The Spanish-Filipina painter Betsy Westendorp, known largely for her exuberant floras and landscapes, is currently being feted at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila with a retrospective. The show, which runs for a month and a half, gathers 100 of her artworks that span a 60-year career in the arts. The title of the exhibition, Passages: Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp, is a nod to her leaving her Spanish roots early on and embracing a new country that will lead her to defining herself as a woman and an artist.
A man intimately familiar with Betsy’s work is curator and art critic Cid Reyes who has authored the printed catalogue of the retrospective. “The last time I saw her was in December last year at her residence in Makati , when I, together with curator Dannie Alvarez and Committee Head of the retro show, Ar. Manny Miñana and wife Denise Weldon Miñana, paid her a visit,” says Reyes. He reports that the artist, who just turned 93, still paints, although she’s traded her large canvases for smaller ones.
Who better then to answer our questions about Betsy and her works? To tell us about the things we might have missed about the painter’s art, about the highlights of her career? In the process, Reyes, friend, writer and critic, surprises us by revealing so much more about Betsy —the members of European royalty who sat for her, her famous friendships, her process and sacrifices. Knowing all these now allows us to see Betsy’s flowers, skies, and people, with new eyes.
What would you say were the most significant periods in Betsy Westendorp’s work?
Ms Betsy Westendorp first came to the Philippines in 1951, as the young bride of Spanish-Filipino Antonio Brias, whom she met in her native country Spain. The family name does not sound Hispanic, for it is actually Dutch, courtesy of a grandfather from Holland, who had married a lady from Malaga. Indeed, she was named after a grand-aunt, Betsy Westendorp-Osieck, who was also a respected painter in Holland.
The Dutch painters were noted for their flower paintings, a fact which would manifest in her floral works, thus constituting her major art form. Landscapes of both Spain and the Philippines, as well as our own seascapes, figure importantly in her oeuvre, as do her celebrated portraits of her country’s royalty and nobility.
When was the last time she painted and what did those works look like?
Ms Betsy, who turned 93 last December, was actually still painting at that great age. Up to her late eighties, it was part of her daily regimen to take a swim at the residential building’s pool. It was good for her physically, giving her the needed stamina and energy because painting is an exhausting activity.. To make matters more difficult, unlike most painters who are seated while painting, she was continually on her feet while painting. Swimming was her daily delight. And she was very disciplined about it.
At that age, she could of course no longer paint the large canvases. Instead, she painted her favorite red poppies and orchids on small canvases. They are intimate and exquisite and, for me very moving. It has been said artists never retire. They stop painting only when the brush starts to fall off their hands, as had happened with the great artists of history: Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Renoir, Monet – they painted as long as they could breathe! The same of course could be said for our own Amorsolo, Edades, Manansala, H. R. Ocampo, et al.
Who are her collectors? And how would you describe them and their relationship with her?
The collectors of Ms. Betsy belong to Manila society’s elite – starting, of course, with former President Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos, as well as the succeeding presidents like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo Fidel Ramos (through his wife, Mrs Ming Ramos), as well as Erap Estrada. Veritably, it is an impressive listing of Manila’s “Who’s Who”- great society ladies, prominent business and cultural leaders.
Not surprisingly, her collectors have become her very close friends. She has a way of emotionally affecting people. She is unique in that way: not only is her art admired – the artist herself is loved as a person. In the monograph of the retro show, we feature several affectionate tributes to her from her collector-friends. As she always says: “My friends are in Manila.”
How would you describe Betsy as an artist? Was she the kind who cared what critics say, or what other artists are doing? Would you call her prolific?
For the retro show, our committee had assembled over a hundred of Ms Betsy’s works. And these have been gleaned from so many more. That should give us an indication of how prolific she was as an artist.
She was committed to her art, and made tremendous sacrifices for it. When she was starting to raise her family, she stopped painting for an incredible 20 years. From our point of view, that is a cause for great regret. But no, she had to prioritize the needs of her family.
She reminds me of another artist, the late Anita Magsaysay Ho, who sublimated her art for her family. She would paint only after her young children were off to school and before her husband arrives home from the office, she would have cleared up all her painting materials.
In the seventies, an American critic, Linda Nochlin, wrote a landmark essay titled “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” Throughout history, women have been consigned to a domestic role and chiefly that of producing and raising the children. Women with artistic tendencies have had to struggle hard to create their art. She was no exception to this proscribed tradition.
