Constancio Bernardo in Context

Image: Grabbed from the National Gallery of Singapore Facebook. Constancio Bernardo. Bernardian Synthesis No. 1. Image courtesy of Museo Bernardo Foundation, Inc.
Image: Grabbed from the National Gallery of Singapore Facebook. Constancio Bernardo. Bernardian Synthesis No. 1. Image courtesy of Museo Bernardo Foundation, Inc.

How was an artist like Constancio Bernardo drawn into the relatively new language of abstract painting? In mentioning his influences, what are their particular contributions to his work?

The history of Philippine painting runs like a list of forgotten geniuses whose contributions have largely been under-appreciated due to a dearth in scholarship. Such is the story of Constancio Bernardo, who painted like no other Filipino artist in the immediate post-war art scene in Manila. Alice G. Guillermo writes that Constancio Bernardo was “one of the earliest and most consistent exponents of abstract art in
the country.”


In 1978, Leonidas Benesa cited Bernardo as “the most underrated of the exponents of modern art in the Philippines” and as “second to none in this country” in the field of abstraction, “particularly of the geometric-planar, optical-painting variety.”


Refusing to be buffeted by the waves of public opinion, to be conditioned by the dictates of the art market, to solicit attention from collectors, to capitulate to pressures from the art world, or to pursue the trappings of fame, Bernardo chose to be steadfast in the discipline of his studio practice.  So quietly sustained was this commitment over the years that he was referred to by Eric Torres as “the invisible man of Philippine painting.”

He has worked in series, combining geometrism and color research in such work groupings as the Bernardian series,  A testament to his obscurity lies in the fact that the main document to his life as a painter is a biography written by his son.  As a testament to his talents, he started teaching at the UP School of Fine Arts one year before his graduation for a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1947. Before the war, Bernardo spent seven years finishing a Certificate in Fine Arts course because of financial difficulties.


In 1948, Fernando Amorsolo recommended him for a Fulbright Scholarship to study painting at the Yale School of Fine Arts. As early as 1950, or just before finishing his second Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting, he began to explore the kind of geometric abstraction initiated by Russian Suprematists even before being mentored by Josef Albers of Black Mountain and Bauhaus, who was then teaching a master class at the Yale School of Fine Arts. Albers proclaimed that Bernardo would become a great artist who will contribute greatly to Philippine art but upon returning home, he was relegated to teaching art history rather than studio classes at UP. Sidelined by Amorsolo and his ilk, he retreated to painting abstraction privately and showing only figurative works in Manila Galleries until the 1970s when a younger generation fully embraced the new artistic language.

By then he was middle-aged with a personality as subdued as his color combinations. While he remained obscure, shunning a Manila art scene that was heavy on social-climbing. His intermittent recognition never gained full steam and commercial success seemed elusive. No other Filipino painter has done abstraction that is as elegant and as authentic, that it can hold a candle against artists in the Western Tradition. When he arrived at Yale in 1948 (he was already aged 35), Josef Albers treated him as a contemporary rather than a colleague.

Turn to abstraction

Constancio Bernardo’s son, Angelo identified his father’s turning point from representation to abstraction: “Two of his studies [on geometric abstractions] are dated February 24, 1950 and March 14, 1950. (They could be pre-Albers). My father’s US journal from 1948 to 1952 mentioned a consultation with Albers for school requirements (only) on June 25, 1950. He attended Alber’s lecture on color fields (and color abstraction) at Yale on September 20, 1950.”

Also mentioned were Bernardo’s other modernist mentors and influences at Yale: Wilhelm De Kooning (who “went to his classes in clogs”); Pennsylvania-born Franz Kline, whose black and white calligraphic works were originally sketches made on telephone books; and Washington-born Robert Motherwell, “abstract expressionist’s philosophical spokesman.”

“They did not insist anything except [for us] to be free. Walang ginigiit kundi maging libre kami [in art exploration],” Angelo recalled his father as saying.

Bernardo was also exposed to other European abstract painters who came ahead of Albers in the US, such as Russian Jew Mark Rothko, Armenia-born Arshile Gorky, and German Hans Hoffman.

Bernardo also admitted to poet Ricaredo Demetillo in 1956 one major influence: Dutch Piet Mondrian, who painted “motion” by rolling on a canvas on the floor—with paint on his body.

