'I Am Filipino': A Son Gives Us a Glimpse Into the Private Life of National Artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz
Though acclaimed here and abroad, not much is known about National Artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz’s oeuvre and his life outside of the studio. At Salcedo Auctions’ Under the Tree 2021 edition, four remarkable works show the artist’s dexterous practice, starting with an early excursion in surrealism: Night in Marantz, painted in 1961. Alcuaz’s Abstract with Red and Black from 1971 reveals a mastery of a genre he is largely known for.
Nine years later, Alcuaz exploits weft and warp to build another abstract composition, a tapestry titled From the Window. Its rigid forms and clashing colors are in stark contrast with the lush strokes and harmonious palette of an untitled landscape that he painted the following year.
In this Esquire Philippines exclusive, Alcuaz’s eldest son Christian Aguilar culls from personal memories and references his father’s diaries to tell us in his own words about an artist we hardly know.
Alcuaz: The absentee father
I am the eldest of three boys, who were born in different countries: Germany, Spain and the Philippines.
Unlike what everybody would assume, our relationship as a family was a little bit awkward, but not in a bad way. My father did not have too much time for us. Meaning, we could not enjoy him on an everyday basis. It was a bit different with me, being the eldest, as we were then living in Spain. But once we moved to the Philippines, everything changed because my father was already starting something very important, and therefore had many obligations.
At some point, my mom and dad made the decision to move us children to Germany. The arrangement allowed my dad to dedicate more time to his art without having to worry about us. Life in Germany was supposedly not as “relaxed” as it was here in the Philippines. Of course, we were allowed to do things, but not as easily as here in Manila where we could always run to our lola, (my father’s mom) to get what we wanted.
In the ‘70s, we saw our father just once or every other year, and just for a few days. But we saw more of him during our vacations in Spain, where he had a studio. The times when we saw him were always special, because of the things we would normally not do or have. For example, we got little presents, even though it wasn’t Christmas or our birthday.
We knew he was our father, but to say that we were close to him—you can’t really be close in a long-distance relationship. While he enjoyed being with family, he also liked to keep away things (from us) that bothered him so he could focus on his work without distractions. When he needed someone to talk to, he usually had my mom. But of course, very typical of the Aguilar family, they (to my knowledge) didn’t talk too much about problems. It seems to be a family trait. Later I found out that there were actually very intense talks between my mom and dad.
From reading the entries, I realized that my father was suffering when we were not together. But if he was relieved from everyday family affairs, he could focus more on his art. And my mother thought that we were too young to fully understand the situation. That was the main reason why we were then raised in Germany by our mother. Our family was never divorced, only locally separated. There were exchanges via mail and telephone, but communication overseas was not as easy as it is today.
The Alcuaz Diaries
The diaries probably started after we left Manila, when my father had practically no one to talk to. He was suffering alone, though he had his parents and siblings at that time.
He wrote a lot in his journals, much of it I find very hard to understand. To be honest, I've not read the whole diary, though I’ve read parts of it, which my mom actually told me to read. He was saying something about his relationship with us, his expectations. In one entry, written around the mid or late ‘70s, he specifically pointed out that he considered me to be the one taking care of his legacy.
His journals were actually made available to us. And I could just ask my parents for them at any time. But nobody really cared to have a look, though we knew of it. It was more out of respect that we did not even consider asking to see the diaries.
Also, the entries were written in his special handwriting, which is a bit difficult to decipher. And he wrote in three languages—English, Spanish, and German. He could speak and understand Tagalog, though it wasn’t his main language because the conversational language in the home he grew up in was Spanish.
He was “self-controlled.” Meaning, he could control his emotions, although they will show in some other way, like an open reaction. One of his reactions was probably the diaries he kept. They were some sort of an outlet for him. He started writing in his journals maybe around the early ‘70s. We have volumes! But he stopped around the mid-‘80s. By then, I assume he probably has accepted his fate, and there was no more need to write about it.
A studio in Ateneo
In the beginning, it was very difficult for him because he couldn’t just say, “Oh, I want to be an artist.” My lolo—my dad’s father, Mariano Aguilar—said no to that. My lolo was a lawyer and musician, so he suggested that my dad take up something that could earn him an income, just in case his career in art didn’t work out.
So my father took up, and finished, law. But he didn’t take the bar, which wasn’t part of the deal. My lolo simply said to finish a course.
Of course, he already had the notion that he wanted to take up art. And the priests in Ateneo, where he was studying for his law degree, recognized his talent and ambition. So they allowed him to have a studio on campus. The priests also shared with him books about art, enabling my father to teach himself from books.
But he needed fine tuning. That’s why he went to the University of the Philippines, where he cross-enrolled for a semester or two. He met the other important artists there, like Juvenal Sanso, who was ahead by a year. He met Vicente Manansala, Jose Joya, etc., all of these people who were his early mentors, some became his friends.
