In the collector’s home and in his mind, art is history and history is art, and the only way to realize the unbreakable bond between the two is to witness a vast collection that takes you through the ages and appetites of the artists, collectors, hunters, and gatherers, that make up Philippine Art history. In Paulino Que’s case, this journey takes place fully in his home.
Que started collecting at a young age—a passion that began with the artworks of old masters, and which eventually graduated to a love for antiquities and santos. In the late 70s, he was already a habitué of old auction houses in Manila, where he would scour lots for the works of canonical painters. Today, as the legendary collector walked us through rooms filled with old masters, modern visionaries and national artists, he spoke of particular pieces that had fortuitously fallen into his hands.
Que speaks of his collection in stream-of-consciousness, enthralled by one particular piece, and is soon enough taken by the excitements of another—whether he’s talking about a collection of Damian Domingo paintings (he has a complete set in his dining room) or Nena y Tinita, one of the last paintings by Juan Luna, done shortly after he had a premonition of his end.
For the first-time visitor, it’s not so much a stream of consciousness that appears before him, but a deliberate and methodical march through time. Its cadence is determined by the many high points of brilliance and technique rendered by artists who have lived and thrived in our history. This is where the collector’s mind plays an important role in making sense of our past and perhaps, even telling our future. Que flits from favorite to favorite, covering old masters and how he came to acquire them. He makes candid assessments of the high points of certain artists’ careers (1972 BenCab, or Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s egg tempera period). “What I really like are the golden years,” he says, “all artists have their best period—you can’t be too young, since you’re still fresh from college and you’re looking for the right style. When you reach your thirties to your fifties—that’s your style. When you get older, your hand is [no longer as deft].”
One begins to realize that it is not the continuing novelty of acquisition that drives Que, but the thrill of uncovering a piece of history with each work he closes in on. This is apparent when he shows us Kundiman by Fabian dela Rosa, a painting set in a traditional Filipino sala, where a young woman in local dress sings to a small crowd. “If you look at the Philippine Encyclopedia of Philippine Art (published by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1994), this is one of the national treasures of the Philippines,” Que says. Look closely at the painting and you see a famous patron and its original owner in the scene—he’s no other than Dr. Luis Santos, a renowned doctor, intellectual and patriot.
Que’s careful curatorship places dela Rosa’s work alongside the paintings of Amorsolo. Dela Rosa, after all, was Amorsolo’s mentor, and it’s only natural that mentor and protégé should share space in what may just be the most important “museum” in the country.
We’re shortly whisked away upstairs where various rooms showcase the work of different national artists during different periods in their lives. “Every room I dedicate to an artist,” he says. “And I include their early to late periods, so you can see [the artist’s] different periods. When you enter the room, you know the stages of the artist.”
We’re able to note the sheer originality of H.R. Ocampo, whose abstract style is the artist’s own, having never travelled abroad during his lifetime, and having no known influence from foreign artists in his work; we also see how witty Abueva was, as in Nagpapalamig ng Puwit, a sculpture where the subject shows off his generous posterior; and how Larawan, which BenCab painted in 1972, was the work that gave the artist his name (and place in the canon of great Filipino painters).
Across a courtyard out through the open, is the heart of Que’s collection: an entirely separate facility dedicated to the modern artist Ang Kiukok. Kiukok’s brand of expressionism, by turns angry, melancholy, deeply religious, and sometimes whimsical, continues to reflect and resonate with the times, even decades after the artist’s death . It is by no accident then that he is Que’s clear favorite—not just for the level of the artist’s craft, but also, as we discover, for Kiukok’s unquestionable honesty. Que recalls the great artist turning down a commissioned work because he didn’t want to make something just to sell it. Que also recalls how he would visit Kiukok’s studio every Sunday—“I was in his house getting paintings or talking to him,” Que says, “We were really, really close.” Today Que has more than two hundred Kiukoks in his possession—a collection built over years, not just of keen acquisition, but friendship as well.
Collectors have classically been described as equal parts method and madness, but for Que, whether or not he wishes to admit it, his primary tool is a patient perspective over the long history of incredible craft and powerful social observation. From rooms housing stores of pre-colonial gold, to rare Santos from Spanish times. and walls breathtakingly lined with old masters, what Que has accomplished with this elusive collection is something just as elusive in the current Filipino consciousness: a sense of true pride in something Filipinos have actually done—with their minds, their eyes, and their hands.
In general, the true collector runs out of walls to hang his paintings, but lives for the luck to chance upon one more great piece, however large, expensive, or impossible. What Paulino Que is gifted with is the ability to see beyond corners, or boundaries, beyond every kind of wall.