The Duality of Martino Abellana, the "Dean of Cebuano Painters"
This heritage article is brought to you by the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc.
Martino Alcoseba Abellana’s “David” is also named “Boy with Slingshot.” The late Cebuano master artist had a habit of giving some of his paintings two titles, separating these with a colon. The former name seems more appropriate for what many believe was his greatest masterpiece. The boy stands at the center. He looks suspiciously like a young Martino, or Tinong as his close friends called him. The boy holds a slingshot, as if guarding the grove of trees behind him against some unseen enemy. The enemy? Maybe time itself. Or perhaps something even more profound.
The idea of having two titles for a single piece can be telling. There was always a philosophical duality about the artist. His body of works makes obvious how he was greatly affected by the coloring techniques of the Impressionists. And yet when asked how he considered himself, he said he leaned much more to classical art. In some quaint sort of way, this explains the use of two titles. The use of the diminutive hero archetype, “David,” is certainly a Classical bent; Even as, the off-the-cuff and call-it-what-it-is title, “Boy with Slingshot” is quite the tendency of the Impressionists.
But this seems a bit too simplistic. As a lecturer, the artist also talked about what he called “the Polar Extremes of Tension,” which is a principle he most likely learned from his teachers in Manila. In the 1950s, they were grappling with the rise of Modernism. His teachers were the established “Conservatives” of the time. Abellana placed himself as a centrist in this debate, citing that the two polar extremes were not contradictory. They were tensions present in every artist. They could be intellectually resolved. He applied this maxim to almost every artistic polarity he encountered: Realism versus Abstraction, Conservative versus Modern, even prose versus poetry.
By the 1970s, the world was coming into an age marked by highly charged ideological conflicts. There was the continuing Cold War. Communism was the global issue. In the Philippines, the conflict between the Abstractionists and Conservatives had yet to be resolved. Modernism was supposed to be an ideology. “Centrism” did not sit well with the intellectual critics at the national capital. But this could not have been the only reason why Abellana remains off-the-radar of national attention to this day. Abellana was Cebu’s foremost artist at the time of his death on March 5, 1988.
Born January 30, 1914, Abellana was of a generation of Cebuano artists coming after the church-ceiling muralists Canuto Avila and Reymundo “Rey” Francia, et. al. of the early 1900s. Francia and Avila are best known for the ceiling paintings in churches of Cebu and Bohol most notably in the Southern Cebu towns of Sibonga, Argao, and Dalaguete. Sibonga has for me the best example of this. It is signed by Francia and dated 1927. The paintings are still there. These were art sponsored by the predominant Roman Catholic Church in the age preceding the rise of a local middle class.
A more secular art was emerging and Martino would be one its first champions. Martino came of age right before World War II when a generation of young Cebuanos went to the National Capital to earn university degrees not yet offered locally. This included Julian Jumalon, Jose Yap Sr., Virgilio Daclan, Carmelo Tamayo, Lucille Agas, Ramon and Martino Abellana, and the latter’s close friend Architect Cristobal Espina, among others. Martino earned his degree in 1938 from the University of the Philippines-Manila where he studied under Guillermo Tolentino, Vicente Rivera Mir, and Fernando Amorsolo. He returned to Cebu to do his first one-person show in Aplan, a barangay of Carcar. He returned to Manila in 1939. He apprenticed with Amorsolo joining him in many painting forays to the Luzon countryside. In the early years Amorsolo and Abellana made a living of painting outdoor advertisements for movies. These were painted, cut-out cardboard and bamboo installations usually showing actors of the movies currently showing at the theaters. These were installed out-front and bigger than life as befit the perceived scale of cinema at that time. But Martino could not quite stand the Manila pace and lifestyle. He returned to Cebu before the onset of the war.
Home was back to his hometown, Carcar, then a municipality situated 45 kilometers South from the city. In any case, Manila was not the place to be when war came. Not that Cebu was much better. Cebu became a dangerous battle ground between the Imperial Japanese Army and an active guerrilla movement.
In 1944, one year before the liberation of the Philippines by the Americans, Martino married Natividad “Naty” Castillo Noel in something of a dramatic war-time romance. The Noels took their time accepting Martino as a prospective husband for their daughter. Only by dogged persistence did Martino finally succeed. They would have ten children, two of whom would follow after their father in the painting craft: Martino Jr. and Presentacion Carlota de Pio.
Cebu would rebuild itself after the war. The brothers Abellana felt quite confident with themselves. They felt sure their art would find a place here. They were a first generation of professionals with college degrees. They had learned much of their craft from leading national masters. After war’s devastation, opportunities now sprung everywhere. Some of Abellana’s first customers were American expatriates, executives of US businesses establishing themselves in the island. It was at this time when Abellana met Stephen Gaisano. They quickly became friends. Stephen of the Gaisano Inc. chain of stores would become one of his most loyal patrons.
