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Zobel, Fernando



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Fernando Zobel was born on August 27, 1924, in Manila to a family firmly established in the business world. His citizenship was Spanish, and he was educated in America. But his youthful memories were shaped mostly by the Philippine landscape. During the Second World War, in 1942, a spinal deficiency forced him to spend most of the year in bed. His condition was somewhat ironic because the year before, he had embarked on his medical studies at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. Bedridden, the 18-year old Fernando sketched. He drew scenes observed through the window, caricatures of his family, and things of his own fancy.

After American liberation, Zobel studied history and literature at Harvard, where he would graduate magna cum laude in 1949. He continued to heed his artistic calling. Fascinated by the work of Reed Champion, James Pfeufer, and Hyman Bloom, Zobel began painting in the style of the Boston painters. He tried his hand at all kinds of techniques, including engraving, aquatint, and serigraphy.

Upon his return to the Philippines, in the 1950s, he struck up a friendship with Filipino artists, and with them set Philippine modernist art in motion. He helped create a sympathetic audience for modernist art, largely unappreciated at that time, by collecting paintings, helping set up exhibits and venues for viewing, and stimulating conversations about art among students and fellow painters.

"He had a rather sad youth here," recalls the businessman Jaime Zobel de Ayala, Fernando's nephew. "Those were difficult years which he took beautifully well." He actively participated in the family business for close to 10 years. He managed the company's personnel department excellently, but at each working day's end, he rushed home to pick up the brush.

Perhaps Zobel's sense of his own complexity had to do with this background. The early part of his life might appear circuitous with decision making. He was moving back and forth between the West (the consciousness of Spain and America) and the East (the cultures of the Philippines, China, and Japan), and between what he felt to be an obligation to his family and the persistent calling of art. In the end, the muse prevailed.

To those who knew him, however, Zobel's complexity really had to do with his personal characteristics, which ran against the grain of the stereotypical artistic temperament: Zobel was humorous and ironic; his generosity was legendary. No one could recall moody or fiery moments with Zobel. His conversations, interviews, and even the criticism he wrote were astute but self-effacing. He was a man given to laughter, and equally able to provoke laughter with his self-deprecation.

A piquant example of his humor is found in a letter to Filipino artist Lee Aguinaldo, in which he mentions "the picturesque (if not very attractive) lunatics who seem to hover on the fringes of the art world." In one of the last conversations the Philippine National Artist Arturo Luz had with Zobel, he mentioned Zobel's becoming "a status symbol," and Zobel quipped, "How wonderful for everyone!"

In Cuenca, as in Manila, his studio-perpetually in order and immaculately white-was never locked. Visitors frequently interrupted his solitude and he welcomed them, whether they were friends, artists, students, or simply people in need. He was wary of snobbery and the political categorizations of people. He gave any of his visitors his time, if that was all the visitor needed, or whatever was in his material means to give them.

Artist and writer friends of his came back from their visits loaded with unexpected gifts: the most current titles on art criticism or architecture, vintage books, and even art works. A group of monks once visited his house admiring a baroque cross, and Zobel immediately took the cross down and gave it to them. His personal collections of art work eventually found their way to institutions in the Philippines, Spain, and the United States .

From artists who have benefited with scholarships, books, or art materials, to children who simply looked forward to being treated to ice cream at the plaza-people remember, above all of Zobel's qualities, his generosity. The stories of his generosity are so numerous and so consistent in its pattern of spontaneity that they resist hagiography. They remain, mortally and elegantly, as examples of what Aristotle called virtue.

One man from Cuenca recalls that if a child happened to visit Zobel, he would take a piece of paper to that child. "For you," he would say to that fortunate one, "I will make an elephant, upside-down. And you will see how beautiful it is."

Leaving behind a legacy of notebooks filled with reflections, numerous letters, drawings, collections featuring the best examples in Spanish and Philippine modernist art, and his own luminous abstract creations, Fernando Zobel died in Rome, Italy on June 2, 1984 . His remains lie in a cemetery dedicated to San Isidro on a mountain, the highest point of Cuenca , Spain, with a view of the river Jucar .


 


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