This year marks the 90th birth anniversary of one of the country’s most enduring modernists, Federico Aguilar Alcuaz. And this month, Leon Gallery partakes in that milestone by offering four works by the revered National Artist from his coveted Barcelona series at the highly anticipated year-end sale, The Kingly Treasures Auction, happening on December 3, Saturday, at 2 PM.
The Barcelona series encapsulates Alcuaz’s formidable journey toward his search for artistic identity. The works are imbibed with a cosmopolitan flair and an enigmatic yet evocative quality akin to the vividness and sultriness of Spanish music. Thus, for art aficionados and collectors, Alcuaz’s works from his Barcelona period are indeed the most desirable.
Alcuaz belongs to the second generation of Filipino modernists. According to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, he followed in the steps of the famed Thirteen Moderns which count Jose Joya, Constancio Bernardo, Fernando Zobel, and Arturo Luz among its members. These men, the NCCA added, is responsible “for building a significant body of abstract art” compared to “the arguably more tentative efforts of their predecessors.”
Artist from the start
Alcuaz was born June 6, 1932 in Santa Cruz, Manila, to a Filipino father, the lawyer and musical virtuoso Mariano Aguilar, and a Spanish mestiza mother, Encarnacion Alcuaz. Federico was the sixth of 11 children. He initially pursued his elementary studies at the Don Alejandro Albert Elementary School in Dapitan Street, Manila, and finished it afterward at the Padre Gomez Elementary School in Sampaloc when the Alcuaz family moved to P. Campa Street.
In the sidenotes of Federico’s life chronology written by Felicidad V. Tan-Co and published in Rod. Paras-Perez’s “Parallel Texts,” Mariano “Ovit” Aguilar Jr., Federico’s elder brother, describes his younger sibling as very much inclined in the arts even before he became an adolescent.
“In his early teens, he [Federico] showed signs of creativity through drawings and sketches—particularly of people’s faces from memory, especially people whom he met only once,” Mariano Jr. writes. “His talent came out naturally as soon as he held the pencil or the brush. He could even paint a portrait of his face from mere signature. We knew early on that he was bound to be an artist.”
After graduating from high school at the San Beda College in 1949, Federico would go on to take up painting at the University of the Philippines Diliman, studying under the tutelage of Fernando Amorsolo, Irineo Miranda, Constancio Ma. Bernardo, and Toribio Herrera. He even studied sculpting under Guillermo Tolentino. In Diliman, Federico got to rub elbows with the would-be greats: Napoleon Abueva, his classmate in sculpting class; Joya, a contemporary in painting; and Juvenal Sanso and Araceli Dans, his upperclassmen.
While he made art from morning to afternoon, Federico dedicated his evening to getting an Associate in Arts (Pre-Law) degree at the San Beda College. This he did to appease his father who believed the young man would not be able to support a family by being a painter. And yet, according to Mariano Jr., in college, his brother “was already earning enough for himself through drawings and paintings. He could afford to take a taxicab from UP Diliman…to San Beda.”
In 1952, Federico earned his Associate in Arts degree from San Beda, after which he enrolled at the Ateneo College of Law. His law studies did not impede the guy from his active artmaking. The Jesuit Fr. Thomas Cannon gave him an art studio inside the Ateneo campus and Federico also attended the art appreciation lectures of Fernando Zóbel at the university’s Graduate School.
The succeeding years would mark Alcuaz’s prodigious rise to full artistic recognition. In 1953, he won first prize at the UP Art Competition and held his debut solo exhibition—which featured oil paintings—at the San Beda College Hall. In 1954, Alcuaz held another solo exhibition at the San Beda, in which then-President Ramon Magsaysay and First Lady Rosauro Luz-Magsaysay were Guests of Honor.
In 1955, Federico obtained his Diploma in Law from Ateneo. That same year, he graced the halls of the Philippine Art Gallery, marking his first one-man show at the storied art space. Thanks to that momentous occasion, the eminent Fernando Zóbel, in the words of Rod Paras-Perez, “saw the promise in the young Alcuaz and promptly recommended him for a Spanish beca (grant).”