A series of retrospectives in 2013 for his 100th birth anniversary have revealed the previously unexhibited paintings , which are said to be only a fraction of the works he threw away and covered up in countless moments of self-doubt. Also shown were sketches, evidence of the natural skill that made Amorsolo see him as a disciple before the war. The recognition came too late as Constancio Bernardo had already died quietly ten years ago in 2003. Despite being, highly educated and highly talented and early recognition as the father of abstract painting as early as 1952 he is least likely be elevated to the Order of National Artists.

The exhibition “Constancio Bernardo: The Early Drawings 1948-1955” explicitly refers to the eye-opening exhibition “Constancio Bernardo: The Years in America 1948-1954” and its catalog, published in 1992 by the Ateneo Art Gallery had been presented. Robin Rivera had already written the main text in this first catalog, and the continuation of his investigation has now resulted in the exhibition and catalog of drawings from Bernardo’s years in Yale, organized by the Ayala Museum and the Museo Constancio Bernardo, Ateneo has issued (overlaps exist only to a limited extent).

The drawings of these early, experimental years, in which Bernardo developed his own imagery along with his own artistic problem, are not more private than the paintings of that time, but they are much clearer and consistent material of Bernardo’s pictorial investigations. For paintings that were intended to be public in the first place, only a few ‘successful’ pictorial solutions were ever made, while in the drawings the various approaches, experiments and preliminary results of his search can be traced much more clearly. These drawings have practically not reached the public; almost all the exhibits in the extensive exhibition with more than 220 drawings and collages come from Bernardo’s private collection.


Constancio Bernardo

Constancio Bernardo came to the United States in October 1948, at the age of 35, on a scholarship for faculty members of the UP College of Fine Arts; After the end of the scholarship, he worked at the American school in Paris and returned in July 1954, after a disease, back to Manila.

In these years, especially in 1950/51, he developed in a series of experiments his own problems, which are far removed from the simultaneous American developments of Color Field Painting and Abstract Expressionism and which gave him a unique position in Europe as well as in Europe granted to Filipinos. In contrast to the abstract expressionists in the United States, while he partially took up positions of radical abstract painting in Europe, particularly Josef Albers, he came to completely different types of paintings and problems, on the one hand, spatially, between Europe and on the other hand, in terms of time, between the abstract modernity that prevailed in the 1950s and late Modernism since the 1960s, so that he preceded the new uses of ‘materialistic painting’ (Ryman) as a pioneer. It is a special pleasure in this exhibition to understand the individual steps and attempts close up, in which Constancio Bernardo finds, tests, discards and revisits solutions for his unfolding problem.

Constancio Bernardo Rhapsody Square, 1979 Acrylic on Wood 36x36 in
The square, a principal obsession of the artist, is developed exclusively in the Rhapsody Square series, which continues the legacy of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square. In the Rhapsody Square series, the artist deals with the same concept of colored square within a square of a different hue, based on the research into color perception begun by Albers and the bauhaus color experiments. – CCP Encyclopedia of Art (Alice G. Guillermo). Image: Constancio Bernardo Rhapsody Square, 1979 Acrylic on Wood 36×36 in. Photo: AngelxMusic Flickr.

For his main interest since 1949, after Picasso-oriented beginnings, was to drive out of painting composition and subjectivity, to liberate the painting from its dependence on pictorial intentions; the painting should become anonymous and neutral, without subjective expression and symbolic meaning, freed from the burden of subjectivity. Consequently, painting could no longer be concerned with the creation of works or the self-expression of a creative subject: paintings could become neutral only by picking up on what already exists (as form and color) and transforming it into a painting , The most difficult problem, therefore, was deciding how, in what material, in which color, in what format the transposition of what was seen (recorded or photographed) should take place, what parameters of transformation of the existing into a painting could be used. And just as a drawing or a painting should no longer be a creative work, it could no longer be beautiful; only to the extent that it could no longer express a creative author, could it show its own, previously unperceived, objective beauty, the beauty of what is already in sight, what is quite obvious, but has not yet been seen or overlooked – and which Bernardo himself soon captured in photographs.

There was a palpable sense of completeness in the way he approached his works, a proof of his great involvement in each piece. He mixed his own paints, diligently worked in his studio, and made his handiwork complete by creating the frames for his art works.