Abellana set a name for himself making oil portraits for the emergent middle class. A portrait by him was a status symbol. His body of portraits is a virtual “who’s who” of old Cebu high society, the Brioneses, the Mancaos, the Fernans, the Kings, the Luyms, the Jerezas, the Lizareses, the Espinas, the Gaisanos, the Aboitizes, etc. And while he was quite adept at it even before his formal studies, it is clear from his body of portraits how much he had learned from the Philippine masters. He learned much about color theory and its applications to realistic painting. This would help him in a quaint sort of way.
In the 1950s color photography was not yet quite as available as it would be by the mid-1970s. Abellana worked principally with black and white photographs hiring a local Carcar photographer, Egmedio Sedon, to shoot and print photographs of his subjects. He would then reproduce the image on the canvas using a graphic grid system. Over this he produced a monochromatic tonal study of the portrait. Then he would proceed to apply color. The colors would have been purely a product of what he had learned from theory; otherwise put, from his learned imagination. All of his portrait commissions were done this way. And they were a huge commercial success earning him anywhere from P25,000 to P50,000 per portrait in the 1970s. He had more commissions than he could finish all the way up until his death. On the other hand, he did quite a number of portraits done from life with the subject posing in front of him. These portraits were done rather quickly in one sitting. These were not commissions. In most cases they were demonstration pieces for his students.
But the degree of realism he achieved was amazing. There was a sense of a living skin tone and a depth about the works that seemed almost scary. All these derived from techniques he learned from his teachers and then mastered for himself in the course of his professional work. Consequently, he could teach it to students. Abellana did many types of art including abstract compositions but the portraits were his pot-boilers. He earned enough to live comfortably and send his children to school. But he felt he needed to teach beyond his usual practice of having apprentices at his home. He taught free-hand drawing to architecture students of the University of San Carlos (USC), University of Southern Philippines (USP), and the Cebu Institute of Technology (CIT). The two latter were founded by Agustin Jereza; and respectively by Dr. Nicolas G. Escario, Sr. and Rodolfo C. Lizares, Sr. They were Martino’s friends and had portraits done by him.
Carcar was at that time still the idyllic countryside reminding Abellana perhaps of pastoral scenes he painted with his old master Amorsolo in their painting sorties. Carcar is something of a fork on the road to the Southern Cebu towns dividing them East from West. The roads diverge from Carcar and meet each other in a loop. One takes this “Round South” route passing through hundreds of kilometers of beautiful white-sand beaches.
There was a growing fishing industry. Farms up the boondocks fed the growing needs of the province. For the South, all roads led to Carcar. Agricultural families sent their children to Carcar’s St. Catherine’s School to be educated. And so Martino must have felt he was exactly in the right place to launch his artistic career even as he enjoyed the peaceful countryside where he could take walks with his children and listen for the song of the Siloy, an elusive black bird thought at one time to have been extinct. He once lived in a modest Nipa hut out back from the concrete and wood house that stands now and is still called by the children “Dakung Balay.”
Cross the road from here and you would be in the house of Dr. Ramon Abellana. He kept a dental clinic here when he was not doing sculpture. Music was the brothers’ mutual field of interest besides art. They played guitar and other stringed instruments with neighbors.
The Abellanas were musically inclined, this inclination dating back to their grandfather Gonzalo (married to Cristina Regis) who taught piano, designed embroidered church vestments and otherwise made a living making price tables and graphs mainly for the copra industry which was Southern Cebu’s main enterprise in those years. Gonzalo had learned piano from a certain Canuto Borromeo. Gonzalo in turn taught his son Teofilo the piano. Teofilo Regis Abellana, (married to Filomena Alcoseba) was father to Martino and Ramon. They had five other siblings. Gonzalo learned drawing from Guanzo, another Borromeo. It was Gonzalo who taught the Abellana children how to draw. He gave the example of copying other drawings so well “he copied even the stains (on the paper),” as the late Ramon remembered.
Carcar is an historical town. It was here where the Katipunan revolutionary leader Pantaleon Villegas met his death. Better known by the nom de guerre Leon Kilat, he died in the hands of the local gentry fearful of reprisal from the Spanish. A monument to Leon Kilat by another Carcar native sculptor, Roman Sarmiento, stands prominently at the corner leading to the Sta. Catalina de Alejandria Church. The main door to this church is lined with sculpture of the Apostles done by Ramon.
Carcar’s most prominent landmark is, of course, the Carcar Rotunda. This was built in the 1920s by Teofilo Abellana for a 500-peso commission. Another leading Cebuano sculptor, Fidel Araneta, started this project with Teofilo until Araneta left the project due to a misunderstanding of his share of the commission. Otherwise, the Abellana children, especially Martino and Ramon, helped with the project.
“Puedes sacar la cabra de la montaña pero nunca puedes sacar la montaña de la cabra.” This is an old Spanish saying about how you can take a goat from the mountain but you can never take the mountain from the goat. There is a goat behind Abellana’s “David.” It is an intriguing presence looking downward to the ground and nibbling on lush grass. Quite a contrast from David who looks eagle-eyed into the far distance as if to see into the future and say, “This art does not derive from a provincial myopia. It sees beyond the typical span of a single human life.” As perhaps it does. For who can tell?
