Anita Magsaysay-Ho, the Modernist Master Who Painted Strong Filipino Women, Lived in Gentle Grace
The women in Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s works are painted as figures with intent, doing the labors of soil and sea, tilling the field, gathering the harvest, catching the fish (or chicken), and selling the bounty of their hard and happy work in the market.
Done in a modern mode, with bold lines and an interplay of light and dark, her works were an evolution of the romantic personification of the gentle Filipina. These paintings became (and remain) most wanted in art circles, finding homes in museums and private collections in the country and around the world, while Magsaysay-Ho herself earned critical praise, with Christie’s noting how she is “…widely considered as the leading female painter in modern Philippine art.”
Anita Magsaysay-Ho, self-portrait, collection of Robert Ho
But beyond the well-articulated hands of women living in pastoral bliss and the multi-million price tags that accompany these paintings (her “Tinapa Vendors” sold recently for P84 million, while another work, “The Many Colors of San Francisco,” will go under the hammer at Salcedo Auctions tomorrow) was an artist who just wanted to put paint on canvas and, more important, a person who lived humbly and with grace.
‘I’m Anita. I paint.’
In this series of recollections from Magsaysay-Ho’s grandniece, Anna M. Rosete, we see the unseen glimpses of an artist. Memories of her time in Hong Kong, small conversations with family, and the rhythms of everyday life form a nuanced portrait of the art giant who championed the strength of a woman.
Great family ties connect Rosete, who currently works as an editor for Metro.Style, to Magsaysay-Ho. Her grandfather’s father, Exequiel, and Magsaysay-Ho’s father, Ambrosio, were brothers. For the grandniece and her kin, Magsaysay-Ho was family and not the celebrated artist collectors and galleries go crazy for.
While Rosete, who spent time away from the country, doesn’t have many memories about Magsaysay-Ho, she does have a wealth of stories passed on by her mother, Mary Ann, and her aunts, Cecile and Jessica. Of the few personal accounts she does have, this small exchange during a family reunion in 1996 is the most salient:
Rosete recounts how she was wearing a nametag when Magsaysay-Ho approached her at the event. “‘Oh, we have the same name,’ she told me. ‘You’re the big Anna.’” Rosete says. “Syempre, I know who she is. But she is so unassuming and gentle. She introduced herself: ‘I’m Anita. I paint.’”
A Prudent Life in Hong Kong
Rosete’s aunts knew more about the painter as they spent time with her in Manila, Hong Kong, and Vancouver. Her aunt Jessica, in particular, had a special connection with Magsaysay-Ho as the two shared a love for art. Magsaysay-Ho, who was also a godmother in Jessica’s wedding, became a mentor. Says Rosete, “Lola Anita told her that when you look at a painting, your eyes shouldn’t stop at one point. Sure, there’s a focal point, but add details so that the eyes keep scanning the frame.”
In the ’80s, when her two aunts lived in Hong Kong, Magsaysay-Ho, who moved to the metropolis after marrying businessman Robert Ho, became a mother to them, making “sure that they had family” away from home.
Robert Ho and Anita Magsaysay-Ho
In their little trips around the city, the artist showed that, though she is blessed with a comfortable life, she lived humbly. “Tita Jess recalled how Lola Anita was prudent with money. They would go out in the afternoon around Hong Kong and pass this antique store,” shares Rosete. “Lola Anita liked this jade figurine, which she would always admire, but never bought. So, even if she likes something, she’s happy just looking at it, without possessing it. She really had that nature about her.”
And when she moved back to Manila from Hong Kong, the artist wanted to bring a silk bamboo plant with her. Later on, as a sort of exchange for the artificial plant, Magsaysay-Ho gifted Jessica with a small oil painting of a mother and child with lotus flowers.
Three Canvases in Progress
In Hong Kong, Jessica observed the artist’s way of working, from sketching to painting, too. Two interesting things her aunt noted were how Magsaysay-Ho preferred to work on several projects at once and how she didn’t accept commissions.
As Rosete relayed, her aunt was witness to the births of three canvases: one was a painting of three adorned women (“one wearing a payneta, the other one with earrings”), a larger canvas featured women holding money, and still another depicted two women with fans. The pair with fans went to Rosete’s grandfather and eventually to her aunt Jessica. The women with money went to a bank (naturally).
'The Many Colors of San Francisco' by Anita Magsaysay-Ho
“What was also interesting was how she didn’t accept commissions. I guess also because she didn’t… she painted for love. She didn’t have to do it to put food on the table,” says Rosete. According to her aunt Jessica, Magsaysay-Ho would approach you and remark, “You know, I have a painting for you.” Or she would ask, “Do you want a painting? Because I think I have something for you.”
Here’s a funny family story: Magsaysay-Ho once called Rosete’s uncle to say that she had a painting for Rosete’s grandfather, Jesus. But her uncle refused (“to us, she’s a relative, not a star painter”). Her aunt Jessica had to remind that she is the painter Anita Magsaysay-Ho. “So my uncle called back after a while, but maybe nagtampo si Lola Anita, and she informed my uncle that the painting was gone,” says Rosete.
The Rarest Works
Her aunt Jessica also had the rare treat of accompanying Magsaysay-Ho to the Saturday Group, a gathering of the greatest Filipino artists to discuss, well, all things art and do even more art. Magsaysay-Ho was part of the group during the time of Malang and BenCab. “So somewhere in the world, there’s an Anita-Malang-BenCab painting. I don’t know where that is, but that would be cool to find,” Rosete remarks.
In one session, the Saturday Group had the actress Rosanna Roces pose for them and, because Magsaysay-Ho never thought any subject unimportant or too extreme, she drew her. Rosete notes that the sketch on top of the piano in her aunt Jessica’s home features Roces in Magsaysay-Ho’s signature linear style—so you wouldn’t even realize that it was the sexy star.
Many more anecdotes paint a nuanced portrait of the artist. In one of her aunt’s recollections, Magsaysay-Ho “…would wake up early in the morning and draw hands. That’s why, when you look at her paintings, the hands are very expressive,” says Rosete.
The artist also didn’t think people would want her paintings. Which maybe led to this curious anecdote: In one of the Magasaysays' homes is a set of piña table linens that has never been put to service. According to Rosete, it was given as a wedding gift because Magsaysay-Ho assumed the couple did not want another painting.
Her Own World
“She didn’t have this sense of her own importance,” says Rosete. “I guess if there’s something she had a sense of, it’s her love affair with painting. That’s her main thing—not what she has achieved or done as an artist.”
Her aunt Jessica shared that, when Magsaysay-Ho was in her studio, the artist was like a happy child in play. Rosete concurs, describing how, when she was painting, it was like she was in her world: “She always believed that it was a spiritual thing.” The painter considered art as a most wonderful life that she would ask her grandchildren, “Why do you want to go to Harvard and do business when you can be like me? You can go to Fine Arts.”
So great was Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s love for art that she continued to paint until the very end. “Those close to her could tell when her eyes were failing already,” says Rosete. “When Lola Anita was in her 90s, the colors became not muted, but like Monet… dappled, I guess.”
Self-portrait and photos from Anita Magsaysay-Ho: An Artist's Memoirs, Archipelago Press, 2000.