Bernardo tried to dispel the composition and intentionality of painting in a variety of ways: in 1950 he experimented with drawings he made blindfolded, in an automatic hand, or without looking at the page, at the drawn branches or Hanger stapled. On the other hand, he recorded found forms that were created by chance, such as cracks in a window or holes in the road surface. These findings introduced an objective coincidence, which is at work both in the formation of forms and in the finding of forms. In 1951, in connection with his work as a teacher, he tested, partly with his students, the spraying and dribbling of ink; He also used the traces of dirt left behind at work. A dream he described in a letter led to the next step, a systematization of coincidence as well as stroke: “… I would be busy with a large injection work, according to the method of the sixth graders and collleagues, when I suddenly came up with the idea of a truly great work, something that could be linked to architecture … This dream was something I had been waiting for. ” The result was ‘Cité’, a collage of slashed automatic brushstrokes randomly recombined. The so-developed random distributions of collaged ‘grids’ from the fragments of dissected drawings completely destroyed the unity and perceptibility of the painted (or ‘repainted’, found in the world) strokes. Subsequent combinatorial attempts led to a kind of textbook entitled “Form, Line, Color,” which was not published, and which does not show a strictly legal, logical sequence, but rather an increasingly irregular play of simple forms and techniques To dye. For his colors, with which he increasingly worked in 1951, were found colors: he used gummed colored paper, which can be used very well for collages. The specified monochrome color areas (from a palette of about 20 colors) were also defined as shapes by cutting, so that the color field and shape coincide. This work led to the well-known paintings of several monochrome panels hanging side by side on the wall, involving the wall as a negative and articulated space, and in 1955, after returning to New York, to the first curves.

Constancio Bernarco was born on December 22, 1913 in Obando in the province of Bulacan. He studied Fine Arts from 1937 to 1941 and from 1947 to 1948 at the University of the Philippines, where he received lessons from, among others, Fernando Amorsolo and his brother Pablo Amorsolo. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree he left for the United States, where he studied at Yale with a Fullbright scholarship. There he received his bachelor’s degree in 1951 and his master’s degree in 1952. After returning to the Philippines, he worked as a lecturer until 1978 and later as associate professor and assistant dean at the University of the Philippines.

In addition to his work as a teacher, Bernardo was active as an artist. He belonged to the second wave of modernist artists including H. R. Ocampo, Vicente Manansala and Carlos Francisco. Bernardo mainly painted abstract works of art and already held his first individual exhibition on the UP in 1953. Later exhibitions followed in 1956, 1958, 1971 and 1973. In 1978, the Museum of Philippine Art (MOPA) organized a retrospective of his entire career. Although Bernardo was praised early in his career by art critics and other painters, recognition and publicity remained with the general public. In contrast to his modernist contemporaries Ocampo, Manasala and Francisco, he was not appointed a national artist of the Philippines.


Bernardo died in 2003 at the age of 89 in the Philippine Lung Center from the effects of pneumonia. He was married to Nieves de Guzman and had two sons with her. The exhibition will be on view at Ayala Museum Third Floor Galleries until March 2, 2014.

Further reading

Bernardo, Angelo. Constancio Bernardo: A Life in Sketches. Soumak Collections, Manila. 2013. Softcover / 12 x 5.5 inches / 50 pages / Color

A companion to the monograph on Constancio Bernardo (1913 – 2003) published on the occasion of the artist’s centennial anniversary in 2013, Constancio Bernardo: A Life in Sketches is a personal biography written by the artist’s son, Angelo G. Bernardo. The book includes a selection of rarely seen portraits and figure drawings by the artist who is honored for his contributions to the development of abstraction in the Philippines. A comprehensive curriculum vitae compiled by the author also provides a rich source of information about the artist’s life and career that spans over 60 years.


Yolanda Johnson, Ringo Bunoan and Carina Evangelista, Constancio Bernard. Soumak Collections, Manila. 2013. Softcover/ 12 x 11 inches / 144 pages / Color ISBN: 978-971-94920-1-6

Constancio Bernardo (1913 – 2013) is a pioneering Filipino abstractionist known for his geometric and color-field paintings. He returned to the Philippines in the early 50s after graduating from Yale University where he studied under Josef Albers and pursued a life-long commitment to painting and teaching at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. This monograph accompanies the centennial retrospective held at Ayala Museum in Manila in November 2013 and provides the first opportunity to view the full range of Bernardo’s works, from his critically-acclaimed abstract works to his lesser-known classical drawings and figurative paintings. Includes texts by Yolanda Johnson, Ringo Bunoan and Carina Evangelista.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.