The Princess and the Painter

On Ireneo Miranda’s “Tausug Princess” at the National Gallery.

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Ireneo Miranda, Maguindanao Princess, 1951, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art. Manila, Philippines.

“I recall being invited by a fellow co-ed, Celia Diaz-Laurel, from my class and then taken to a classroom where thirty or so student-artists were setting up their easels,” opens the story of the now 84-year old Nina Rasul. The year was 1951 and she was then a third year political science major, campus-beauty, and sorority girl at the University of the Philippines. The UP had just transferred from Manila to Diliman, a sprawling town and gown at the beginning of a decade that campus historians would refer to as it’s ‘Age of Innocence.’

I asked her to recall how the room looked like.

“It was just an ordinary room and I brought my own dress and sat down on a stool, maybe for an hour.”

Classes at UP then were held in Quonset huts left by the US Army which used the facilities to store ammunition and lectures would stop if it rained because the noise on the tin roof would drown the professor’s voice.

There were a lot of things she could no longer recall but she remembered that in that ordinary classroom the reticent Filipino painter Ireneo Miranda (1896-1963) sat right in front of her. She beamed at the thought of modeling for that class. “They gave me a lot of money for something I just did for an hour. I don’t recall how much but it was a huge sum then.”

It’s amazing how certain works of art can tell a story beyond what it shows. Further, learning about an underappreciated artist—those quiet geniuses whose influence on a given art form are not yet fully recognized—is one of life’s great pleasures.

I count among such moments a day, in 2006, when I was an undergrad student leafing through slides in the art section of the UP College of Fine Arts library. The painter Gino Bueza, showed me an obscure, out-of-print photographic slide he had borrowed of Ireneo Miranda. Fine Arts students would copy these slides as part of their requirements for a class in painting techniques. With his peculiar approach in subject matter, color, modeling, and brushwork, Miranda was among the painters, along with Amorsolo and Castañeda, who held on to the bastion of conservatism through the second half of the twentieth century and it was required of every student to learn to paint like the masters, as it has been for generations in the UP School of Fine Arts.

Why this painting became special to me is a quite a tale. Soon after copying the slide, it mysteriously got lost and Bueza had to labor months at the library cataloging books and doing janitorial work as payment for the overdue and the cost of the slide. It was not cheap. 10,000 pesos that time was two semesters worth of matriculation in UP. After a year and the penalty already served, I found the slide, tucked in the folders of our fraternity files, which I then held and organized. I took it and pinned it up on my dresser.

Later, I encountered the portrait again, this time in a class in Art History. Our professor mentioned that the lady in the portrait became a famous politician. This intrigued me; because I knew there was a story there and throughout that year, I had read more literature about paintings that awakened a love for art history.

The painting, I found out was the painter’s best-known, curiously titled “Maguindanao Princess.” At that time, perhaps Miranda had only chosen a pretty face to model but it was a portrait of Santanina Tillah. “Nina” was a real-life princess, who after graduating the following year, married Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abraham Rasul. After the EDSA Revolution in 1986, she became the first woman Senator from Mindanao.

As for Ireneo Miranda, that an artist of such gifts is a virtually unexamined today seemed more amazing given the dramatic details of his quiet life spent mostly as a professor of Fine Arts.

He had quite a story too. In the 30s he illustrated for the poet Magtanggol Asa and Lope K Santos (Father of Philippine Grammar) for their books that are now classics of the Filipino language. He was collected by Jorge Vargas, who acquired so many paintings in his capacity as a diplomat, and Alfonso Ongpin, who possessed the best collection of pre-war art during his time. I could also perhaps dive into his turbulent personal life (his marriage to his wife, was cut short because of her unexpected death, and he refused to marry because according to the words of his daughter this would “interfere with his love affair with art”); struggles against poverty (like Van Gogh, he could never make enough money selling his work and it was his cartooning that became their bread and butter); and, finally, death by heart attack at the age of 68. The whereabouts of Miranda’s life, other than rough details of almost stenographic brevity, suffer the same fate of most of his works.

