'Art Completes Me': Silvana Diaz's Life in Art
Silvana Diaz is well-known in the country to anyone with an interest in art. As the founder of Galleria Duemila, the oldest commercial art gallery in the country, Diaz has seen it all, and then some. She’s put the spotlight on some of the most important names in Philippine art and even helped launched a few careers herself.
Portrait of Silvana Diaz by Romulo Olazo
On Saturday, a few pieces from some of her closest friends in the art world will be offered in the latest edition of Well-Appointed Life, Salcedo Auctions’ much-anticipated event. In this exclusive chat, Diaz talks about her beginnings, her interactions and relationships with some of the best artists in the country, and shares a few words of wisdom to aspiring artists. Excerpts:
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You’ve been running your gallery for close to 50 years. Let’s go back to how you started, and your friendship with artists from the Saturday Group.
Silvana Diaz: I started my training in art back in 1974, with Lino Severiono, who was an artist from Bacolod. It was around that time when I also met other artists, like Onib Olmedo and Justin “Tiny“ Nuyda.
Tiny was the one who brought me into the Saturday Group. I was completely unaware of the art scene in the Philippines,so my first objective was to really know the artists. I was in, I must say, the golden period of art in the Philippines. The Saturday Group, whose founding members included H.R. Ocampo, Alfredo Roces, and Enrico Velasco, had some of the greatest Filipino artists. Some of whom are considered masters today.
By H.R. Ocampo
Being a foreigner, did you encounter any difficulties entering the art world?
I was very accepted, very loved…a little strange animal, because I was a foreigner. I was blonde, I was young, I was beautiful. So I have almost 50 portraits by many, many artists of the Saturday Group. When there was no model, I stood up for model. But don’t make me dress up (?) haha!
Through the Saturday Group, that’s how I met Jose Joya, Solomon Saprid, Cesar Legaspi, and H.R. Ocampo, of course, who at that time was the head of - the father - of the Saturday Group. And then, also Alfredo Roces. Roces and Ocampo are both highly intellectual.
What was it like to be part of the Saturday Group?
You know, the group was a mixture from whom you learned a lot. Remember , this was during Martial Law, when television was not that much. Foreign magazines, there were none, or very little. I think very few, like Lee Aguinaldo, could afford to have foreign magazines like Art Forum. And I know, also Roberto Chabet had Art Forum. So their works were so, so ahead.
That year, for me, was a year of discovery. This nucleus of people, it was very interesting. Because the Saturday Group was open to every field, from writers to dancers … to anybody who really wanted to come and have a cup of coffee, talk and mix with the artists. What was beautiful then, among the Saturday Group, is that there was not so much influence on each other.
By Cesar Legaspi
You opened your gallery during Martial Law. Was it a difficult time to have a gallery?
I was not into politics, okay? So, it was a matter of living everyday. It was not like you had the military around your street.
Yes, we hear things, but life went on normally. There was peace and order in the city where I was living. Remember, it was only two or three years that I was in the country, so I was not aware of many things. Yes, I knew there was Martial Law. Yes I knew there was all of these. My parents were very scared. I think it was in the provinces, in the underground where things were rougher.
And in the Saturday Group, we would come at three o’clock and sketch. So there was not really a feeling of terror or anxiety. At the beginning at least, you know?
The time you opened Duemila, up to the early 2000s, there wasn’t really an art market, such as the one we know today. But there were already early collectors. How are they different from today’s art buyers?
During those years, it was never a question of money. How much money will I make if I have this painting? How much will they grow? It was not like this. Collectors rely on their own tastes, because they traveled a lot, they were very much exposed. Or they rely on artists that were like, already established. Like H.R. Ocampo, at that time. They loved a painting because they knew they were exceptional; each one had its own individualistic style.
A young Silvana Diaz with Cesar Legaspi
Who were these early collectors?
Some of the first supporters of artists were the different bankers, like Mr. Jobo Fernandez, who bought a lot of paintings for his bank.He also had a very big penthouse at the Dusit Hotel, which I supplied for the paintings. Jaime Laya started to buy when he became governor of the Central Bank.
Hotels were also being built, so there was an explosion of artists doing very well, making prints, making major paintings for the hotels. So our clients were also interior decorators - like Sonia Olivares - and architects, like Lindy Locsin, who was a great supporter of art.
Later on, we worked a lot also with the Lopezes. Mr. Oscar Lopez, Mr. Genie Lopez, and Manolo Lopez, who was a big supporter of BenCab.
Gretchen Oppen Cojuangco was also buying a lot of paintings, with the guidance of Alfredo Roces’ wife, Irene. That’s why they have a great collection, with works by Mauro Malang Santos, Vicente Manansala, etc.
You became good friends with Cesar Legaspi, H.R. Ocampo and Lee Aguinaldo. Let’s start with the most controversial, Lee Aguinaldo. What do you remember about Lee?
Lee Aguinaldo was really super fascinating: tall, good-looking and very sure of himself. I met him in the Lopez compound where he painted. Lee was very kind. He talked about his works, the different books that he was reading, and he always had music when I was there.
He wanted, and didn’t want, to sell his art. I remember, he'd say I want P1,000 for this painting. Then I’d come back and tell him I have a buyer for it, but he would say, ‘ah, I want P1,500 for it now.’ He would do that so many times. He was really in love with what he was doing, super serious, super obsessed. And he was also very amusing.
