Goddesses is the oil on wood collaborative work of Ang Kiukok, Mauro Malang Santos and Hugo Yonzon Jr., with each of the three panels brandishing their individual style and vision.

Poker games, Miss Universe and the untold story of a P20 million painting

Going at a starting price of P20M in the upcoming Leon auction, the triptych from three of local art's esteemed painters was made during poker breaks in a damp basement the year 65 of the world’s most beautiful gathered in Manila. By JEROME GOMEZ
ANCX | Jun 07 2020

The year was 1974. The Sarimanok, that exuberant bird from Maranao mythology, icon of power, wealth and prestige, was strewn all over the city. It happened to be—at least for that year—the chosen symbol of the biggest beauty pageant in the world. Miss Universe, for the first time in its 22-year history, was being staged in Asia, and in Manila at that. 

After all, the year before, in Greece, it was the Filipina Margarita Moran who won the crown, so it’s but natural that her country host the 1974 ceremonies. The pageant was a big deal, like most international events that happened in those days of the Marcos years. The Price is Right host Bob Barker was coming to host the event, and LA Lakers point guard Jerry West was going to sit as one of the judges. More important than any of these, however, 65 of the world’s most beautiful women in the world gathered in Manila that July, heating up what was already a pretty hot month (as Mr. West observed to Mr. Barker who asked about the basketball star's photo in the papers showing him playing a round of golf in the city's greens). And while there were many early favorites, everyone was smitten with the starlet from Spain, Amparo Muñoz, a sweet-faced beauty blessed with a bombshell’s body. 

Amparo Muñoz won that year's Miss Universe, a title she will give up six months after, having grown tired of her traveling duties. 

The Miss Universe fever was inescapable, and the invasion of these earthly goddesses was not lost to three men then in their 40s and 50s, who at that time has just been commissioned to work on a mural in the basement of a friend’s house. The friend is Pablo Bustamante Jr. who ran the respected Bustamante Press Inc. The three men were Ang Kiukok, Hugo Yonzon Jr., and Mauro Malang Santos, then already quite recognized as respected painters in the local art scene. 

Ang Kiukok

The trio also happened to be brothers in cartooning for the nation’s dailies, with Malang having created the beloved comic strip Kosme The Cop, among others. 

Bustamante invited the three that one day in July for their regular poker game in the basement of his residence, which also served as the family's den. According to Pablo Bustamante III, son of Pablo Jr., Malang was an old family friend while Yonzon has done illustrations for some books published by the family’s printing press. Kiukok, for his part, was a former acquaintance. 

Mauro Malang Santos

The year prior, the troika staged a three-man show called Tatlo at a space called Gallery One. The purpose of Bustamante's invite for the three was two-fold, recalls Pablo III. First: to play poker. Second: for home improvement purposes. Pablo Jr. wanted a painting for a large blank wall in the basement. 

“The said wall was adjacent to the swimming pool. Prior to the renovation that wall had a large glass pane through which one could view the swimmers from the basement,” explains Pablo III. But water from the swimming pool found its way around the viewing glass and began to leak, prompting the family to replace it with a wall. The blankness, we imagine, probably started digging into Pablo Jr’s consciousness. He needed to do something about it. 

Pablo III remembers that meeting with the three artists—“Dad brought three pieces of plywood—one for each artist—to the basement and requested the artists to paint during their poker game breaks.” Each of the three pieces was cut to a standard 6-feet height; the standard 8 feet would not have fit the basement wall. Now the size of the mural was perfect. The only thing missing were the paintings. 

Hugo Yonzon Jr.

Pablo III says he doesn’t recall much of the collaboration among these three greats when it was happening—“Except for a few instances when I would hear boisterous laughter from these poker buddies by the stairwell,” he says. “They must have found humor in the subject and the various elements of the paintings. Elements such as the female body or their favorite nightclub along Roxas Boulevard might have tickled their funny bones.” 

Indeed the entire work is ruled by elements that tickle a man's interests, foremost of which is women. Beautiful, curvaceous figures. Naked goddesses descending from the clouds. Floating and lounging and carousing alongside the shapes we have come to associate with Ang Kiukok—who was clearly very much influenced by the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (seeing the Guernica on a visit to New York proved to be life-changing for the artist). And that was just Panel 1. 