Making it in Spain
Federico would be given a fellowship by Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to study at the famed Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, Spain, the same school where the likes of Juan Luna, Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, Miguel Zaragoza, and Fernando Amorsolo sharpened their artistic skills.
Federico embarked for Spain later that year. He first settled in a small Madrid studio which he shared with a fellow student. While there, the young painter reveled confidently in his authentic self. Mariano Jr. shares in the “Parallel Texts” book: “He [Federico] wrote frequently no matter where he was and made it a point to send clippings/photos of his exhibits. He once sent a photo of him with bigwigs of a certain country, showing him holding a lighted cigarette. This particular photo our father returned to him by mail because of a standing order that no one among his children should smoke. You should have seen the look on our father’s face.”
In 1956, the 24-year-old Federico held his first solo exhibition in Madrid at the Sala Dirección General, Museum of Contemporary Art, which accorded him rave reviews and earned him an accolade as the youngest painter to have exhibited there. Barely a year in Madrid, Federico decided to move to Barcelona to expand his artistic vision.
It was in sunny Barcelona where Federico’s artistic career would burgeon and thrive in the succeeding decades. The artist made the city his home base. Eventually, he set up his studio on the fourth floor of 285 Calle de Aragón, which he maintained from July 1957 until August 1997—a solid 40 years.
The Barcelona of Federico Alcuaz’s time was a haven for the avant-garde modernists who rebelled against conservatism in art. There, Alcuaz became part of a group of artists who regularly met at the La Punalada, a restaurant along Paseo de Gràcia, Barcelona’s most iconic avenue.
Alicia Coseteng in the book Art Philippines writes: “Alcuaz and his contemporaries…began to identify themselves with the neofigurative movement by then gathering momentum in France, Italy, and Spain. They became the Spanish ‘neofiguratives,’ following in the spirit of the great Spaniard—Picasso.” These are Jaume Muxart, Sergio Aragones and Jordi Aluma, now revered as leading champions and pillars of Spanish modernism.
Coseteng continues: “In a sense, the neofiguratives were trying to steer away from the all-pervading—and perhaps crippling—influence of the Spanish formalists, who relied chiefly on the emotions or sensations, expressed in powerful lines, brutal textures, broken forms, and somber and elegant colors. The formalists neglected—if not disdainfully rejected—the objective world of nature…By contrast, the neofiguratives use natural forms as points of departure for the painter to interpret and reorganize. But the motif must be discernible to the viewer. It must give him the key to enter the painter’s inner world.
“The world of Alcuaz is a strange and dynamic one—charged with breathing forms and lurking shadows, filled with warm sensuous colors and vertiginous movement. Some inner sense of order compels the artist to give a wild harmony to the chaos of imagination. His vision may be wild, but it always has coherence and a special kind of grandeur.”
Alcuaz’s Barcelona period was a career high for the artist. During this time, he went from strength to strength, showcasing his works in numerous exhibitions in Barcelona and other Spanish cities, such as Santander, Madrid, Burgos, Bilbao, Palma de Mallorca, and various European cities, including Paris, Lisbon, and Hamburg. This period also showered Alcuaz with numerous acclaims, most notable of which are the following: first prize at the Premio Moncada (Barcelona, 1957); Prix Francisco Goya Award (Burgos, 1958); Diploma of Honor at the International Exhibit of Art Libre (Paris, 1961); first prize at the Pintura Sant Pol del Mar (Spain, 1961); 2nd prize at the Premio Vancell at the Fourth Biennial of Tarrasa (Barcelona, 1964); Decoration of Arts, Letters, and Sciences Award by the French Government (Paris, 1964); and the Order of French Genius (Paris, 1964).