The object list supplied by the curator of Galerie Bleu rarely mentioned the collections to which it went and the only inquiries I could make were on publicly listed collections who do not have anything substantial to say of the artist, not even how and where they acquired the paintings. Perhaps this shows how discrete the collectors of that time were and hardly flaunted or created social circles based on their recent find. Galerie Bleu, then located in Rustans Makati was closed by the early 90s. Miranda’s works at the Vargas Museum are not displayed or are no longer there and Ongpin’s collection have been divested after the war to the institutions or by inheritance. Some documents do exist; the photographs of the exhibition are with the Filipinas Heritage Library but I do not recall a retrospective for Miranda after that one exhibition held in 1971.

Efforts at winning for Ireneo Miranda posthumous fame cannot be said to have failed, since such efforts were never undertaken. It can be frustrating to get to know his works better with scant official resources available, though, one can easily observe that almost all painters of note who went to UP while he was a professor there never failed to mention his name as an influence.

In his introduction to the main text of the catalogue published by Galerie Bleu, Rod Paras-Perez calls the exhibition a slight tribute to a man who has seen the world change through his palette. Indeed, in a melodramatic juxtaposition, Paras-Perez mentions that Miranda was born on the same year Rizal was shot and died on the year, the first man rocketed into outer space.

In my review of his works, Miranda would’ve been a tough subject for art-historical scholarship then as it is now because he has created far more important pieces that are unrecorded. The biographical sketches drawn from the contemporaries lack the drama where it should have been. It portrayed none of the struggles, which I would later uncover, in a sequence of first-person accounts that reveals the cost of a maestro becoming averse in the face of a big career in an era before superstar artists.

An ominous notion in the posthumous exhibit is, necessarily, that of how an artist who died in obscurity would be resurrected for later generations—a facet of the story in which Paras-Perez himself played a crucial part over almost four decades of fascination with artists of his generation. With his emphatically barren essay, his feat was valuable at least for being a time capsule. As one performs some sharp detective work to suggest, that Miranda’s work as an educator extended his legacy, only to be overtaken by a changing vogue. This is one art historical lesson that can be applied as a parallel to artists in the academe. (ditto Roberto Chabet and Constancio Bernardo)

A survey of his paintings seems to be without obra maestras, or as Miranda, who was a stage designer, would’ve been familiar, denouement. As a professor, he produced works everyday in order to demonstrate to his students several techniques, which would later be discarded and unexhibited. Jose Joya, though not as notable as a stage designer than he is as a painter, is said to be Miranda’s favorite student by accounts of painter Cesar Legaspi. Perhaps the tale of how a portrait played a crucial role in establishing a mark failed to achieve this not because the painting was inferior but because he did not make as many great paintings as this one. The portrait of the princess being just one piece of evidence that allows Paras-Perez to call Ireneo Miranda’s story “the missing persona in the history of twentieth-century Philippine painting.” Nobody, less of all, the painter himself, probably expected that his greatest known work would be something done in less than a day in one of those live-demo portraiture class as a professor of Fine Arts.

What separates this portrait from all the others though aside from its splendid bravura is that it was done for someone who at that time was yet to become great.

***

Ireneo Miranda y Lintag was born in San Fernando, Pampanga in 1896. He graduated from U.P. School of Fine Arts in 1916 then located along Hidalgo St. in Quiapo, Manila: essentially, then a marketplace and town-square. In high-contrast to UP Fine Arts in 1951 then located at the top floor of the college library, in the middle of a rambling campus miles away from the city. It is in Quiapo where he got his knack for copying gestures and mundane city scenes, sketching people who are out looking for work or exiting the church. Paras-Perez observes that Miranda’s cartoons “dramatize a unique quality of his work: that they can speak most succinctly of reality while frankly stating the unreality of his means.” This leads Paras-Perez to opine that even while painting dramatic scenes such as a lake, Miranda would turn in a picture “as blatant as a painted lake,” which he points to his work in stage sets where scenes are as forthright as they should.