In the panel of Hugo Yonzon, the woman is Eve, hourglass-shaped, completely unashamedly naked, still oblivious to the fruit that will alter her destiny. 

Finally, we come to Malang’s—who historically insists on earthly, more everyday vignettes, jeepneys and barong-barongs and such. From the street, a svelte lady is acknowledging a compliment from the jeepney driver (Sweet lover?). From an open window in one of the shanties, a woman is making love to a man. And then at the bottom right corner, a cock is ready for sabong, a popular past time in those days, and somewhere in the center, a partly hidden Amihan, a favorite nightclub in 70s-era Roxas Boulevard.

“I do not recall how long these ‘poker-cum-painting’ sessions lasted,” recalls the younger Pablo. “But I distinctly remember going down to the basement one day to find the paintings joined together and find a 6x12 foot mural. This was framed and hung on the wall. As a teenager then I had not much interest in art but I have to admit that I was in awe seeing that mural on that wall by the basement bar.” 

One would be hard pressed not to be enthralled, just imagining the size of it and looking at a photograph of the work. It's in the way each painter was able to fully express his individual stamp, and the way the three collectively came up with a whole that looks totally harmonious in both style and vision. It’s a testament to the friendship of these men, how each considered the other, and how they all agreed on a path and kept to it. It’s the kind of painting one wants to see over and over; the kind of work whose many little details reveal themselves little by little over the passing of time. 

Pablo III says the poker games eventually came to an end, as his own generation of men took over the place as a hangout. “The mural was a fixture that always elicited interest and humor between me and my friends,” he says. “That went on throughout my teenage years.” 

Later on, he would notice that the paintings were unsigned and asked the older Pablo why.

“He said that during one of their poker sessions, an argument ensued between Ang Kiukok and Malang. This argument led to a quarrel between the two which eventually ended the poker-cum-painting sessions," says Pablo III. He says his father later told him the quarrel became a popular story in the art circle—although the Bustamantes don't offer details. Malang’s son, the artist Soler Santos, says he only remembers a falling out between the two giants in the late 80s—way past the making of the mural. “Before Kiukok’s death nagbati din sila,” says Soler. A lifestyle editor echoes Soler’s response, but adds that underneath the friendship there was also a sort of friendly competition between the two who were incidentally both disciples of the great Vicente “Mang Enteng” Manansala. 

By the end of the 70s, Malang, Kiukok and Yonzon would settle into their own individual successes. Hugo Yonzon, though, would not be as visible in the art firmament as his younger comrades, his works often snagged even before he could put a show together. His images revolved around what is distinctly Philippine life, whether in the urban or rural setting. 

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Fast forward to today and Goddesses, the title of that July 1974 collaborative work is up for bidding this month at Leon Gallery’s Spectacular Mid Year Auction. The oil on panel work is the piece de resistance of this particular sale—it has a starting bid of P20,000,000.

Of the three artists that worked on the triptych, only Malang was able to sign his contribution. Yonzon died in 1994 while Ang Kiukok passed away in 2005. The Bustamantes brought Malang’s panel to his residence at West Gallery for his signature before the artist passed on in 2016. 

Many years after the making of Goddesses, and years after the poker sessions came to an end, the mural was transferred from the basement of the Bustamante residence to its living room, and then eventually to another house. “The house where the mural was transferred did not have the luxury of space nor the wide walls unlike our old home,” says Pablo III. “The only wall it could fit in was by the staircase.” 

Soon, the triptych, as with every important piece of art, will be welcomed into a new home, and space will be made for it, along with everything it carries: nostalgia for a distant past, the styles and obsessions of three great Filipino painters, their friendship and humor. Add to that, of course, the pairs of eyes that admired it over time, the faint smell of swimming pool water, and the memory of that sweet, innocent smile from Amparo Muñoz, Miss Universe 1974. 


The León Gallery Spectacular Mid-Year Auction is happening on Saturday, June 20, 2020 at 2 p.m. Co-presented by ANCX.ph, the urban man’s guide to culture and style, the online lifestyle website of the ABS-CBN News Channel.

View the Spectacular Mid-Year Auction 2020 catalogue as well as register to bid now at www.leon-gallery.com.