One time, my father was asked by a museum—I think it was the Metropolitan Museum—to contribute to a Victorio Edades exhibit because they knew my father had a few of Edades’ paintings. So he lent them one titled My Sweetheart. I don’t know who the subject of the portrait was. Maybe it was somebody very precious to Edades. I don’t really know.
At the time of the exhibit, which was around 1979-1980, Edades was trying to repossess his important works, having lost a big amount of works during the war. He was trying to get some of his paintings back for a final exhibition. When he found out that my father had this portrait, My Sweetheart, he wrote a letter. Edades asked if my father was willing to exchange My Sweetheart for a new painting, the subject of which my father could dictate, or have it replaced with something else. My father chose “something else,” which is now part of Salcedo Auctions’ Under The Tree 2021 edition.
The Alcuaz we don’t know
He enjoyed being together with people in politics, lawyers, judges, because of his background in law studies. Some of them were even good friends.
My father was a very simple man. I don’t recall him indulging too much into “things.” He wasn't the type to say, “You have to taste, do or have” this or that. My father simply went after what he liked, and what he could afford. If he couldn’t, anything else would do. He was very pragmatic.
Traveling, looking at places, is nice. But he was more purpose driven. Like, if he has to go somewhere, it’s because he can find something for his art. Generally, especially when he was on his own, everything was art driven.
Language per se is important to him. He could speak five different languages. He was fluent in Spanish and English and spoke German reasonably well. During the war, he learned to speak Japanese. He learned a bit of French when he stayed in France, following the steps of Picasso who left Spain during the Franco regime.
He was very generous, not only to close friends and relatives but to other people too. He likes being among people, some of whom would come to him for favors. If there is a purpose, and it’s a good purpose, he will give. Not because it’s “good to give.” It’s more of, there might be a bigger purpose. But he will never do that for “tactical” reasons.
My father is sentimental when it comes to personal relationships. He bought a lot in a Marikina cemetery, where we now have a family mausoleum. My grandparents are buried there as well, along with other relatives.
He had a very close relationship with his mother, but not so with his father. It’s because our lolo was very strict, especially when it came to time. As they like to say, “being punctual is a matter of politeness.” This was very important to my father. If you tell him, let’s meet at 10, that means a sharp 10.
He had a sense of humor, which is difficult to get, sometimes. From him, I got jokes like, “Why should Filipinos not take salt? Because it’s asin.” But his sense of humor surfaces only when he’s in a good mood, which is not too often.
Though he lived abroad a couple of times, my father remained a proud Filipino. At some point, he was offered an honorary Spanish citizenship, which he rejected. “I cannot be a Spaniard. I am Filipino. That’s who I am.” Although a lot of people assumed that he was Spanish, because he looked like one.
“I am the best artist”
He was a little bit self-centered. In the sense that it was difficult for him to accept someone as his real peer, as an equal. But, that being said, he was not sensitive about rejection. I remember he did a portrait of a very important and influential person, which was rejected. If you see the work and compare it with the other commissioned portraits of this person, this particular work shows his affection toward the subject. Meaning, the person portrayed is the person himself and not “acting.”
To him, rejection is a normal process in life. It wasn’t a big thing. And proof of that is the fact that his relationship with the influential man’s family remained, post-rejection.
My father was also very critical of himself, destroying works—and there were many—which, on review, he felt were either not good or valid, or whatever. Some of our files show paintings with the caption “Destroyed by the artist.”
He was not a very encouraging person as he was with friends, collectors, or people who wanted to know more about his art. If someone asks what he or she is supposed to see in a work, he would just say, “It is what you think of it, and that’s it.” He would never say, “It is the conclusion of my struggles,” etc. In short, you will not get what you expect for an answer. He was very different from others, in that sense.
All his life, he really didn’t care too much about rewards, titles, etc. He wasn’t fishing for that. But he was definitely confident about his art, after overcoming his early years in Spain. I think that confidence was signaled by the name change, when he added Alcuaz, his middle name, to his last name. Because he wanted to distinguish himself from other artists in Spain surnamed Aguilar.
By 1959, he stuck to that name change. Before that, it went back and forth.
What were his regular days like? He liked having a fixed schedule. Let’s say work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and have breaks in between. I think that’s one of the things he learned from taking up law. Apart from always thinking about what to say, and how to say it.
My father used to say of himself, “I am the best artist Ateneo Law ever produced.”
Salcedo Auctions’ year-ender sale, Under the Tree: The Wish List, is co-presented by Exclusive Banking Partner HSBC Premier. The online catalogue, bid registration, and the online auction portal is accessed via salcedoauctions.com. An online auction by Salcedo subsidiary, Gavel & Block, titled “Holiday” will also take place on the same date, starting at 11AM. For inquiries, email [email protected] or phone +632 8 8230956 | +63 9171075581. Follow @salcedoauctions on Instagram and Facebook.