Sometimes artists find it difficult to part with their own painting. So when a piece finds its way back to the maker’s family years, maybe decades later, one can’t help but imagine the artist—wherever in the afterlife he may be—breaking into a little happy dance.
We’d like to suppose that’s what happened recently when Angela Castañeda Melo was able to bring home her grandfather Dominador Castañeda’s work called “Nipa Huts.” This after bidding for it at the León Gallery Kingly Treasures Auction. She called it a “homecoming” when she posted an unboxing video on Facebook, revealing the oil painting’s fantastic condition despite the age—it’s dated 1931. “Never did we imagine that it would find its way back to the family,” said Angela. No wonder voices of happiness can be heard in the video's background.
The painting is of a romantic rural setting, “likely a product of one of our grandfather’s sojourns in the countryside,” offered Angela who before the pandemic was actually working on a legacy book on his lolo. She had been consulting with Tina Colayco of Artpost Asia, having no experience whatsoever in publishing an art book.
Angela had already gotten in touch with some of the collectors who own her grandfather’s works. Some of the paintings have also been photographed. One piece that Angela found and was just about to shoot was “Nipa Huts” which she discovered was part of the Don Geny López collection. She had sounded off Geny’s son Ernie López of ABS-CBN Publishing of her interest in shooting the piece. “It was supposed to be photographed early this year by our team,” said Angela.
But then the pandemic happened and all work had to stop. Museums became inaccessible. She can no longer just visit the collectors in their houses to take pictures or borrow paintings, owing to the fact that many of these owners are now quite advanced in age and are therefore susceptible to easily contracting sickness.
Angela had been looking forward to working on the book, so the turn of events upset her. “Like with many plans among us this year, this passion project was depressingly put to a halt,” she wrote on social media. She never met her lolo, who died in 1967, five years before she was born. But she somehow committed to her father—who passed away in 2015–that she will take on the legacy project.
So when Angela found out the painting was one of the offerings in León Gallery’s final auction for the year, it excited her no end. It was Lot #147. She knew she needed to have it. She even sent Jaime Ponce de Leon, Leon Gallery director, an email to ask if he could please pull it out of the lineup so she could get the painting for sure. Jaime, of course, said it was not possible, and instead just encouraged her to bid.
Angela has never joined an auction before but her first time proved to be a walk in the park. She got her grandfather’s painting for a price not far from the appointed starting bid. But it also occurred to her that many of those familiar with his lolo’s works and career may no longer be around.
Dominador Castañeda was an artist, a writer and an art teacher. He was known to be a close friend and contemporary of Fernando Amorsolo; the two once belonged to the same conservative group of visual artists. But Castañeda would eventually distance himself from Amorsolo’s shadow. He would produce more realistic works. The León Gallery catalogue describes his “Nipa Huts” thus: “As opposed to the warm, fiery tones of Amorsolo, Castañeda pervades his setting with much cooler hues. Landscapes were the artist’s forte, and this oil on canvas piece is an excellent example of Castañeda’s cooler, more subdued palette.”
Dominador was also a noted historian, having produced “Art in the Philippines,” the first comprehensive tome on Filipino art history. He taught at the UP School of Fine Arts and became its Dean after Guillermo Tolentino. He trained Alfredo Roces in painting for a long time, said Angela. Some of Castañeda's artworks can be found at the National Museum, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the Vargas Museum in UP Diliman, and the Lopez Museum.
While indeed only a select few now are familiar with the man and his ouevre, it is clear Dominador Castañeda contributed to Philippine art and left a mark. Now it’s his granddaughter’s job to reintroduce him to art watchers and tell a new generation about his legacy.