“I think that the Philippine portraits are, perhaps, my most lucid paintings, because it was a different race—beautiful!” the painter Claudio Bravo told director Hugo Arévalo in the 1995 documentary La pupila del alma (The Pupil of the Soul). “I could paint with colors like Matisse. Philippines was the tropics, a different vision of the world and of light.”
It was the end of an era for Bravo. After he left the Philippines in 1968 for Madrid and New York, eventually settling in Tangier, Morocco, he was done with portraiture. He began doing the paintings he eventually became famous for: hyperrealist trompe l’oeil pieces that were more in keeping with the trajectory of modern art. But the future arc of his career and the work that he was yet to do was already evident in the 40-odd portraits that he did during his six-month stay in Manila: instead of asking his sitters to wear clothes by a couturier like Balenciaga, as he had done in Spain, he preferred to drape his subjects, especially the women, with cloth; he loved the diaphanous folds and the way the fabric draped on them. He would later go on to paint nothing but cloth and its interplay with light.
What was this Spanish-based Chilean painter doing in the Philippines in the first place? It begins with businessman and art-lover Jaime Zobel de Ayala and a portrait that Bravo had done for him while in Spain; he had seen a portrait that Bravo had painted of his uncle, the artist Fernando Zobel, in 1963, and liked it enough to commission one of himself and his wife Bea. In December of 1965, Zobel reproduced the portrait and sent it out as a Christmas card. One of these made its way to Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, who invited Bravo, through Zobel, to come to the Philippines. Or at least so the story goes; Mrs. Marcos would have invited him in 1966, but he didn’t make his way to the Philippines until three years later.
In January of 1968, Bravo arrived along with a planeful of European nobility, including two Borbon kings and a Greek king, that tycoon Eugenio “Eñing” Lopez, Sr., owner of Meralco and the Manila Chronicle, had invited to the Philippines for two weeks. There was a lavish party for Lopez’s 40th wedding anniversary, at which champagne flowed from an ornamental fountain, and at which Mrs. Marcos may or may not have been present.
The writer Gilda Cordero-Fernando, who was there because her husband was a Meralco executive, has an account of the President and First Lady joining the celebrant couple on the dance floor, even though a ledger from the Lopez collection shows them as having declined the invitation. A few years later, Marcos would sequester the Lopez family’s assets, including Meralco, and Eñing Lopez’s son, Geny, would be sent to jail for apparently conspiring to assassinate the president. But that night, as far as the world was concerned, they were all friends.
Few people paid attention to the painter that night, who was a minor character in the roster, but he had noticed the face of Evelyn Lim, the 15-year-old daughter of businessman P.L. Lim, and he asked for permission to do a portrait of her. “He was wonderful, a perfect gentleman,” Evelyn Lim-Forbes recounts. “We had our sitting in the pied-à-terre of [architect and art collector] Luis Araneta’s house, which is where he was living at the time, a fully-furnished place above the garage. He loved music, and played Tiny Tim for me, which I didn’t really like! He also played opera. And the ’Stones. I had this rare opportunity to watch a master at work in his own space—most other people had to go to the Luz Gallery, which was his workspace.”
The Luz Gallery, which was then at the corner of Makati Avenue and Ayala Avenue, was soon receiving a steady stream of society women to have their portraits painted. No one is quite certain whose was the first portrait Bravo painted in Manila. Bravo worked tirelessly, from 9 to 12 in the morning and then from 1 to 6 in the afternoon. He could do as many as three portraits a day. According to the accounts, he would spend about three to four hours on the face, usually in two-hour intervals. For each portrait he charged something in the area of $2,000; a lot of money in those days.
Society women loved his work as much as he loved them: he was not embarrassed about his love for high society, for parties and balls, and for conversations about art and literature (his English, according to various sources, was fair to fluent). But he was charming, and genuinely seemed to engage the sitter and want to know who she was and what she was like: as long, of course, as they didn’t move their mouths too much while posing. Why mostly society women? “The money, darling, they were the ones who could afford it!” says Evelyn Lim-Forbes, laughing. “Women more than men, because they were into this more than their husbands.”
Bravo was himself discreetly homosexual, it would seem, and among the works is one of a “turbanned boy,” most likely William Miller, one of the staff in the household of Luis Araneta. We don’t know of any dalliance between the two, but it was clear that Miller’s mulatto looks had been the focus of Bravo’s attention. There is also the Sketch of Nude Male, which he gave to Miller; the latter didn’t know what to do with it, and later sold it to the architect Adolfo Liwanag. He was secretive about his liaisons while in Manila, though, and no lovers have been definitively tied to him.
The portraits themselves are mostly conté crayon, pastel, graphite, and charcoal on paper, and occasionally oil on wood. There is a marked difference in the quality of the paper that he used while he was in the Philippines from the paper he used in Spain, as can be seen in the portraits of the Zobels, which he did before coming over. He used paper bought locally, probably because he had at first only intended to stay for two weeks, rather than six months. The paper is worth mentioning because in many of the portraits it forms the background against which the subject is placed; the paper has not been treated or primed in any way. In many cases it also serves as the color of the skin, the color of the Manila-bought paper becoming the pallor of the Manila society beauties that he painted.
