The Days Before the Bloom: Looking Back on Juvenal Sansó's Life As a UP Student


Postwar Philippines pratically birthed modernism. The late 1940s to the early 1950s, in particular, saw the rise of the next set of great Filipino artists. And the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts (UPCFA) Padre Faura campus would become one of the leading incubators for such genius. Among some of the names that went to the college during that era were National Artist Larry Alcala, Araceli Limcaco-Dans, Roddy Ragodon, and Celia Diaz-Laurel, among others. Of course, Juvenal Sansó was much a part of the zeitgeist of the times. He would go on to be one of its most oustanding products.

Under the tutelage of Filipino masters such as National Artists Fernando Amorsolo, the dean of the college at the time, as well as Guillermo Tolentino, along with Dominador Castaneda, Ireneo Miranda, and Dr. Toribio Herrera, Sansó would shape his artistic prowess and sensibilities with the best of them. In the essay After the Deluge Comes the Dawn, Fundacion Sansó’s director Ricky Francisco points out: “Under the great Fernando Amorsolo, Guillermo Tolentino, and other notable artists of that time, Sansó would hone his artistic skills further, even though the techniques taught were mostly answering to the practical needs of that time.”

Sansó, Before the Bloom

As a student at UPCFA, a young Sansó would rack up awards from bodies like the Shell National Student Art Competition and Art Association of the Philippines. This came during a time when modernism in the Philippines was starting to take shape and right there in the middle of the movement was the Spanish-born painter, laying the groundwork. Some of Sansó's batchmates who had become part of that community of innovators included his best friend, cartoonist Larry Alcala, Ben Osorio, and even Napoleon Abueva, to name a few. Each saw quite the awakening of sorts with the college. It was an awakening that would put them on a path to prestige.


At the UP Padre Faura campus in the late 1940s. See the columns and walls pockmarked by shelling. (Left photo) Sansó, Nenita Villanueva, and Sansó’s best friend National Artist Larry Alcala.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

The Senior Class picture of UP School of Fine Arts, 1950-51. Sansó can be seen at top row, fourth from right. Middle of front row is their Dean, National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, and third from left, National Artist and teacher Guillermo Tolentino. At far left is the famous designer Jose “Pitoy” Moreno. 

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.
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Sansó was part of a very large class at the UP School of Fine Arts and counted illustrious artists such as Amorsolo, Guillermo, Dominador Castañeda, and Ireneo Miranda as his mentors.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

Sansó was also close to his female classmates, many of whom became personalities in their own right. (From left): Sansó, Lucy Vergara, Lina Pablo, Dely Quisumbing, Tipin Rosales, and Celia Diaz-Laurel, the would-be wife of former Vice President Salvador "Doy" Laurel.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

(From left) Sansó, Alcala, Ben Osorio, and Roddy Ragodon at the UP Diliman Campus. Sansó wrote of this time: “As UP Fine Arts students, we were the original ‘boat people’ of the university or perhaps the ‘boot people’ as we were booted out from one neo-shanty on campus to another.”

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

Sansó's Black Period and His Early Works

We often associate Sansó with his world-renowned florals and his fever dreamy landscapes from the "Britanny" series, characterized by a distinct linear style and dramatic colors, bordering the surreal. That's why when we see a painting from his Black Period, we can't help but think of the other dimensions of Sansó's artistic identity. His brighter palette, after all, would only come later on.

Sansó’s Black Period, which spanned the years between the '40s and the '50s (and maybe even the early '60s), came up with pieces that were meant to process the trauma from the war. Sansó used Charles Baudelaire-inspired skulls and wartime imagery as his primary subjects. He would communicate the ugliness of postwar tragedies through darker hues and tormented, misshapen forms. We can see a glimpse of this period from the works during his UPCFA days.

“Incubus” (1951) by Juvenal Sansó, Gouache on Board, courtesy of a private collection. This painting won Sansó First Prize in the Watercolor Category of the Art Association of the Philippines’ annual competition.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

“Ropemaker” (1948) by Juvenal Sansó, Oil on Canvas.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

“Tipin (Portrait of Ms. Josefina Rosales)” (1950) by Juvenal Sansó, courtesy of the Paulino and Hetty Que Collection (from the La Definitiva Sansó book). Tipin Rosales was a campus star in UP, and was one of Sansó’s close friends during his UP Fine Arts days.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

“Tagaytay Tree” by Juvenal Sansó, Oil on Canvas.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.


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Fundacion Sansó's Latest Donation to the College

Some seven decades after, Fundacion Sansó finds itself giving back to the institution that facilitated the bloom that would later define Sansó's illustrious career. On February 24. 2023, the foundation would turn over part of the proceeds from their "Masters Giclees" sales to the Presidential Medal of Merit awardee's alma mater, in honor of the Leo Abaya Thesis Grant, named after the late artist and great UPCFA professor, who passed away in 2021. A large part of the collection came from the Aguilar-Alcuaz and Imao families.

The limited-edition “Untitled Abstract” and “Composition” giclee prints by National Artist Federico Aguilar-Alcuaz for the Masters Giclees Boxed Set.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

The limited-edition “Sarimanok Series” of prints by National Artist Abdulmari Imao for the Masters Giclees Boxed Set.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

The grant's main thrust is dedicated to the research and development of thesis projects for undergraduate and graduate students, encompassing the production of sculpture, painting, and installation. This is a program that was years in the making, as well; first put forward by Abaya when he noticed how much Fine Arts students would struggle to produce the works that they had originally envisioned because of a lack of funds.

“Although the students’ tuitions are free, there are no subsidies given for their materials, so what they visualize in their thesis projects are not usually the final outcome, and that is why some usually settle for a lesser format; this would be a big motivation for them." UPCFA Dean Marc San Valentin said during the acceptance of the donation. “I am pleased that it is named after Leo, as he is a true mentor; and this is, in a way, a continuation of his mentorship.”

San Valentin and Francisco during the turnover.

Photo by Fundacion Sansó.

This isn't the first time Fundacion Sansó has donated to the UPCFA. It has given back to the college on various occasions, albeit discreetly. Being the beneficiary of a monthly stipend as a student abroad, Sansó himself had long expressed his desire to establish a scholarship fund for art students, as noted in the 2014 book Sansó: An Introduction by Duffie Hufana Osental.

Toym Leon Imao, meanwhile, added: "We hope that this is a start, hindi ito one-time pagtutulungan namin. Heto ang way ng pagsasalamat natin kay Leo, the consummate educator and artist."

For more information on the Leo Abaya Thesis Grant, we may reach Fundacion Sansó through: [email protected].

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About The Author
Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is a Filipino cultural critic, editor, and essayist. He writes about art, books, travel, people, current events, and all the magic in between. His past work in film and media can be found on PeopleAsia Magazine, The Philippine Star, MANILA BULLETIN, and IMDB.
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