Lee was unlike the other artists, because he belonged to a different social milieu. At that time, you won’t see the artists of the Saturday Group going to the discos. But Lee did. He was surrounded by these very rich people.
Diaz with Vicente Manansala in his Binangonan studio
But Lee himself, he wasn’t good with his finances.
Most artists aren’t good with their finances, especially Lee who was for a long time, supported by his parents. His father was paying for Lee’s rent at the Lopez compound, then suddenly the Madrigals threw him out. Then he lived at Rene Knecht’s hotel. That’s why his works became smaller.
In the last few years, there has been increasing demand for Lee’s works. This wasn’t the case when he was alive, when he didn't see success.
To tell you the truth, he did not have to see it, because he knew. He knew that the people surrounding him, not knowing much about art except for a few, were not prepared to judge his paintings. That’s why just a few bought his works. But if you look at the great collectors who were very knowledgeable in art, they had Lee’s paintings.
He was close friends with other artists like Fernando Zobel and Roberto Chabet - because they were all working on a different plane. It’s not like they represented daily life, or painted Filipiniana motifs, like most artists did. Lee was completely of a different kind of aesthetic, which was more conceptual. Like Chabet.
What are some of your most unforgettable memories of Lee?
When I went to his funeral, and there was only me and very few people. There was no artist. Nobody there except his family. So it was very, very sad. Well, the day I went for the funeral, but I don’t know about the days before that. Melba, his girlfriend, was always there.
Another thing I remember is, of course, when he was evicted from the house of his father. And he was sent out in the street. Then when he had a smaller house, and he had a heart problem, so he was partially paralyzed. But he was still painting.
His last years were difficult, by all accounts. It was true that he was asking for help many times. But you know, in truth he was an artist that the country should have helped, because he is a great artist. But the country was deaf, even the rich people at a certain time, were deaf to his request for help.
I know if someone asks for money too often, you get bothered. But this is a special person, in terms of what he gave to his country. I feel that there was a great injustice. Nobody really understood the depth of his anguish and the tragedy he was dealing with. It was not fair. Nobody said, come to Ateneo, or UP. We will give you a space to paint. The big institutions, even his patrons, failed to accommodate his needs. They abandoned him.
With Juvenal Sanso
What about Cesar Legaspi and H.R. Ocampo, what do you remember about them?
Cesar was a man of few words. He was shy, very gentle. He was not like H.R. or (Vicente) Manansala, who were both flamboyant. Or Malang.
H.R. was very friendly. When you enter the Saturday Group,. he will welcome you. And he can talk about anything on earth, very charming and very knowledgeable. H.R.s presence, it was very alive. Cesar was just very shy. You need to go to him, if you want to talk to him.
What do you think of the present art ecosystem?
There is no art criticism today. No analysis of the art coming out in the market. But they do books. Before, you had Leo Benasa, Eric Torres, Rod Paras Perez, Cid Reyes writing about art. Even Richie Lerma (Salcedo Auctions’ chairman and chief specialist) wrote for a while.
The country is not intellectually and artistically prepared. Show me a school, a contemporary art, there is no knowledge about the great masters of this country. People have to spend five to six thousand for books. But this generation should be taught about art history. How can they know if there are no debates or documentaries about these great artists? The fault is with the educational system, without any doubt.
An untitled oil on board abstract by H.R. Ocampo dated 1969, painted during his tenure as head of the Saturday Group
H.R. Ocampo’s Memories, oil on board, was painted in 1978, the year of his passing at age 67
You also built your own collection. Who are some of the artists that you collected?
The first thing I bought, after a big project, was a Lee Aguinaldo. Then I bought a Legaspi.
Modern art for me is so vibrant, and so intense that it resonates with my inner feelings. It’s sensual, full of dynamics, and it touches my heart.That’s what modern art does to me, like the works of Romulo Olazo, Tiny Nuyda. They are such masters. So beautiful. But I’m not talking about all works, just some are exceptional.
What would you say to young collectors?
To be prepared. They have to read. They have to know. They should not just buy because someone said to buy this and that. They should go around, visit the galleries and get to know the artist. And from there, make up their mind.
Untitled work by National Artist Cesar Legaspi, charcoal on paper, 34x47 inches, 1979
Green Circulation #9, Lee Aguinaldo, 32x32 inches, oil on marine plywood
And what would you say to an aspiring artist?
Read, read, read! Talk. Listen. Interview. Go abroad, listen to other ideas, look around, absorb as much as you can. You have to be knowledgeable.
What do you think is the secret to your longevity as a gallerist?
My love for what I do and, by the grace of god, I don't give up easily. I devoted my life to art. Instead of buying a car, or jewelry I will buy art. When I go abroad, I visit museums. Art and books—these are the essentials of living, for me. Art completes me.
The artworks featured in this article will be offered at Salcedo Auctions’ The Well-Appointed Life, live and online auction, on Saturday, 18 March 2023 at 2pm. Interested buyers can view the online catalogue via salcedonauctions.com, with the in-person preview ongoing from 9am-5pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays at NEX Tower, 6786 Ayala Avenue, Makati City.