philippine Art Selections From the Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Collection,” featuring “the best 50” pieces from the art patroness’ treasured collection. (In 2002, more than a hundred artworks from her collection were exhibited at the National Museum.)

Selected by Ditas Samson, curator of the Ayala Museum, the artworks to be exhibited will include some of Ledesma’s paintings and one done by her mother.

“The works were done by various artists who figured prominently in 20th-century Philippine art. They also go by generation. There are works by Fabian de la Rosa, Fernando Amorsolo, Magsaysay-Ho, Manansala, Legaspi, Arturo Luz, Fernando Zobel, Nunelucio Alvarado, Egai Fernandez. Viewers will see the development of Philippine art through the latter half of 20th century,” Samson says. “Purita’s collection completes and complements the narrative of the Ayala Museum’s collection. It also completes our work in making the public understand and appreciate Philippine culture.”

The exhibit will show the breadth and scope of Ledesma’s interests, Samson added, and how prolific and creative that period was, evident in the pieces from the ’50s and ’60s.

“Ledesma founded the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) in 1948, a time when Filipinos were trying to find a visual language to express. As she was helping her artist friends, she accumulated her own collection,” Samson says.

But what was her favorite among her collection? “I think she loved them all. But toward the end of her life, she put the Fabian de la Rosa sketch of a woman on her dressing table. She especially loved this one for it looks peaceful,” says Mabilangan.

Arbiter of the arts

How did Ledesma become an arbiter of the visual arts? To begin with, she had a solid background in the arts, having enrolled at the Escuela de Bellas Artes, later to be incorporated into the University of the Philippines’ School of Fine Arts. It had some of the leading artists as her mentors: Dean Fabian de la Rosa, portraiture; Guillermo E. Tolentino, perspective; Ramon Peralta, drawing; Teodoro Buenaventura and Fernando Amorsolo, landscape; Toribio Herrera, anatomy; Pablo Amorsolo, drawing from life; Vicente Rivera y Mir, drapery; and Irineo Miranda, watercolor composition and decorative art.

Once, in Miranda’s class in portraiture, Ledesma had to sit as substitute model and it was Botong Francisco’s turn to make a pen-and-ink portrait of the model. The portrait signed by the artist is in Ledesma’s collection.

After taking lessons for three years at the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Ledesma went to the University of Michigan where she studied Design, Oriental History and the Appreciation of Visual Arts and Crafts.

Her parents subscribed to the common notion that a career in art could not support her, related Mabilangan. Thus, Ledesma gave in to their wish that she take up Home Economics after her return. She also followed the advice of her mother to turn to real estate which Ledesma did, succeeding immensely in it. She used the income from real estate to help younger, struggling artists.

Realizing how necessary it was to raise the stature of artists in the esteem of the public, she founded the AAP. Its charter members unanimously voted Ledesma president.

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