It was a celebration of the arts at the height of the Chinese New Year. The Vibal Foundation and the Ateneo Art Gallery successfully launched the book The Life and Art of Lee Aguinaldo on February 3 at the Ateneo de Manila University, as part of the exhibit “Lee Aguinaldo: In Retrospect”, in celebration of the Gallery’s 50th anniversary.
The book, which is the latest in Vibal Foundation’s Arte Filipino series, is a definitive biography of the late Filipino Lee Aguinaldo and is authored by Ma. Victoria Herrera, Lisa Chikiamco, Cid Reyes, and Rod. Paras-Perez.
Present at the launch, held at Ricardo and Dr. Rosita Leong Hall in the Ateneo de Manila University, were Aguinaldo’s family and close relatives, as well as his contemporaries and prominent figures in Philippine art.
“This book means so much to us and to the [Aguinaldo] family because it gives the opportunity to celebrate the man and his art and to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the legacy he left behind,” said Lee’s son Leopoldo “Leo” Aguinaldo III.
The program began with an introduction by Ramon E.S. Lerma, director and chief curator of the Ateneo Art Gallery, followed by remarks by Herrera and Gaspar Vibal, the book’s publisher and executive director of Vibal Foundation. The latter also introduced Remembering Lee Aguinaldo, a 22-minute biographical sketch of the artist and complementary video to the book.
Afterterwards Aguinaldo’s lifelong partner Melba Arribas gave a few words of appreciation for the event. Writer Angelo Suarez then read a poem he wrote inspired by Lee and one of Lee’s favorite writers, Gertrude Stein. Lee’s son Leo gave his closing remarks to end the program. Then, over at the reception at the Ateneo Art Gallery, jazz group MAJAM—with special performances by Stella Ignacio and US-based bassist Raymond dela Peña, set the mood with a live performance, and several of Lee’s works were made available for viewing.
Leopoldo Aguinaldo II, or Lee, was a scion of the elite Aguinaldo family, one of the richest families in the Philippines in the early 20th century. As the eldest among his siblings, he was expected to take over the family businesses. However, from an early age, Lee exhibited a profound affinity for the arts—of which his father expressed great disapproval, sending Lee off to military school in an attempt to straighten him out.
Though Lee did work for his father’s company for a number of years, his life became a struggle of “art versus commerce,” commented Vibal. “[But] for Lee, the choice was clear: art must reign supreme.”
Lee’s apparent rebellion, coupled with the eventual downfall of his family’s business empire, brought him to dire straits. His financial woes led to his eviction from different homes on separate occasions—from the Patio Madrigal compound in the late 70s, and from the Aguinaldos’ ancestral home on V. Mapa street around a decade later.
A pioneer and a pillar
“[The] reasons for singling out Aguinaldo for [the exhibition and accompanying book launch] are manifold,” explained Lerma. “First, this exhibition represents the fulfillment of the museum’s role in undertaking much needed research and archival work in regard to [Aguinaldo] … and the need to remind the public about an artist whose achievements, without re-examination, risk being consigned to the dustbin of history. Second, Aguinaldo’s works underscore the legacy and discerning eye of the Gallery’s founding benefactor [Fernando Zobel].”
Although influenced by abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, and even by the classical master Rembrandt, Lee’s oeuvre as a whole seems to defy any rigid categorization, as he himself resisted any “linear” sort of progression.
As an artist, he flitted between figurative and abstract art. Among his most famous works are his Pollock-inspired Flick paintings, named so because of the unique method used in applying paint on the canvas; the pop-influenced Galumph series, the name of which he borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland; and the hard-edged Linear series, which included pieces that Zobel described as the most masterful Lee had ever done. However, inspired by Rembrandt’s self-portraits, he also experimented with light, shade and texture, using merely a pencil or pen and ink to create numerous variations of individual subjects. These subjects would range from Rembrandt himself to his lover Melba.
Lee belonged to a circle of artists which included Arturo Luz, Roberto Chabet, Emmanuel “Eric” Torres and Fernando Zobel, who was not merely his mentor, but also a critic and a friend. This circle “shaped and developed Philippine visual art in the decades following the Second World War … [and] helped pave the way for the rise of modernism in the country,” asserts Lerma. Yet despite his critical acclaim, Lee and his friends maintained an almost self-deprecating sense of humor.
“Lee poked fun at the idea of him being a pillar of art history,” remarked Vibal. At a gathering in August 1966, Zobel, Chabet and Torres jokingly signed an impromptu certificate, attesting “against [their] will and better judgment … that Leopoldo Aguinaldo II is, alas, a GENIUS.” Though often described as a curious—perhaps difficult—man, in old age, he remained a lively character. His grandson Leopoldo “L.A.” Aguinaldo IV describes him as a “fun grandfather,” and fondly remembers how he had “broadened [his grandchildren's] imagination[s] through art.”
“Lee Aguinaldo: In Retrospect” and The Life and Art of Lee Aguinaldo honor and celebrate the legacy of a man who has left his distinctive mark on Philippine art history. In Vibal’s words, “Lee Aguinaldo took the pains and joys of his turbulent life and transformed them into works that transcended his personal history and speak to future generations of Filipinos.” Herrera, in turn, hopes that younger generations of artists will be challenged to “take on [Lee's] same honesty and conviction [in pursuing their craft].”
Text by David Ong and Merck Maggudayao. Photos by Anna Morquicillo.