Back to ‘Larawan’: Bencab’s landmark homecoming in ‘72 2
Cabrera in the 70s flanked by poet Virgie Moreno and eminent writer Nick Joaquin. Photo from Contemporary Philippine Art by Manuel Duldulao. (Inset) The Larawan exhibition poster from 1972 at the Luz
Culture

50 yrs ago, Bencab left his ‘The Crown’ lifestyle in London, returned home with anti-colonial opus

Fresh from his successful European exhibitions, the glamorous Ben Cabrera, future National Artist, made a serious effort to carve his own path
Adrian Maranan | Sep 04 2022

On the 50th anniversary of National Artist BenCab’s seminal 1972 Larawan exhibition at the famed Luz Gallery, León Gallery is offering two rare works from that seminal show for auction this September 10. They are Girl with a Salakot and The Last March, paintings that showcase the artist’s coming of age, as well as his unique way of doing social commentary. 

That landmark Benedicto Cabrera exhibition took place in October of 1972. A month had just passed since Martial Law was imposed and the artist had just returned from London after a string of successful exhibitions in various European cities. The show was entitled Larawan: 1972 Paintings by Bencab. It would be the first of many artistic pursuits during the tumultuous decade that saw political unrest but also the rise of a vibrant arts and culture scene in the country. 

Girl with a Salakot by Benedicto Cabrera
Lot 50. "Girl with a Salakot" by Benedicto Cabrera. Signed and dated 1972 (lower right). Acrylic with pen and ink. 14 1/2" x 13" (37 cm x 33 cm)

The Larawan works can be traced back to Bencab’s London expatriation during the late 1960s. Manuel Duldulao’s long out-of-print book “Contemporary Philippine Art” offers a glimpse of the artist’s pretty ritzy lifestyle there with wife Caroline Kennedy whom he met while still in Manila. “Bencab now travels by Rolls-Royce and has to his credit a well-received show at Glenda Jackson's gallery where his oils were snapped up by art connoisseurs like Harold Pinter and John Schlesinger.” 

Jackson was a British actress and a two-time Academy Award winner. Pinter is, of course, an award-winning playwright, one of the most influential British dramatists whose credits include writing the screen adaptation of the Meryl Streep-starred “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Schlesinger, on the other hand, is director of Oscar-winning “Midnight Cowboy,” the movie that made Angelina Jolie’s father, Jon Voight, a star. 

But back to Cabrera, who even back then had a real glamour about him even as he sported a sort of James Taylor mystique. Duldulao continues: “The latest report is that Bencab has graduated from dinners with King Hussein to toasts with Princess Margaret whose portrait he just painted.”

Was it really during this period that he came upon the idea for Larawan? Was it the artist’s reaction to his fabulous surroundings? In an April 1978 interview with Cid Reyes originally published in the latter’s pivotal 1989 book titled Conversations on Philippine Art, Bencab expounds on the origins of both the Larawan series and the exhibition.

“Well, ever since I came to London in 1969, I have been collecting old prints and rare books about the Philippines,” he says. “I was then planning to go back to Manila for a visit and a possible exhibition, and I just hit on the idea of doing a show, which would be an approximation of the experience of browsing through an old Filipino album. So, I did these paintings, which were all based on these old photographs. The show was called ‘Larawan.’”

Despite the works being created before the declaration of military rule in the Philippines, the Larawanseries already possessed an unmistakable relevance to the atmosphere that followed the Proclamation 1081 announcement. Bencab shares in Krip Yuson and Cid Reyes’ book entitled “BENCAB”: “They [his Manila friends] told me, ‘Why, this is all very subversive,’ since in a way it revealed the new masters, about whom everyone thought best to keep silent.”

The Last March by Benedicto Cabrera
Lot 7. The Last March by Benedicto Cabrera. Signed and dated 1972 (lower right). Acrylic on paper. 28" x 20 1/2" (71 cm x 52 cm)

In the said book, Bencab also shares how he convinced The Luz Gallery to mount what would eventually become a monumental exhibition for him. “They [the people who run Luz] were a bit wary at first, but eventually, word got around, and interest in the paintings became very strong. At that time, no one else was attempting what I had done. But soon it started a trend, of feeding from colonial images and giving these a modern twist.”

The Larawan exhibition turned out to be a rousing success, both commercially and critically. It signaled the emergence of Bencab as an eminent artist—an influential maestro in a league of his own.

“The exhibit was very well received,” recalls Bencab in the Reyes-Yuson tome. “The reaction was very positive. It was as if everyone suddenly realized that one can touch on a Filipiniana subject but in a contemporary manner. It was all so conceptual, too, and not just done for reasons of nostalgia.”

Bencab said the first buyers of his Larawan paintings included prominent individuals from Manila’s high society, among them Jaime Zobel de Ayala, who was at the time the country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Baron Patrick de Koenigswarter, the society photographer and would-be avid Bencab collector.

In that all-important show, Bencab ingeniously consolidated history, social critique, and aesthetics. As Dr. Patrick Flores notes in “Social Realism: The Turns of a Term in the Philippines,” Larawan “exerted a strong influence in the making of social realism, given its ability to draw links between the precolonial past and the postcolonial present through the appropriation of images.”

The distinct iconography of Bencab's Larawan works would stir conversations surrounding the Philippines' colonial past and its consequences and challenges to present-day Filipinos who are confined within their spoken and unspoken aspirations of liberty, democracy, and sovereignty. Through this groundbreaking series of works, Bencab emerged as one of the foremost luminaries influencing the evolution of social realist art in the Philippines. 

Larawan was Bencab’s serious effort in carving what would become his distinct creative path which is, at the same time, deeply connected to his native roots. The poet Luis Francia writes in his memoir ‘Eye of the Fish’: “...In London, Bencab quickly realized that if he followed what was current in Western art, he would always be a second-rate artist, since the impulse for such art didn't come from within, wasn't of his skin.”

Therefore, it won’t be wrong to say the Larawan series is Bencab’s magnum opus.

The end goal of the collection was, as he confesses in the Reyes book, “to make our colonial past reflect on our present,” and “to show how the whole process of colonization changed the Filipino.” Beyond the obvious nostalgia evoked by the sepia-colored compositions, Bencab's Larawan says that the Filipino is a result of centuries of contact, subjugation, and struggle. Thus, the Larawan series is emblematic of the modern Filipino.

[Co-presented by ANCX, the urban man’s guide to style and culture, The Magnificent September Auction is happening this September 10, 2022, 2 PM, at León Gallery, Eurovilla 1, Rufino corner Legazpi Streets, Legazpi Village, Makati City. Preview week will be held from September 3 to 9, 2022, 9 AM to 7 PM. 

For further inquiries, email info@leon-gallery.com or contact +632 8856-27-81. To browse the catalog, visit www.leon-gallery.com. Follow León Gallery on their social media pages for timely updates: Facebook - www.facebook.com/leongallerymakati and Instagram @leongallerymakati.]