Enter the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Nicanór Abelardo and you’re greeted by a blaze of red, a giant tapestry. The artist, Hernando R. Ocampo, would have been 110 years old last month and would have been gratified that his largest work continues to be in a class of its own.
The curtains of the world’s most famous halls are magnificent—Opera Garnier in Paris, Venice’s La Fenice, New York’s Metropolitan at Lincoln Center, La Scala in Milan—are in red or gold, elaborately draped and tasseled but the CCP’s is sui generis.
I was not a witness to the creation but I imagine the project’s moving spirit, First Lady Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, giving marching orders to Ar. Leandro Locsin, “I want to build a Sanctuary of the Filipino Soul, a showcase of Filipino creativity.” Locsin might then have planted the idea of an art work as curtain and of “creation” as encapsulating Mrs. Marcos’ vision.
The best-known artists then were the “Conservative” Fernando Amorsolo and “Modernists” Victorio Edades, Carlos Francisco, and Galo Ocampo. They all painted representational images and might have created something like Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, God the Father gesturing, “Let there be light” and flying through the firmament. Locsin, however, might have offered the thought that an abstract concept was best shown also in the abstract and that Hernando R. Ocampo was one to do it.
The 50-year-old Ocampo was not an obvious choice. A self-taught painter, he worked in an advertising agency. He was also fictionist, playwright, poet, a multi-talented man.
He must have thought of the Bible’s Book of Genesis and the word’s meaning as the origin or coming into being of something. Ocampo transformed the word into an image, a bonfire—not one on a festive Boracay evening, not one for roasting marshmallows, but an inferno spreading light and defeating darkness.
The image was realized on canvas, the modello that was blown up maybe a thousand times into a tapestry woven in Kyoto where Japan’s ancient textile traditions still flourish. At its center are curved forms in yellow and red, amid darkening shades. The large central forms have sharp points and edges, three-dimensional spear points that become smaller, less defined as they penetrate the dark.
They suggest spreading flames as much as fingers and scythes—fire that flash and spread, fingers of a hand that create; and spears of imagination and creativity.
The smallest forms are the brightest—the shards of light. These would be ideas that inspire, innovations that go beyond the ordinary, sparks that artists—writers, performers, painters and sculptors, architects—fan into masterpieces.
Spreading fire suggests triumph over resistance to a cultural center; triumph in filling the void left by the destruction of World War II; and hope for a renaissance in Philippine culture and the arts.
The curved forms are also fingers in a hand of creation that give birth to new ideas, encourage creative work, as much as weapons to clear the way and open new paths.
Ocampo’s oeuvre depicts a different reality, reality perceived as shapes in striking, shifting tints—often in unexpectedly contrasting or harmonizing tropical colors, seemingly in motion with subtle shifts in hue. Ocampo was a poet and I also look at his works as a sequence from the literal to simile to metaphor. His ideas become words that then become oil on canvas.
The earliest Ocampo work I know is in the Amorsolo tradition. Entitled Pastoral, it is a typical landscape but literally in a different light. His later work continued to be inherently representational but seen through shifting lenses. It is a remarkable progression, from representational that over five decades became almost—just almost—abstract
He began with an idea and proceeded to communicate it. He thought of Christmas, masks, outer space, his childhood, and expressed his intention in carefully devised shapes, in calibrated colors and in painstakingly composed texture. In 1972 when I met him, he was using exactly 16 colors in gradually increasing intensity, meticulously applied on canvas in little dabs with a small palette knife.
His approach is a contrast to many a present artist who seems to apply brush to canvas concerned merely with composition and color and only in the end decides what the work communicates. They may not even bother to do that, explaining why so many contemporary works are entitled Untitled.
It was toward the culmination, the final phase, of Ocampo’s artistry that he created Genesis.
In the Old Testament’s first book, God created first the heavens and the earth, then light and darkness, sky and waters, then land to separate land from seas, then vegetation, living creatures, and finally human kind.
In the same way, land had emerged from the waters, an edifice had materialized, and on Sept. 8, 1969 rose H.R. Ocampo’s Genesis to the premiere of The Golden Salakot, a work that looks back at the origins of the Filipino nation.
Creation was complete, inspiration was reality.
Notes: (a) Hernande R. Ocampo (28 April 1911-28 December 1978) was proclaimed National Artist in 1991; (b) This article is based on the author’s presentation in an episode of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Cultural Cache Online; and (c) Provenance of “Pastoral”: Given by the artist in the 1930s to a distinguished gentleman and thence by descent.
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