H.R. Ocampo had a colorful life even before he painted 2
Ocampo was from Maypajo, a district in Manila known for bandits and honkytonks; Ocampo’s “Hat Weavers” from the Geny Lopez collection.

From shoeshine boy to scriptwriter: H.R. Ocampo lived a colorful life even before he started painting

As two important works from the Geny Lopez collection arrive at auction, we look back at the writer-artist’s storied beginnings
ANCX Staff | Jun 07 2022

Born in Sta. Cruz, Manila in 1911, Hernando “H.R.” Ocampo would live a colorful life—several times over: First as a cabaret cashier, then as a newspaperman, a  scriptwriter, and then a rebellious painter, and finally as the grand vizier of Philippine modern art.

As a child, he would find himself shunted off with his family to Maypajo, north of Manila, due to his father’s reversal of fortune. At the time, Maypajo was a colorful district renowned for its tulisanes (bandits) and honkytonks. At age seven, as legend has it, H.R. was a working urchin on the sidewalk, offering shoeshine service to the customers of the tawdry cabaret in town. He would eventually end up taking a job as the cashier in the establishment. (The painting titled “Sideshow” that recently went to auction at León Gallery is a throwback to his memories of this time.)

HR Ocampo
HR Ocampo was a journalist, too, becoming an editor at Herald Mid-Week Magazine. Photo from the Leon Gallery archives.

H.R. would drop into—and out of—different colleges, eventually signing up for a writing course in 1930 under Manuel E. Arguilla, a newspaperman. It would be a serendipitous connection because Arguilla would eventually marry the not-yet-famous Lyd who would go on to found the Philippine Art Gallery (PAG) after the war.  

The PAG would be the only venue for abstract art in the entire country. In the meantime, H.R. would find a role-model in his mentor Manuel and soon join a group called the Veronicans which counted as members the writers NVM Gonzalez, Francisco Arcellana (who would later become an influential art critic) and Angel de Jesus (who would become a lifelong friend and his biographer.)

1940s Manila before the war.
Image of 1940s Manila before the war. Photo from John Tewell.

H.R. would evolve into a journalist, having his start as associate editor of the Herald Mid-Week Magazine before the war and also as a scriptwriter for Fernando Poe Sr., and even a director of stage shows in Lyric, Capitol, and Avenue theaters.

He would next begin to attract attention by winning prizes at the annual competitions put up by the then-fledgeling Art Association of the Philippines. At the very first contest in 1948, Carlos V. Francisco would take top prize for the classic “Kaingin”; H.R. meanwhile brought up the rear with “Nude with Candle with Flower,” placing 6th. There was no other way but up.

Image of 1940s Manila before the war.
Image of 1940s Manila before the war. Photo from John Tewell.

New eyes 

By 1950, the painter H.R. would claim both first and second place honors for his works “Arabesque” and “Man and Carabao,”respectively — and was ready to break out of the confines of what was then tagged as conventional painting, a field dominated by Fernando Amorsolo. 

That same year, he would lead a group composed of Vicente Manansala, Cesar Legaspi, Romeo Tabuena, Victor Oteyza, and Ramon Estella and they will stage a landmark exhibition at the Manila Hotel. Their co-conspirator, the writer, E. Aguilar Cruz, would give them the name famous till today, the Neo-Realists. The objective was to create a whole new way of looking at the world, their imaginations seared and forever changed by the desolation and trauma of World War II.

Image of 1940s Manila before the war.
Image of 1940s Manila before the war. Photo from John Tewell.

H.R. was becoming so famous then that the French government offered him a grant to study art in Paris, which he declined. To his dying day, he would steadfastly refuse to travel, although his works would literally go places, far and wide, including the Big Apple  for the PAG’s very first New York show, the Philippine Cultural Exhibition organized by Lyd Arguilla. H.R. had become, after all, one of the stalwarts in that influential gallery.

In the 1960s, he would represent the Philippines at the São Paulo Bienal and the Festival International de la Peinture in Chateau Musee in Grimaldi, France. By then he had evolved into the most influential force in Philippine art.

Lot 48 'Analogy' (B) by Hernando R. Ocampo
Lot 48 "Analogy" (B) by Hernando R. Ocampo

By the time the work “Analogy B” was painted, H.R. was in the thick of what he himself described as his ‘Visual Melody’ period, which would span from 1968 to his last days. His chronicler, Angel de Jesus, would say, “what he does (at this stage) is to create pure painting, something akin to chamber music.”