It was also in Barcelona that Alcuaz underwent a “name change.” It was in his 1957 solo show at the Galerías Layetanas that this “new name” was revealed in the show’s catalog—F. Aguilar Alcuaz. Mariano Jr. remarks about this event: “Another instance when our father got really furious was when he [Federico] sent a newspaper clipping mentioning him as ‘Alcuaz’ and not ‘Aguilar.’ He was able to pacify our father by explaining that he used his maternal name because there were too many Aguilars in Spain…This our father did not readily accept or understand.”
Alcuaz embraced this fresh identity by signing his paintings as “F. Aguilar Alcuaz” or “Aguilar Alcuaz” from 1957 onwards.
Thus the Barcelona series epitomize Alcuaz in his most avant-garde, steeped in unconventionality, and showered in acclaim. It is proof of his rightful recognition as an important pillar of Philippine modernism, and an epitome of a true Filipino global artist.
The private Federico
It was not only his distinct creative vision that Alcuaz discovered in Barcelona; he found love. In the summer of 1956, he would meet the 19-year-old Ute Gisela Gertrud Schmitz, a German studying commerce and languages while juggling work at a Spanish trading company.
Ute recalls the first time she and Federico met, also in the book “Parallel Texts”: "Fred saw me the first time when I was taking up fencing classes at the military club in Barcelona. My teacher, Mr. Reyes, a Filipino and also a friend of Fred, introduced us. I still remember that the first thing we talked about was Japanese and Chinese paintings, which at that time, I was very fond of. I told Fred that I had many books on Japanese art. He wanted to look at them. We agreed to meet in a café in the Paseo de Gracia the next day. From that time on, we spent a lot of time together. We went to dances, watched movies…we fell in love.”
Federico and Ute would be engaged in the spring of 1957 and get married on September 22, 1959 at the Nuestra Señora de Nuria in Barcelona. “Our wedding was witnessed by Leopoldo Brías, then the Consul de Filipinas en Barcelona, and Benjamin Gayúbar,” Ute recalled.
Federico and Ute’s marriage bore them three sons: Christian Michael (1960), Andreas-Frederic (1962), and Wolfgang Matthias (1965). The first two were born during Federico’s Barcelona period.
In his artistic zenith, Federico never forgot his musical sensibilities, which he inherited from his father. Ute shares: “When the boys were young, Fred was a very good, patient, and cheerful father to our kids, if he was around… I remember that every weekend, he would buy a bunch of flowers to bring a touch of color to our home in Barcelona. There was always music in our home.”
In the same book, Ute also details her husband’s hobbies. “Fred is constantly sketching. Whenever we sit in cafes or stroll along Paseo de Gracia or Rambla Cataluña in Barcelona, he would make lots of sketches. Fred is also a good swimmer. We often go swimming in pools and beaches. Several times, I would lose my jewelry while swimming, and Fred always managed to find it.”
In the book "Parallel Texts," Paras-Perez describes Alcuaz as a slick and savvy figure. “Federico Aguilar y Alcuaz is a walking puzzle. Impeccably attired and exuding the aura of an Old-World gentleman, he habitually hangs around the lobby of his favorite five-star hotel, surreptitiously flicking peanuts or sugar sachets into some unwary lady’s shoe. Or, with consummate stealth, gets hold of some lady’s shoe or handbag to be left hanging on a lampshade or whatever.
“Once, with the December holidays coming, he went around, a shoe in his hand, soliciting funds for an imaginary charity. Like a little boy, he gleefully showed the evening’s collection to his indulgent crowd. For wherever Alcuaz goes, whether in Bilbao, Barcelona, Madrid, New York, or Manila, he attracts a loyal and tolerant circle bound by a sense that he is—the artist.”
[Co-presented by ANCX, the urban man’s guide to style and culture, The Kingly Treasures Auction is happening this December 3, 2022, 2 PM, at Eurovilla 1, Rufino corner Legazpi Streets, Legazpi Village, Makati City. Preview week is from November 26 to December 2, 2022, from 9 AM to 7 PM. For further inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org 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.]