The sketches, on the other hand, are different. They are pen-and-ink drawings, more personal, more free-flowing. He never went anywhere without a sketchpad, and they served as aide-memoire and diary of his observations. In it we see a puckish sense of humor, Bravo looking at the mundanities of Manila with a wry eye. Especially intriguing are the two paintings, perhaps a diptych, perhaps not, entitled My Neighbors, which depict each a single different bellybutton. Who were these neighbors of his, and why was he privy to their navels? These sketches belonged to the late TV host and socialite Elvira Manahan. They had languished in the powder-room of Manahan’s son, Johnny, until one guest pointed out that they were Bravos. How many more works are unsigned (he never signed and dated anything unless he deemed them finished) and unrecognized, yet to be recognized?
This period, both the portraits and the sketches, are largely absent from the collections of his works, which include a few pieces of juvenilia but concentrate on what he is most known for—the wistful, poetic, effervescent paintings of piles of objects that he might have found in his home in Morocco. Bravo lives up to his name in his daring to paint what he wanted to despite, or because of, the undulations of art movements that swept past him. Even while he was painting portraits in Manila, or in splendid isolation in his eyrie in Tangier, he might have been far away from the currents of Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Impressionism, and Pop Art but he was not unaware of them. Improbable as it may initially seem, there’s a lot of Rothko in Bravo; by his own admission, in an interview he gave in 2001. Even in the genial society painter whose portraits are best known in this country.
But are we making too much of this period in Bravo’s life simply because it is close to home, drumming up what might have been an inconsequential period in his output, or a mundane chapter in his life that he used to make money before he moved on to hobnob with the art elite in New York? Are these scraps from the Master’s table, or are they a genuine “lost period” of his work, undocumented and uncatalogued because they have languished too long in cupboards or on the walls of family homes?
Evelyn Lim-Forbes feels it was a certain period in his youthful career when he was experimenting, tossing around ideas, playing with light, learning about color, and, of course, earning his keep, before his breakthrough shows at the Staempfli Gallery and then the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan. She caught up with him in Manhattan when she visited in the mid-70s, dropping in on one of his shows. Now a young woman rather than impressionable child, she was quickly taken under his wing and into the whirlwind of that decade’s art scene in New York. It was through him that she met Andy Warhol and partied at Studio 54, in all its depravity. They were with people who took drugs, but he himself did not partake, at least while she was with him, and he did not allow her to join in either.
It was not only Bravo who was at the end of an era while he was in Manila, transitioning to his period of painting parcels and cloth soon afterward. The golden age of Manila society with its extravagances was coming to a close as well as Marcos tightened his grip over the country and eventually declared Martial Law in 1972. Many of the families whose portraits he painted had to leave the country quickly. Some of the sketches, like the pair depicting a Venice Carnival, languished at the back of a wooden wardrobe, mistaken for paper lining. The fountain of champagne had stopped flowing.
Ferdinand Marcos himself had had his portrait done by Bravo as well. Although Imelda Marcos’s portrait is impeccable, there is something odd about the late President’s. It may have been because Marcos’s busy schedule necessitated that he himself posed for the portrait, a bodyguard stood in as a body double for the rest of the time when Bravo was done with the face. But Bravo is so honest an artist that, at least to this writer’s untrained eye, something is not right with the expression on the future dictator’s face. There is disdain in this work, either from Marcos for this triviality or from Bravo for the sitter. Among the portraits, it is definitely one of the weaker.
One of the last accounts of Bravo from a Filipino point of view comes from Tats Manahan, the daughter-in-law of Elvira Manahan, who found herself in Morocco in the early 1980s. “If you visit Tangier, you must look up Claudio Bravo,” she had been told by Luis Araneta. She visited him at his three-storey villa with Moorish arches and magnificent view, and they reminisced about Manila as they looked over old contact prints he had made of the portraits. He paused at one lady whose name he could not remember; in his mind he referred to her as the “spider Lady,” not in a derogatory way, but as a tribute to her beauty. It was Imelda Cojuangco, the art patroness and philanthropist.
Claudio Bravo died in June 2011, of an epileptic attack, in one of the three houses he kept in Morocco. He had never returned to the Philippines. He had gone from strength to strength, and earned wealth, respect, and a place in the timeline of 20th century art. He was not a particularly Chilean painter, though Chileans do claim him as their native son; nor did his interaction with Filipino artists at that time make any noticeable dent in the timeline of art in the Philippines. His period in the Philippines might have been regarded only as a footnote to his period as a portraitist, before he turned away from high society and announced a radical shift in politics in 1972, four years after he left the Philippines.
But because he painted not mundanities or landscapes or random faces in the Philippines, but some of the wealthiest families who have treasured his portraits of their youth for personal as well as artistic reasons, the artworks have been kept safe and are now beginning to resurface.
The pivotal period in the Philippines, a “lost period” perhaps not because it was insignificant but because it had to be shipped out of the darkness of treasure-chests, is coming out into the light. How ironic that the painter of packaging should have been packed away! It may be only now that this pivotal period, where he “began to use more ‘electric’ colors and to enjoy color” might begin to be understood.
Bravo will always be beloved in the Philippines because of his subjects, but who these people are may run the risk of us looking at the subjects and not his art, and being awed by their mystique and social status. We run the risk of seeing the collection of portraits as a remembrance of time and place, and a lost eden and innocence. And what a shame that would be, because he came here to paint, and what he left us with was art.
Originally appeared in Rogue’s 2012 Style + Design Issue (September 2012).