The magazine Archipelago would put it more succinctly. “This painting entitled ‘Analogy,’ by Hernando R. Ocampo is considered a rarity by those who know the artist’s preference for a wide palette of tropical colors. Only two colors, red and blue, are here delineated to their analogies, making this at least a very unusual work for this foremost Filipino colorist… This painting comes from the collection of the Manila Electric Company.”

“Analogy B”
“Analogy B” holds pride of place in this living room designed by Budji Layug. From the book “Budji: A Design Journey” by Glenna Aquino.

Acquired by the visionary collector Don Eugenio “Geny” Lopez, Jr. “Analogy B” is most certainly a sophisticated opus; its reds and blues recall the grandest analogies — for H.R.was also a writer steeped in metaphors — of our Philippine flag and all the emotions of patriotism and history that stirs with it. The waving strands of the nation’s banners, alternating in war and peace, blood and water, past and future, are powerful symbols of the times, then and now.

Lot 51 Hat Weavers by Hernando R. Ocampo
Lot 51 Hat Weavers by Hernando R. Ocampo. 

Hat weavers 

Another important H.R. work from the Geny Lopez collection is “Hat Weavers” which, like “Analogy B,” has been described as representing a pivotal period in the painter’s artistic career, this time both as a writer and as a painter, and is a touchstone work of an important time in Philippine national history. It symbolizes a critical period, a coming of age for Filipino intellectuals and political thinkers.

“Hat Weavers” is so important that one revered American scholar, a man who specializes in the story that the visual tells about us and our society, Jonathan Beller, put it on the cover of the book, titled “Acquiring Eyes,” a treatise on what he further called Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle, and the World Media System.

In reviewing the work, educator and scholar Francisco Benitez, president of the Philippine Women’s University, writes, “Beller finds in the Philippines important traces of the changing role of the visual in history and conceptual thinking about the world and politics through artwork which has significance beyond the Philippines.”

“Hat Weavers” on the cover of the book “Acquiring Eyes” by Jonathan Beller. Image courtesy of Leon Gallery
“Hat Weavers” on the cover of the book “Acquiring Eyes” by Jonathan Beller. Image courtesy of Leon Gallery

Indeed, it is about that moment when Filipinos “acquired eyes” to see the socio-economic truth around them — and the Neo-Realism that was to come for H.R. after the war. ‘Acquiring eyes’ is therefore a metaphor for social awareness as well as the finding of one’s national identity.

Ironically, H.R. has painted, says Beller, “a family of peasants without eyes.

“Their bodies are turned and their heads bent as if looking at the hats being woven by the mother figure,” he continues.

It’s about a gaze that can not be seen — but can instead only be felt.

The production of hats relied on family units. To produce these head coverings made of buri straw usually took three to four people; three weavers and one to “block” the hat.

HR Ocampo
HR was very much the iconoclast — the man who liked to upend the establishment and established beliefs. Photo from the Leon Gallery archives.

It was an important export of the Philippines until, as so often happens, the original materials and ingenuity of the Filipino is taken over by the workers from another country. Hat weaving would have a steady run until the start of the Second World War. In the 1940s, it had started to become antiquated but was still, for H.R. Ocampo, the city-dweller from Maypajo, Caloocan, a perfect device to express that he himself would call his “proletariat period”, dedicated to portraying the working class who had become commodities, or commodified, in fact, de-humanized — anonymous — just like the hats they wove.

The pretty pastel colors H.R. uses are in marked contrast to the painting’s message. In a sense it is a pictorial companion to a short story he wrote in this period, called “Rice and Bullets”, which puts together the imagery of the food of life and the fodder of death.

HR was very much the iconoclast — the man who liked to upend the establishment and established beliefs. And here, you can see his subversion of the norm.

Beller has a wonderful way of describing this painting: “The very representation of these figures shows that they are caught in a new logic. They may have eyes to weave hats but they cannot see themselves with the eyes of modernity and history, eyes that see them as materials with which to weave the future.”

[Leon Gallery’s Spectacular Mid-Year Auction 2022 is happening this June 11 at 2PM. Co-presented by ANCX, the auction gathers a staggering 142 lots made up of art from Filipino masters and contemporary artists, as well as precious antiques. To browse what’s in store, visit the Leon Gallery website by clicking on this link.]