A portrait of the artist as an oddball

by Kristine Servando, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Jul 10 2009 05:17 PM | Updated as of Jul 13 2009 10:30 PM

A portrait of the artist as an oddball 1MANILA - He's worked for a suspected serial killer, found love at a funeral parlor, and made tons of money selling erotic and heavenly art. Surely, when it comes to Filipino contemporary painter Fernando Modesto's life, you just never know what to expect.

What separates this London-schooled impressionist from his peers is his zany humor. Ask him about his art philosophy and you get answers like: "Everything influences painting, even alcohol!"

He insists that life is humorous and that people need to have fun, a credo he sticks by when painting. "I'm not actually looking for realism, I'm looking for magic that paintings give," he said.

Beyond the humor, however, is a steadfast practicality that marks his craft. While other painters might describe art as a "passion", he says it's a necessity.

Money matters

"It's not a hobby, it's work, so you can get money to feed yourself. Money solves a lot of problems. Since I make money out of it, what else will I do?" he said.

To him, art appreciation is simple - either you like it and buy it, or you don't. You can contemplate about why you like it, but he won't ask you why and he might even tease you if you try to explain it in high-falutin philosophical terms.

"I'm not the type to philosophize about my paintings. If people really knew me (with my joker persona), I don't think they would believe me," he said, laughing.

If anything, his humor masks his genius. He professes to admire Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Boticelli (an admittedly odd choice for an impressionist) because "it makes him think deeper."

While he has fun producing 10 oil paintings a day, he does put a lot of thought into each one. "Painting is a very serious matter because you have to spend a lot of very serious time on it. You have to paint every day because if not, you'll get lost," he said.

Love and billboards

A portrait of the artist as an oddball 2
Sperm cells or heavenly matter? Fernando Modesto's "St. Michaels" at the Galerie Hans Brumann.

Virtually penniless, he began his art career at 10 years old, painting billboards of movie advertisements so he wouldn't go hungry. His parents, based in Nueva Ecija, had a brood of 12 children and there wasn't a lot of money to go around.

Through the help of relatives who adopted him, Modesto spent a semester taking up architecture at the University of Santo Tomas. Later, he was given a grant by the British Council to study at the School of Art and Design in London where he said he learned the "serious side" of painting.

His most productive years were in Indonesia where he had 21 years of spare time to paint. His wife Eleanor, considered the godmother of the Indonesian advertising industry, was always supportive.

"Under the saya ako," he jokes. "She has a very strong personality but she is a very nice woman. In a way, she supported my career."

The pair met at a funeral parlor when a mutual friend died after being hit by a car in the 1970s. The lovebirds shacked up together at a time when live-in partners were taboo.

The couple always jokes that they decided to marry after Eleanor's Indonesian bosses told her they would only pay for Modesto's flight to Indonesia if he was a husband, and not a boyfriend. Three years ago, the couple decided to come back to the Philippines for good.

Biggest fan

The early part of his career (when he was in his 20s to his 30s) was spent painting what he calls "nasty pictures" or a vast erotica collection.

His biggest fan and most avid patron was Dr. George Hodel, a prime suspect in the sensational murder of 1940s Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short or "The Black Dahlia." Hodel saw Modesto's paintings at a 1970 exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and loved them.

By 1990, Hodel had bought more than a thousand of his erotic paintings spilled with vulvas, phalluses, and mouths dripping with red. Psychiatrists and crime profilers had a field day with that.

"Yeah, I'm trying to hide that," Modesto said a bit sheepishly, though Hodel's alleged involvement in the Black Dahlia murder was never proven. "At least, he supported my career. So I could support my parents."

Dr. Hodel even hired Modesto to make graphs for his medical papers. To this day, Modesto said, Hodel never explained why he liked the paintings so much.

From sex to angels

A portrait of the artist as an oddball 3
Fernando Modesto's "Arabesque" at the Galerie Hans Brumann.

His recent exhibit at the Galerie Hans Brumann in Makati's Greenbelt 5 shows his shift from erotica to more celestial subjects- angels, biblical figures, and heavenly bodies. This is brought on by his fascination with the sky.

In the exhibit titled "Kindred Spirits", his celestial works are paired with sculptor Agnes Arellano's "YabYum" miniatures of coupling pairs trying to reach cosmic consciousness through sex.

Though religious in nature, the erotic influence can still be seen in his paintings. In his "St. Michael" piece, showing an angel figure floating in a flurry of white spatters, an imaginative customer saw sperm cells.

In another piece called "Arabesque", white lines become limbs and body curvatures bent sensuously within a black and gray palette.

"Art naman is always erotic eh. If you look at the landscape, it's an erotic space. Trees look like an inverted penis having sex with the earth. The universe is full of erotic images," he said.

After almost 50 colorful years in the art scene, Modesto shows no sign of slowing down. Certainly, the world will see (and hear) more of this talented oddball.