In the 1970s, the pull to migrate in pursuit of fame and fortune was very strong. There was the rest of the world. Or at least Manila, if you were an artist. Cebu was a dusty little town where little seemed to happen, especially in the sense of art. Whoever young artists were here came from the architectural schools where Abellana taught part-time. They hung out in galleries like Manila Art Frames and Gallery 90. One of the early patrons of art was Emilio “Lito” Osmeña, later to become governor of the province.
In 1975, Martino Abellana together with Jose T. Joya and Julian Jumalon helped found the Fine Arts Program of the University of the Philippines Cebu, then called UP College Cebu and administered by UP Visayas in Iloilo. Joya was Dean of the College of Fine Arts-Diliman at that time. Abellana would teach as Lecturer of the Cebu Fine Arts Program even as he continued teaching at USP and CIT for a time. He travelled to the city to handle his classes, though most of his time was spent at home in Carcar, painting and being with his family. Sundays were for making landscape paintings. His most avid students often joined him.
It is easy to surmise how much Abellana missed by staying in Cebu. But it is clear how critical his mere presence here was in encouraging the growth of local art. He was a dedicated teacher. He was himself a walking statement to his students that an artist could survive in Cebu quite viably and happily, albeit absent the potential for success and opportunities found only at the National Capital and abroad.
But this is not to say that surviving here was easy. There is still a tendency among old-school Cebuanos to wear many hats, so to speak. The model of the studio artist doing purely art is something of a contemporary development that still has to widely catch on. It is not unusual to find an artist here who is also a teacher, a lawyer, a businessman, a restauranteur, a musician. Cebu is a place where poets might even become municipal mayors. Its level of urbanity has yet to require the kind of specialization you expect in Manila and other big cities.
Martino Abellana had been called “Amorsolo of the South.” This name did not sit well with him. As one would guess, the name came mostly from well-meaning Manila critics, who felt, as many did, that this Cebuano artist deserved more than he was getting by way of the usual measures of success. And they might have faulted him for what he lacked in renown and fame. They wanted him perhaps to see beyond the edges of Cebu, his island province. His award-winning work, “And Job was also Man” was shown internationally as far away as Cuba. He showed only once at the National Capital, in Gallery One, Greenhills, San Juan, Rizal, in a one-person show he called, “How I Look at My Art.
It is only to be expected that Abellana was and remains “off-radar” nationally, save for the few critics who harbor an affinity for the exotic. This, coming by many names but chiefly “provincial” and “regional” art. There is an interesting dynamic between Cebu and Manila. Cebuanos still feel they are giving to Manila by way of taxes more than they are receiving by way of benefits and government service. And so there is a complex disaffinity to “imperial” Manila. But this has softened somewhat. If, in the 1970s, Cebu worried that we would lose to Manila and the world most of our best professionals especially doctors, nurses, and uncannily, artists; by now we know certainly that the urge to migrate is not a moral issue. It is more about lifestyle and cost-benefit economics. If one can stand life in Manila or elsewhere, then by all means, go.
But it is most likely that Cebuanos know where home is, no matter where they are. And even if they were in the farthest reaches of the globe or some big city somewhere, they would remember Cebu. And how you can jump into a car here and, within the hour, be on a white sandy beach or a dive spot somewhere. Or circuit a whole island and never miss for too long the sight of blue sea. And here we might as well apply an Abellana duality. It is true that Cebu is what it is because of foreign remittances coming in from Cebuano expatriates, Cebuano overseas workers abroad, and tourists who visit here. But, it is equally certain that Cebu is what it is because of those who stayed and would not go away, no matter what. And for the latter, Martino Alcoseba Abellana stands as their best and truest symbol. His is a goat from whom the mountain could never be taken away.
And if Martino Abellana is not yet recognized as an artist of national significance, that is curious but not at all tragic. The greater tragedy is that we still do not have a museum to hold his works, nor of his peers. Why after all these years don’t we have a single place in Cebu where we can view his paintings and, by so doing, enjoy ourselves? Because we would. They are an amazing collection that speaks not only of the art of a single man but also of a particular place and history, the story of the Cebuanos over time, even the changing geography if one looked keenly enough. Such a place as we can be proud of for taking pride in ourselves.
The Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) is a non-government organization, one of the biggest in the country, established in 1966. It works in the areas of micro-finance, leadership, education, biodiversity conservation, and legacy programs in cancer support and advocacy and early childhood. It also focuses on the preservation and promotion of local culture and heritage, with its centerpiece, the Casa Gorordo Museum, and through storyweaving. It engages other museums, institutions, and like-minded individuals, such as visual artist Prof. Raymund L. Fernandez, who has recently retired from teaching Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines Cebu, used to be a student of Abellana, and wrote Kamingaw: An Impressionist Portrait of the Bisaya Painter Martino A. Abellana, published in 2017.