Rosario “Charito” Bitanga-Peralta, former dean of the Institute of Fine Arts and Design of the Philippine Women’s University, was, together with the late Nena Saguil, the Philippines’ first major female abstractionist. Set to turn 88 later this October and hobbled but not daunted by sciatica, she still manages to work on her art and produce a bevy of works that by their sheer quantity and impressive quality, could shame the young and able and those prone to mediocrity, sloth, and “quiet quitting.”
Her recent works—30 in all, in acrylic- or oil-on-canvas or -plywood—have been unveiled at the Leon Gallery International art space in Corinthian Bldg., Legazpi Village, Makati. Bitanga and her husband, playwright-anthropologist and former National Museum director Jesus Peralta, greeted their well-wishers that included former foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., now the ambassador to the Court of St. James, Raul Isidro, Fil Delacruz, Emily Tiongco, Susan Fetalvero Roces, Jane Ebarle, and other leading lights of the Philippine arts and culture world.
Co-mounted by Leon and the DF Art Agency of leading art manager Derek Flores, “Likha” reintroduces Bitanga to the art world, especially to the new crop of art collectors. “It’s a pity that some of the young collectors do not know Mrs. Bitanga,” said Flores. “At least, in our own little way we were able to share her masterpieces to the art world.”
Except for a few paintings, most of the works were done at the height of the Covid lockdown. The smaller pieces (8 by 10 inches, 12 x 9, 9.5 by 7, etc.) were made only because of the scarcity of art supplies, said Charito. “None has anything to do with the health emergencies, or any global crises. The small acrylic pieces were made at the beginning of the pandemic when there were no sources of art materials except for what I had at that time. I worked about half an hour to an hour each day due to the problems with my legs. I have sciatica on my left, both my knees have been stem-celled; that worked except for a pain below my right knee that won’t go away. Also, I am way past 80 so I tire easily and must rest constantly. But I continuously painted, did papier mache dragons, and many other creative things while restricted from movement. The bigger pieces came later as art materials became more available. I reverted to oil.”
Of the small works, notable are “Forest Floor,” with its brilliant abstraction of the forest as a searing explosion of lambent colors; “Array of Trees,” with its rectangular planes to connote forest cover; “Sunblossom,” with flower petals depicted as abstracted planes; and “Women,” with its highly stylized but unpretentious portrait of female industry.
The larger paintings glow with a translucent inner light. “From Within “ (40 x 36 inches) shows parallelograms in tropical colors seeming to reach out above, and “Windmills of My Mind” show the artist’s mindscape as one of curving planes that seem to mimic dance or a reaching out. Another innerscape is “Fugue in G Minor,” in which contrapuntal planes of pale blue and weak white mesh and meld. “Falling Leaves” (48 x 36) and “Westerly Wind” (36 x 48) are brilliant evocations of autumn.
The “Likha” series will join Bitanga’s 1987 work “Moon Leaves” in the Lunar Codex, a digital and analog collection of art works in time capsules that will travel to the moon through two landers in unmanned operations. This is part of the U.S. National Space Administration’s Artemis program, a robotic and human Moon exploration program one of whose components is the delivery of scientific equipment and commercial payloads to the Moon.
Through the latter service, the private sector can send packages into space via Astrobotic and DHL’s MoonBox initiative. Philippine-Canadian physicist and sci-fi writer Dr. Samuel Peralta, Bitanga’s son, is sending his collection of art works to space via the service. Of course, taking leading position in his collection are the works of his famous mother.
“It is not only the image of ‘Moon Leaves’ that will be sent to the moon,” said Bitanga. “I have been informed that I will have the most art work images that will be sent, including the pieces in this exhibition, ‘Likha.’” Perhaps a reimagining of “Moon Leaves”—or variations of the same theme—are “Moonscape,” “Moonlight on Rooftops,” “River Moon,” “Moonlight Sonata,” and “Dvorak: Rusalka’s Song to the Moon.”
“Moonscape” shows the moon or its “white shadow” (or perhaps two sides of the same moon) framed by color planes that enhance the lunar ivory: what is depicted is not exactly the craggy surface of the moon that we know from satellite photos, but its romance and beauty as conjured from the poet’s imagination. “Moonlight on Rooftops” shows stratums and levels on which the moon casts its glow; “River Moon” shows planes of white broken by a cylinder that seems to channel a blue stream from the moon above; “Moonlight Sonata” are ovoids and ovals that seem to tingle with harmony; and “Dvorak: Rusalka’s Song to the Moon” is even more romantic: the Czech composer’s aria for his lovestruck water nymph is conjured in the lucent planes that seem to tremble at the moon above.
When the time capsules bearing Bitanga’s work lands in the Moon, it will have traced the trajectory of her long art career.