Only two years ahead of him graduated Amorsolo and Tolentino. A group of photos accessed from the UP Archives shows him in a white starched suit and posing with the other 30 or so members of the class. He had a rather handsome face, which would later be overcome by baldness and a bulky figure made more prominent with age and the sedentary lifestyle of a newspaper cartoonist. Like Amorsolo before renown, his bread and butter came from commercial work, designing labels and advertisements for the Pacific Commercial Company, whose main offices then were on the riverfront neoclassical building along Juan Luna Street (incidentally named after another famous Filipino painter) built in 1922 (now First National City Bank Building). Miranda was invited to become a faculty member of the School of Fine Arts by Fabian de la Rosa.

A 1930 catalog of the University of the Philippines lists him as an “Assistant Instructor in Illustration, Cartooning and Commercial Designing, and Elementary Decorative Painting.”

Miranda also privately tutored, beginning at the age of nine, the only woman artist in our country’s “Thirteen Moderns,” Anita Magsaysay-Ho. Who is notable for being genuinely the first renowned Filipina painter, basing on news articles from the 50s. Miranda would ask her to copy black and white illustrations on the Saturday Evening Post, where he was chief cartoonist. Anita Magsaysay-Ho, would eventually take up his class again at UP together with another notable Filipina artist, Nena Saguil. Both were from UP’s class of 1933.

Miranda was also fond of using his students as his model. Aside from Saguil and Magsaysay-Ho, he also painted Abdul Mari-Imao, later first Muslim National Artist. While the young Nina Rasul was a real-life princess modeling as a princess, Imao modeled habitually in bahag and feathers as an Igorot.

I have seen Miranda’s illustrations that appeared in the periodicals Liwayway and El Debate, which by accounts of his student were done in between work and lounging in the cinema. During that time, the news was mostly fed before the main feature and this is where he got his ideas for the next morning’s cartoon.

In the early sixties, at the University of the Philippines, Dominador Castaneda, a painter and colleague of Miranda taught a course in Modern Art with emphasis on local painters and movements. Castaneda taught in a very painterly way. He was a scholar at the School of Art Institute of Chicago in the 1920s, and he went to museums and took photographs for his personal research. Upon his return, his ambition was to produce art historical resources on Filipino artists.

Students then were studying painting as it was taught in the early-twentieth-century and there was less of a consciousness about Philippine painting than of what the role of the fine arts played in society. This is by accounts of Castaneda who was dutifully taking notes and trying to mine the local art scene. It was in his class where the canons of Philippine painting, including this particular portrait by Miranda, were first established. Based on his lectures, Castaneda would go on to write a defining volume called “Art in the Philippines” published in 1969 which is still used as a reference by art historians until today.

Akin to my Art History class taken in 2006, the Princess, still stuns and if you look at the other woman, perhaps a servant, in the painting you will see that she is a doppelgänger. Miranda effectively painted the same woman twice in two different roles.

The princess is in a quarter-turn pose toward the artist, with tightly closed lips and a limpid gaze. Her features mirror the pearl’s radiance she wore on her ears and on her neck. She told me that a burglar stole the necklace soon after the portrait was made. She looks imperturbable sitting on the floor, concealing her worries. A diligent student, she told me she was thinking about her exams for another class throughout the sitting.

A majority of the pictures at the National Gallery are, like the Princess, small in scale and sensitive. The artists are all male but most are on the subject of women. Their work suggests an almost maternal instinct for harmony, and, even when the subject is nude or of chary virtue (as in Luna’s Parisian Life), she exists serene in her own world, possessed of her own dignity: our gaze may interrogate her, but she can’t be reduced to an object.

The Islamic art historian Abraham Sakili would mention in one of his articles that it is a notable fact in Philippine Art History that among non-Muslim Filipino paintings on Muslims, only very few works on this subject were done by Filipino masters. The standout is “Maguindanao Princess” who emphasized the colorful attires of his subject and presented it “with a kind of nobility and grace natu­rally appropriate to a culture least tainted by western ways.”

Miranda, did a few more paintings on the subject of Muslim portraits and Mindanao landscapes, before the 1952 portrait of Nina Rasul, such as the watercolor piece, “Parasol” and the composition in tempera entitled the “Muslim Madonna.” A year before, Miranda had gone on a trip to Dansalan in Marawi City, now part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Enthralled by the scenes Mindanao, he was able to create around 20 paintings on record and many other sketches.

