Books & Art

This Filipina Artist Was Away Ahead of Yayoi Kusama's Cosmic Circles

A ‘mystic recluse’ in Paris, Nena Saguil translated her innerscapes into concentric figures. 
IMAGE MARIDEL SAGUIL-REGALA
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While the world celebrates the playful art of Yayoi Kusama, Filipinos need to know that there was a artist from our country who was way ahead of her time, employing concentric figures in a more contemplative manner.

At a time when Philippine art was defined by romantic pieces from the likes of Fernando Amorsolo and Anita Magsaysay-Ho, who was called the “female Amorsolo” by art critics, Nena Saguil was already creating abstracts in her tiny atelier located in an attic in Paris.

Photo by Maridel Saguil-Regala.

Who was Nena Saguil

Simplicia “Nena” Saguil was born in Santa Cruz, Manila on September 19, 1924. She was born into a large and conservative family, the seventh eight children to Epifanio Saguil, who was the private physician to Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon, and to Remedios Laconico.

Even in her youth, Nena had an independent streak, opting to study at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts. In those days, this decision was, as her grandniece Maridel Saguil-Regala remarks in the book Conversations on Nena Saguil, “unimaginable and unacceptable for a woman of her family background.” Her art career began when she joined exhibits at the Philippine Art Gallery, with her first solo held in 1950.

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Photo by Maridel Saguil-Regala.

Nena started off with the traditional route, paintings of figures, as what her contemporaries did. One of her earliest works was of the San Agustin Church, while another was a self-parody titled Vanity. But her world opened up when she left the country in 1954 to study Abstract Non-objective Art at the Ecole Des Artes Americaine in France. The next year, she was offered a scholarship at the La Instituto de Cultura Hispanica by the Spanish government, and there she did research studies in ancient and modern Spanish art. She returned to Paris in 1956 at the Academie de la Grand Chaumier with the Professor H. Goetz Award. She made the French capital her home, setting up her atelier in a walk-up at the Rue de Ciseux in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Through the years, she held one-woman shows in Paris; Munich; West Germany; Havana, Cuba, Barcelona, Spain; Rome, Italy; Switzerland; and Stockholm Sweden. Her works found their way to collectors in London, Munich, New York, Tokyo, and Pakistan.

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Abstract ideas

The coffee table book, Conversations on Nena Saguil, published by her nephew Benjamin Saguil, discusses her life during those years, through an exchange of stories by three personalities in the art world who met and interviewed her in Paris: filmmaker and historian Nick Deocampo, historian Ambeth Ocampo, and the artist and art critic Cid Reyes. Each of them shared vignettes of their experiences and correspondences with the artist, who passed away in Paris in 1994.

Photo by Maridel Saguil-Regala.

They were able to share personal, even juicy tidbits about the reclusive artist who occasionally made time to socialize with fellow Filipinos living in the City of Lights at the time, but for the most part was accompanied only by her sister Victoria. The quarters was sparse, even monastic, they recall. Ocampo describes seeing a bed, a desk, a small table to eat, and a stove. Other spaces were occupied by paintings that were wrapped, waiting to be sent to her sister.

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In one of her interviews, Nena said that she painted every day. Even her cabinet, her stool, and her telephone bore her artworks. “Long hours of work do not bother me. I never get bored. If I do, I have no business in them. In drawing, I just let the lines flow. I let them flow lyrically,” she told Reyes.

Her work was lauded by art critics overseas. It has even been rumoured that she was given a blank check by a patron. Ernest Frankael and Waldemar George, in Editions de Beaune wrote: “Nena Saguil shows all of her qualities of patience, of refinement, of subtlety, of careful differentiation until the limits of the possible. Any agitation is banished, from the workshop the door of which remains closed, as well as from her increasingly meditative soul.” 

To Deocampo, she described her work: “My painting looks very abstract. But if you look at it, it is a landscape, a travel from one mystic mountain to another sea, which is a very special one.”  When Reyes asked why she likes working with different shades of blue, she answered, “I did not choose it, I felt it. I am very intuitive, but intuitive only in the sense that the mind has foretold what the hand should do.” 

Photo by Maridel Saguil-Regala.
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The artist in residence

There were few visitors to the atelier, except for a little neighbor girl with a dog that Ocampo recalls coming over every afternoon; and later on, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community which took care of Nena in her infirmity. Nena, born and raised Catholic in the Philippines, converted in Paris, and this may have led her to create her lyrical cell-like abstractions in blue that represent spiritual, ethereal realms.

Nena stayed out of the limelight and lived quite an austere life. Ocampo stayed for dinner one night, and found that her refrigerator contained an egg, a tub of yoghurt, and half a loaf of old bread. She also had one outfit for going out, a Russian hat and a coat that is kept at the back of the door.

She never married, immediately dumping a boyfriend who proposed, “I can make you famous, come with me to New York.” Having no attachments freed her in doing her art on her terms. She told Ocampo, “If I am alone, I am whole. If I am married, I am half.” Even in this, Nena was ahead of her time. 

Though she admitted becoming homesick for Paris when she went home to Manila after 14 years, Nena was decidedly Filipino. She told Reyes, “Your voice will always be expressed in anything you do. The Filipino in the artist will always show up in his work.”

Nena Saguil was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit in 2006 by then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for her invaluable contribution to visual arts in the country.

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