Modernist training at UST
Born in Laoag on Oct. 28, 1934, Rosario Bitanga was being prepped for a law career by her parents until, after finishing preparatory law at the old UST College of Liberal Arts, she put her foot down and told them she wanted to be an artist.
“It was my parents who wanted me to go into law,” Charito said. “I obeyed initially, and when I could not stand it anymore, I informed them, and they understood how I felt. They allowed me into the arts. Law is about value inputs to memory, while the arts is about the creation of new visual values. I am more inclined to values that when perceived, please and elevate human qualities.”
She enrolled at the old UST College of Architecture and Fine Arts (UST Cafa), whose fine arts program was founded by Victorio Edades. Edades had earlier carried out a polemical exchange with monuments builder Guillermo Tolentino that was carried out in the press and pitted the latter’s conservative, classicist aesthetics with the modernism of the US-trained Edades. The latter anointed the famous Thirteen Moderns—or the first Philippine modernists, many of whom he recruited to teach at UST’s fine arts school. Thus, UST fine arts became the cradle of modernism in the Philippines.
In the 1950’s when Bitanga studied at UST Cafa, her professors were the who’s who of Philippine modernism. “My teachers at UST were Vicente Manansala and Diosdado Lorenzo, who both taught Landscaping; Galo B. Ocampo, in Design and Color; Edades in Art History; Francesco Monti in Modeling and Sculpturing; Antonio Garcia Llamas, in Life Sketching and Portrait.”
But the artist who “influenced me the most” was “Manuel Rodriguez, Sr, “the Father of Philippine Printmaking.” “His Contemporary Arts Gallery in Ermita was into experimentation in the arts at that time,” Bitanga explained.
After UST, Bitanga went to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. The artist-in-residence at that time, Fred Mitchell, became a mentor. “He belonged to the New York school of abstract expressionist artists whose influence was felt all over the world during the 1950s,” she said. It was Mitchell who cautioned Charito against her continued attempts at conventional idyllic representations that he deemed too elementary for her. He urged her to develop her own style and to do things differently. Forthwith Charito produced “Galloping Horse,” which could now be seen as her transition from representation to abstraction. It started really as a representation of horses in stride, but ended as pure abstraction depicting the dynamics of motion. When Mitchell saw it, he told her, “You are on your way.” Bitanga now admits her focus on movement found in the interaction of masses since then originated as “a consciousness from him.”
Jack Madson, another abstract expressionist and multi-media artist, took over from Mitchell in the Spring term of 1960. Bitanga described him as “an inveterate flautist, later to be called a migrating genius for his sojourns in Japan and India.” This was after the Winter break the Filipina painter spent in New York. It was during this period that she became conscious that direction found in movement would be better instilled with lines rather than masses.
Bitanga said Mitchell and Madson would often visit her in her studio. “They provided the personal developmental aspect of my work,” she explained.
Her transition to abstraction paralleled that of Nena Saguil’s. Although Saguil (1914-1995) was a generation older than Bitanga, the former turned to abstraction only when she went to Spain in 1954.
Charito likewise explored abstraction in sculptures. “There was a sculptor-in-residence heading the sculpturing studio, Berthold Ischiwetz, who completed the last important works of the renowned Swedish sculptor, Carl Miles, upon the latter’s death,” she recalled. “He was the head of the Sculpture Department at Cranbrook from 1956 to 1962.” In Ischiwetz’s biography it was said that he worked with a select number of students there during his term. One of them was Charito.
First documented abstract painting
In 1961 back in Manila, Bitanga’s “Coda” became the first documented public exhibition of an abstract painting by a female artist in Manila. “The composition conjures a vision of energy and motion spurred by nature.,” said Imelda Cajipe Endaya. Alice M.L. Coseteng called it “bold and daring.”
“Although an abstractionist, she would start with ideas of shapes, form, rhythm motion, and progressions culled from nature,” wrote Endaya. “Forms in Bitanga’s reality are not separate from one another but interwoven with their surroundings. Her trove of themes include: ascending, descending, expanding, splashing, growing, centrifugal, centripetal, gliding, slipping, alternating and so on. With such subjects, it is remarkable how she has kept her brush work disciplined, clean, and with certainty of linear grace.”
Disciplined, highly skilled and articulate, Rosario “Charito” Bitanga-Peralta has declared that all art is essentially abstraction.
“In my way of thinking, all art is a matter of abstraction from actual reality,” she explained. “There are no such things as realism, conservative, non-objective, non-figurative, abstract-expressionism, cubism, etc. These are all simple abstractions derived from actual reality but are in varying degrees of distance from it. The reality of our universe is that it is in perpetual motion through time.”
And that is why her works going to outer space is a no-brainer. “I am concerned with movement in all its infinite aspects in all of my works,” she said. “This theme cannot be exhausted.”