Another captivating Miranda piece in the same composition as Maguindanao Princess, is the Yellow Fan. The same painting of men and women toiling the fields appears as a background in both paintings.

Before the model even became a public personality, the painting was already acquired by the National Gallery which is kept in what was formerly the Houses of the Philippine Congress. Before the war the building was originally designed to become a museum but the Philippine Congress commandeered the structure when it was finished. Isn’t it by twist of fate that the model would encounter the painting again as a Senator?

Santanina Rasul was among the opposition leaders against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and would be chosen to run under banner of LABAN (Fight) of Corazon Aquino in 1986. For a time, the museum and the Senate co-mingled and she recalls how her staff would speculate if indeed the lady Senator from Sulu is the Maguindanao Princess of the Miranda paintings. She never confirmed this to them.

A few weeks into writing this article, I was able to finally meet Senator Santanina Rasul through her granddaughter who was a law co-ed back when I was in UP. When I recounted to her my story of how the portrait sparked my interest in art history, she suggested I meet her in her house in Mandaluyong.

I didn’t mention then that walking into her house felt like dejavu. It felt like one of those things I was called to do and write about. Somehow it felt like the opening pages of the Carlos Fuentes novel “Aura”. The first thing former Senator Nina Rasul asked me was “Well, can you still see the resemblance.” I smiled. I told her, it couldn’t have been anyone else.

She showed me another thing that struck my interest: a sculptural portrait of her as a young lady made by Napoleon Abueva (recasted in 2005). While I thought busts were only made for great people, most of them dead, Nina Rasul had her portraits done, I suppose because of her great beauty. Indeed, even with the fading luster of bronze it was absolutely gorgeous.

Soon after graduation, Nina Rasul returned to Sulu and became a public school teacher (1952 to 1957) where she taught among others, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Chairman Nur Misuari. While in 1953, Ireneo Miranda was a plaintiff in a landmark case for moral damages in Miranda vs. Fores.

In March 1953, Ireneo Miranda was one of the passengers on a jeepney driven by Eugenio Luga. While the vehicle was descending the Sta. Mesa bridge at an excessive rate of speed, the driver lost control, causing it to swerve and to hit the bridge wall. The accident occurred on the morning of March 22, 1953. Five of the passengers were injured, including the respondent who suffered a fracture of the upper right humerus. He was taken to the National Orthopedic Hospital for treatment, and later was subjected to a series of operations; the first on May 23, 1953, when wire loops were wound around the broken bones and screwed into place; a second, effected to insert a metal splint, and a third one to remove such splint. At the time of the trial, it appears that Miranda had not yet recovered the use of his right arm. The driver was charged with serious physical injuries through reckless imprudence, and upon interposing a plea of guilty was sentenced accordingly. 

Miranda was unable to paint after this accident. It took five years before the case was resolved and it would take another four years before he produced a significant masterpiece. The money to be awarded to him as damages was reduced by the Supreme Court.

Carlos Valino who in style and personality was a lot like Ireneo Miranda became his apprentice during the time of his accident. He recalled how Miranda was the only instructor in the School of Fine Arts who cared to demonstrate his own techniques (perhaps the reason for hiring beauteous models). His comments were a comic relief to his students. One such comment in portraiture class, Valino would recall went like this, “Aba kung kabayo ang gusto mong ipinta, maraming ibang modelo diyan!”

Perhaps it is Valino’s apprentice-master relationship with Miranda that marked him. He was known as the “Reluctant Master” and did not sell significantly during his lifetime. Even today, Valino’s paintings can be bought at a bargain on Ebay. He, like Miranda, devoted most of their time as professors. It would be wrong to assume that their mastery of the oil medium is associated with a deep and lasting reaction to the drama and treatment of Luna’s Spoliarium. The painting did not arrive in the Philippines until 1957. The arrival of the Spolarium, I would theorize sparked, among many other art historical events, a sense of international greatness of the Filipino artist, an entitlement that would be bestowed on those who saw such a great work of art on a massive scale (but more on this in another article). Miranda and many painters of his generation rarely make a canvas bigger than a 3by4.

