Collectors and artists often form a bond forged through years of patronage and friendship. Blame it on the former’s sometimes obsessive resolve to get to know the latter and his work. When it comes to artist-patron relationships, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Carlos “Botong” Francisco and Dr. Remedios G. Suntay's is a little out of the ordinary. It is anchored not only in her interest in his work but in the artist’s ability to know what will catch the medical practitioner’s fancy. She, of course, also happened to be his doctor.
Botong, awarded the National Artist honor for Visual Arts in 1973, is the country’s preeminent muralist, the scale of his medium perfect for his overwhelming reverence to the Filipino race. He portrayed the everyday Juan and Juana, our local tribes and royalty, our folkloric figures in such grand, resplendent tableaus that any Filipino who comes face to face with his work would easily share the artist’s pride in his motherland.
The Angono-born Botong was famous for creating murals in our early cinemas, effectively exposing his aesthetic to a greater public. He also did many works for other public spaces including the Manila City Hall for which he famously did his masterpiece, Filipino Struggles Through History.
The country’s power set, from Manuel L. Quezon to the Marcoses, would commission him to conjure artworks for them. The buzz about Botong would also make its way to society’s elite and wealthy professionals whose houses in the 60s seemed to be cut precisely for the artist’s massive works.
Dr. Suntay tells ANCX that she might have met Botong through Dr. Constantino Perez Manahan, the foremost OB-GYN stationed at the University of Santo Tomas Hospital. Dr. Suntay, a New York-trained medical practitioner in anesthesiology, might have administered anesthesia to the artist’s wife when she gave birth sometime in the mid-1960s.
The doctor and the artist would become friends. “He was a very nice guy. He loved basketball and would complain of all kinds of aches and pains,” Dr. Suntay recalls. “We struck up a friendship and I would visit him in his kubo in Angono,” she adds, referring to the artist’s studio separate from his house. Judging from his works, she thought he was an artist who had something important to say. “He was also moody. By that I mean he wouldn’t paint all the time. It took him a while to finish his works. In fact, he would tell me he liked playing basketball more than he liked to paint.”
Sometime in ‘66 or ‘67, the doctor was having a house built in Magallanes Village and Botong offered to make her an entrance door. Possibly made of narra, it was carved with three framed scenes, one on top of another. The scenes featured human figures performing traditional Philippine dances.
The door would become a sort of preview to what Botong would bring to her one afternoon: four stunning reliefs that illustrate our homegrown folk dances. Together the panels are called Katutubong Sayaw, (Philippine Folk Dances) Depicting the Singkil, Pandanggo sa Ilaw, Subli of Batangas, and an Ifugao Ritual Dance. The reliefs are part of the upcoming Leon Gallery Spectacular Midyear Auction on June 5th.
Botong has a long tradition of capturing Filipino fiestas and celebrations, hence the dances are not far from his vocabulary of images. According to Leon Gallery, there are two recorded works, pen and ink drawings, that are very similar to the reliefs. They appear in the Patrick Flores-edited book The Life and Art of Botong Francisco.
“It was entirely his idea, but I was happy to have them,” says Dr. Suntay of the four narra panels, each measuring 60” x 24.” She had them displayed in her dining room whose dimensions perfectly agreed with the work’s measurements. “Eksaktong eksakto,” the doctor adds. And her friends simply loved the carved panels. There is even a very happy photograph of her and her classmates from Holy Spirit—with an elegantly coiffed Elvira Manahan in a long dress seated on the floor —shot with the reliefs as backdrop.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be long before the doctor’s friendship with the master muralist would be cut short. Botong died in March of 1969 at the age of 56. Before the artist breathed his last, he was on the phone with Dr. Suntay. “He called me because he was bleeding,” she recalls, “so I told him to go straight to Makati Med.”
The artist, however, wouldn’t leave his friend just like that. It turned out he had one last artwork for her which he'd already told her about. “He was making a painting for me, and it’s entitled Song of Maria Clara,” Dr. Suntay says. In the middle of the painting is a seated image of the Noli Me Tangere character, and Jose Rizal kneeling, holding a guitar. Without Botong to bring this new artwork to Dr. Suntay, it was his wife who delivered the painting to the medical practitioner’s home in Tamarind Street in Dasmariñas Village. It was an unfinished work, but just like the other artworks his friend made for her in the past, Dr. Suntay was happy to have it and found a special place for it in her home.
[This Monday, May 31, at 5PM, join ANCX, Leon Gallery and CES DRILON in a talk called "REPRO or REAL: How to Tell if an Artwork or Antique is Worth a Fortune, According to Experts." To join this event, click on this Zoom link on May 31, 2021 bit.ly/ANCXForumReproOrReal Passcode: ANCXFORUM
The León Gallery Spectacular Mid-Year Auction on June 5 is co-presented by ANCX.ph, the urban man’s guide to culture and style, and the lifestyle website of the ABS-CBN News Channel. A preview will be held at León Gallery from May 29 to June 4, Saturday to Friday, from 9 AM to 7 PM. For additional information, email email@example.com or contact +632 8856 2781. To browse The Spectacular Mid-Year Auction catalog, visit www.leon-gallery.com.]
Photos courtesy of Leon Gallery and Dra. Remedios Suntay