She was fortunate that, from the start, her works have always received positive and glowing reviews. I have seen several magazines in Madrid where her and her art were wonderfully received. In Manila, too, the local critics wrote admiringly of her. Of course, there was that cavil, that complain, that she was a kind of court painter to the Marcoses, but I know that is not worth considering. I am absolutely convinced her art transcended politics, and, more importantly, her art remained unsullied by it.
What would you consider to be her most important works?
While her portraits are treasured by the families and heirs of her subject, incontrovertibly, her most important works are her Floral works, largely focused on the Philippine flora – a subject strangely avoided or neglected by the major Filipino artists. Ms Betsy’s output on the Philippine orchid and its many colorful varieties is truly impressive, both in quantity and quality.
I would also consider her cloudscapes, known as “Atmosferografias”, of great importance. The subject unleashed something tremendously emotional in the art of Ms Betsy Westendorp. Unable to attend the burial of her daughter Isabel who died in Madrid, she channeled her grief by painting a large cloudscape, with massive hovering dark clouds streaked with deepest reds. She titled it “Passages”, alluding to her daughter’s passage into another life. She donated the painting to the Instituto Cervantes de Manila.
Why a retrospective of her at this moment?
At the great age of 93, I would even think that is rather a late age for a retrospective. But as in life, we abide by the forces —and timetable —of destiny. Her retro show at the Met Museum is a breakthrough — it is the first retro accorded a non-native-born artist. That in itself is significant. In recognition of her contribution to the arts of the country, she has been presented with the Presidential Medal of Merit, the second highest honor after the Order of National Artist.
Can you tell us about the portraits she did, since we are only largely familiar with her paintings of flowers?
She has always said, before she was a flower painter, she was a portraitist. Indeed, from her childhood, she was already blessed with this remarkable gift of portraying the likeness of a person.
In Spain, she was known as Pintora de Principes. What brought her to the limelight as a portraitist was her opportunity to paint the Spanish royal family. This was due mainly through the help of the Philippine ambassador to Spain, Luis “Chito” Gonzalez and his wife, Vicky Quirino-Gonzalez, daughter of President Elpidio Quirino. In particular, she painted the royal children, known as the Infantes de España: Infanta Doña Elena, Infanta Doña Cristina, and the first portrait of Infante Don Felipe, the present King Felipe VI of Spain.
Moreover, she also painted the portrait of Doña Carmen Polo de Franco, wife of the former Caudillo of Spain, Francisco Franco, who opposed the abolition of the monarchy. The sister of Queen Elizabeth, the late Princess Margaret, also sat for her portrait by Ms Westendorp.
Is there an unseen side to Ms Westendorp—something maybe the audience missed seeing all these years?
For me, really the most astonishing is the discovery that she is computer savvy! Down through her eighties, she was skillful in navigating the internet – amazing for someone not born in the Digital Age. Moreover, she has a remarkable memory for her numerous works, done through the decades, each artwork coded with a specific number, since many works have remained untitled.
I find it most touching that here is a foreigner who, much as she missed her native Spain, was so in love with her adopted country, the Philippines, that she has lived on our shores for the greater part of her life. Indeed, through her art, she opened our eyes to the incredible beauty of our islands and taught us how to appreciate the blessings of nature.
While many artists painted the Philippine sunset – from the commercial Mabini painters to the distinguished works of Amorsolo – it was only Betsy Westendorp who universalized the subject. Looking beyond the placid waters of the sea, she trained her eyes on the blazing cloudscapes of Manila Bay, and in her immense canvases, extracted the most intense emotions from a nearly abstracted image. Unquestionably, she is a colorist of superb skill, subtlety, and nuance. From here on, Filipinos will never look at the Philippine sunset with their glazed, jaded eyes.
Again, learning from art history, there are precedents of artists not born to the country where their art mattered most, helping define its character and direction. There is the example of El Greco – the Greek! – who was the exemplar of Spanish Renaissance. There is the German-born painter Holbein, who was a court painter in the reign of Henry VIII. A stow-away immigrant was the Dutch-born Willem de Kooning, who exemplified the New York school of abstract expressionism. Ms Betsy Westendorp is in that tradition of émigré artists who made a lasting mark in their adopted country.
[Passages: Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp is ongoing until March 15 at at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila's ground floor, Tall Galleries.]