Nina Rasul was given one or two copies of her portrait done during that class. All of them perished when a previous house burned down. “All the students in that sitting sold their paintings,” she said with a smile. I told her, I wouldn’t be surprised because in that class by Miranda was the National Artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, Jose Joya and Napoleon Abueva. Other artists who perhaps were in that sitting was Juvenal Sanso, and also Pitoy Moreno, so-called fashion czar, whose title as National Artist became the subject of another landmark Supreme Court decision on Presidential indiscretions. It was also not the only time that Nina Rasul modeled for Fine Arts students and some of these landed in the prominent private collections, and in government institutions such as the Malacanang. A story goes that on New Year’s day she was gifted by the GSIS with a calendar with her portrait. “They didn’t even know it was me!”

They say when you want to know an artist, one should look at his artworks but I can’t find Ireneo Miranda in any of the works he did except in this particular portrait. Only here do I catch glimpses of him refracted in the mirror of another face. And if what they say is true—if every great painting is really a self-portrait,” I certainly ask, “what, if anything, is Miranda saying about himself?”

In the course of that afternoon’s acquaintance, I was absorbed in the life and personality of Nina Rasul, adequately depicted in the portrait was a calmness and elegance. The lady was every bit the regal muse of Miranda. She was telling me of a Mindanao where she grew up in, the Mindanao that Miranda also saw and painted in 1951. “It was more peaceful during that time. Sulu was one of the more prosperous provinces.” Nina Rasul educated me that, “Maguindanao” then meant the Sultanate of Maguindanao, which was at its peak included the whole island of “Mindanao” hence the misnomer.

I decided to take another look at the painting after the interview. I surveyed every trinket she wore. How huge that pearl indeed! I picked them out to memorize and examine them.

As I said goodbye to her, I promised to piece together that moment when Miranda created his obra maestra. I looked at her wardrobe in the painting, the gaudy sash and silk blouse, which became the de facto depiction of Muslim Princesses in popular imagination. Senator Nina Rasul told me she would always choose to wear one during her campaigns and sorties because she thought she looked her best when wearing them. All those dresses and accessories, things that every woman used to complete herself­­–induced in me a gnawing inquisitiveness; the painter must have consoled himself in her possessions, to instill a memory of a place through her portrait. The Mindanao that has change so much since that time. Unlike the moments spent by the sitter under his gaze, the place never quite stood still, not for the painter, or the princess, or for everyone else.

         

Notes:

  1. Paras-Perez, Rod (ed.). Ireneo Miranda- A Posthumous Exhibition. Makati: Rustans Galerie Bleu. 1971. Exhibition Catalogue
  2. Duldulao, Manuel. A Century of Realism in Philippine Art. Quezon City: Legacy Publishers, 1992.
  3. A short biography of Ireneo Miranda is available through http://www.geringerart.com/bios/miranda.html and the CCP Encyclopedia.
  4. The Supreme Court decision Miranda vs. Fores can be accessed through the Supreme Court Reports Annotated (SCRA) or through lawphil.net http://www.lawphil.net/judjuris/juri1959/mar1959/gr_l-12163_1959.html. The incident recounted in this article almost in verbatim.5. To read more on Santanina Rasul: http://www.mindanews.com/top-stories/2008/03/29/moro-women-second-to-none/ Her Senate Profile: http://www.senate.gov.ph/senators/former_senators/santanina_rasul.htm
  5. Various articles appear in the Manila Standard Today (1986-1995) regarding her career as a Senator
  6. The photographic slide of the painting “Maguindanao Princess” appears in the book “Portfolio of 60 Philippine Art Masterpieces” published in 1986, which the UP Fine Arts library unfortunately has only one copy.
  7. When I read the catalogue written by Paras Perez, a rare edition in a trilogy of books published by Galerie Bleu, (available through artbooks.ph) I had accessed through a newly-opened bookstore along Pioneer Street of Ringo Bunoan who said she surprised why anyone would be aware of Ireneo Miranda.
  8. The writer met and interviewed Senator Nina Rasul on the afternoon of January 18, 2015, Sunday in her home in Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila.
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