By Nancy T. Lu
The finale for BenCab: 50 Creative Years – an unprecedented series of retrospective exhibits highlighting the career of a single Filipino National Artist at eight museums – came with “Appropriated Souls” opening at the National Museum of the Philippines. Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera, whose amazing success story makes him the envy of other Filipino artists, had good reason to declare before guests, mainly his admiring collectors and supporters: “Mabuhay ang sining! Mabuhay ang Pilipino!”
The event on February 27 at the former Legislative Building brought back a flood of memories of bygone times.
The National Museum was not as grand back in 1968, pointed out Gemma Cruz Araneta, chairperson of the History Conservation Society and speaker on opening night. When President Ferdinand Marcos appointed her the museum director that year, she was allowed the use of the second floor of the Bureau of Mines along Padre Faura and the ground floor of the National Science Development Board.
Upon noticing that young artists in those days could not afford to exhibit their works in a gallery, she asked around and found the garage space at the Bureau of Mines, which she eventually turned into the National Art Gallery.
The former Miss International first ran into BenCab at the Indigo Gallery. He gave her then the impression of “a very shy young artist.”
To this writer, who first met him at the Sunday Times Magazine of the Manila Times, the serious younger brother of the ever-chuckling and noisier artist Salvador Cabrera stood out as gentle in manner and behavior. He did not talk much. If he was not busy doing neat illustrations to go with the magazine articles, he was observant and given to teasing others occasionally. Merienda treats at the office canteen were typical of BenCab’s way of showing a gallant gesture to a young female co-worker.
One day a staff member (allegedly the inspiration behind the creation of the character Marjorie Pakyut in Nonoy Marcelo’s “Tisoy” cartoon strip) whose articles were usually given to BenCab for needed layout design learned that he was painting a lot in his spare time and even preparing for a show. She asked him to paint something for her to hang up in her living room. But a work in sepia was a no-no. A preferably brighter dominant color like yellow was suggested because the painting must blend well with the interior design. BenCab obliged but he moved back the recorded year of the finished painting because of the departure from his color preference at that time.
The young BenCab worked in distinguished company in the art section of the Sunday Times Magazine of the Manila Times. Rodolfo Ragodon, an older painter famous for his churches, headed a talented trio. BenCab sat next to him. Cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo was the third artist.
BenCab did not work long at the Sunday Times Magazine. Caroline Kennedy, a blonde hippie from London, stepped into his life and the pair became an item. BenCab one day found himself taking the flak from the guys in the office led by editor Rodolfo Tupas because the British head-turner whom the artist eventually married gave an exclusive interview to the Philippine Free Press Magazine and the published result was Nick Joaquin’s “Filipinos Are Clumsy Lovers.”
The mother of BenCab’s legitimate children, who are reportedly now with the artist up in Baguio City, made a surprise appearance at the opening of the exhibit featuring 80 works from the famous “Sabel” and “Larawan” series. BenCab’s ex-wife Caroline Kennedy, however, was a pale shadow of the high-profile flower child who blazed an exciting trail in Manila in the late 1960s. She sat prominently in front during the short program though.
The night of the art opening, however, belonged to another woman in BenCab’s life. Of indefatigable partner Annie Sarthou, BenCab said in his speech: “She is my source of love, happiness and support.” This remark drew loud and enthusiastic applause from members of the audience.
For many years now, Annie Sarthou has been managing BenCab’s career with remarkable success. The astute art dealer does everything possible to promote and protect him. Health issue does not stop her from continuing to do what she believes is for the good of BenCab. She always runs the show. That is true of all the BenCab: 50 Creative Years exhibits in eight museums in the last year or so. But enormous female attention to and interest in the celebrated artist whose works are worth a fortune today and who even has a big and modern landmark museum bearing his name in Baguio City bring her stress.
Virgie Moreno, the 91-year-old high priestess of Philippine poetry, also showed her face at the National Museum. Space in the exhibit is given to her poetry on women as BenCab’s art inspiration like the iconic Sabel from Bambang and the symbolic female figures from old portraits.
BenCab has come a long way since his Sunday Times Magazine days. Shortly before he left with Caroline Kennedy for Kathmandu, Nepal, on the way to London in 1969, he allowed this writer to have a peek of his bankbook. His savings then amounted to less than 20,000 pesos. He confessed that he would have to rely on Caroline Kennedy if he should run out of money.
A masterpiece by BenCab today easily fetches a seven-digit price in the art market. The queue of interested buyers must wait patiently to be attended to. Local art collectors consider it a must to own at least a BenCab. Borrowing a BenCab for inclusion in the ongoing exhibit organized as another tribute to this talent resulted recently in a private collector’s demand for a mind-boggling insurance coverage of 26 million pesos.
A cup that is full after half a century of creativity calls for another empty cup to fill up. The fans and followers of BenCab, still active and creative as a grandfather artist who turns 74 this year, are watching and waiting.
BenCab’s earlier shows to mark his 50-year milestone as artist were at the Ayala Museum, the Yuchengco Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the BenCab Museum, the Vargas Museum, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, as well as the Lopez Museum and Library. “Appropriated Souls” will run at the National Museum until May 29.