Words by Devi De Veyra
One of the most fascinating stories in Philippine art is how several of the most iconic early works of National Artist Benedicto "BenCab" Cabrera found their way into the collection of the renowned British actress Glenda Jackson - one of the few to have achieved the "Triple Crown of Acting" - having won the Oscar and Emmy twice, and a Tony. The fiery Jackson was not only a tour de force in acting but was also an indomitable figure in British politics. How these two cultural icons met takes us back over 50 years ago.
The year 1969 was the zenith of Swinging London, a cultural revolution marked by the birth of The Beatles, bell-bottomed jeans, tie-dyed shirts, and psychedelic euphoria. Amidst all of these was the idyll of a newly-wedded BenCab and his former wife Caroline Kennedy.
Kennedy had opened an antique stall at a Chelsea flea market, and while helping to man the booth, BenCab drew. He showed his drawings to a gallery next door in King’s Road, where he would mount the first exhibitions in his new home.
Ben and Glenda
Kennedy’s neighbor was a friend of Jackson’s, who had just won her first Oscar for her 1969 film Women in Love. In an interview, BenCab recalled proposing his paintings to her, and “she liked them.” Soon, he held his first one-man show at The Room Gallery in Greenwich, London, run by Jackson’s husband, Roy Hodges.
The show was a commercial success - the start of many that would gain the attention of prominent buyers (including Jackson, award-winning playwright Harold Pinter and Oscar-winning director John Richard Schlesinger) and critics. The first Brit to own a BenCab, however, purchased it in Manila: Paul McCartney while on tour with the Beatles in 1969.
BenCab’s Madonna in London
BenCab in London was at the cusp of his artistic breakthrough that eventually brought forth his iconic Larawan series. It was a period of wide-ranging experimentation with the artist exploring different mediums with the abundance of art materials available to him. His subjects manifested the new world in his eyes that didn’t lose sight of the core values that shaped his artistic philosophies. Subway Madonna, one of the works produced during this time and purchased by Jackson, best represents this period.
Created in 1970, Subway Madonna can easily be seen as a part of his Scavenger series – hastily sketched amorphous bodies that depict the grim existence of their inspiration. This time, however, BenCab situated his subjects in a place recognizable to his current reality – figures of a mother and child inside, as the title suggests, the London Underground. It also seemed like a nod to an earlier work, a 1968 acrylic on board titled Madonna in a Jeep. BenCab not only embarked on an adventure abroad, he even took his muses with him.
BenCab’s diasporic subject now returns home at the upcoming Under the Tree: The Wish List sale on Dec. 2, 2023. The rare masterpiece joins hundreds more of artworks by National Artists and masters specially curated for the year-end sale. In this Madonna, we see BenCab’s first year in London: just beginning to search for his Philippine identity in a place completely foreign and far away from home.