A Look Back at Anita Magsaysay Ho: Her Life, Art, And Philosophies
This feature story was originally titled as In Praise of Anita, and was published in the May 2011 issue of Tatler Philippines
Mention Anita Magsaysay Ho and the name automatically brings to mind images of women with small triangular handkerchiefs, elongated necks and slits for eyes. The women who inhabit Anita’s canvases are busy at work: feeding the chickens, harvesting fruits, threshing or pounding rice in the farm, gathering shells by the seashore, cooking, sweeping, sewing in their own homes, or vending in the marketplace. These hardy peasant women surrounded Anita as a child spending summers in her native Zambales province.
“My life and, therefore, my paintings are so enriched by these vacations,” Anita said of those summers. She not only observed rural life, she took delight in actively participating in it. She went fishing with her mother along the mangroves, joined her brother, Mike, in pulling the nets of the fishermen, picked native fruits like mangoes and sineguelas, planted flowering shrubs, tried her hand in mending fishing nets, gathered chicken eggs and played with the children of the farm. She offered flowers in the Flores de Mayo festivals, joined Holy Week activities like the pabasa (continuous singing of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible that takes about 24 hours) and processions and delighted in going to the fiestas of neighbouring towns. A highly visual person even as a child, Anita observed such details as the gestures of women while they gossiped or the rise and fall of their hips and shoulders just as pestle rose and fell into the mortar. Not content with merely watching them, she tried her hand in pounding rice herself.
The advent of World War II put an end to those idyllic sojourns to Zambales, but memories of the simple provincial life remained with her for a lifetime. Well into her old age, she would always long to visit the town of her childhood time and again. “I was blessed with a happy childhood,” she acknowledges readily and this may very well be the reason why she repeatedly painted images from that childhood and why the women she painted are essentially happy women. Anita’s women are without angst and are not bothered by gender issues or concerned about being politically correct. They go about life content with who they are and what they do.
Anita’s sense of artistic integrity inspired her to paint what she knew well. She repeatedly says, “I can paint only what I experienced.” Her desire to experience more of life would take her to markets everywhere she lived. She found markets to be highly dynamic places with many interesting types of people. On a visit to the Quinta market of Quiapo, she got hit with a tomato when she was caught in the middle of a fight between two vendors. The mishap did not diminish her fascination for markets, and her body of works depicts a large number of market scenes. But even when the scenery has subtle tones of being in Hong Kong, with its plethora of baskets and bird cages, the women in them are always Filipinas. As to why she limits her subject to Filipinas, she declares, “I paint Filipino women because I know them well. That is why I never attempted to paint the Japanese, Brazilian, Canadian or Chinese women. I cannot presume to know them.”
Anita married Robert Ho in 1947. Five children (Helen, Linda, Doris, Robert Alexander and Steven Theodore) soon came in quick succession. The family lived in Manila for 14 years (1949-63). By her own account, after Manila, Anita and her nomadic brood lived in more than 30 homes in more than six countries over a span of 50 years. Despite her long absence because of living abroad, she kept on painting Philippine themes, most of them culled from a remarkable memory. She would always go back to her rich store of memories to portray Filipino women time and again in oils, acrylics, drawings and lithographs. Anita’s immense body of artworks shows that her subject matter was consistently of the Philippines. While in Vancouver she did a series of watercolours on flowers, but these flowers are not site-specific and may very well be from any country in the temperate zone—or a greenhouse in Baguio.
Over time Anita’s predominantly brownish yellow hues have given way to decidedly greens; farm implements have been replaced by baskets, fruits, and flowers; and frenzied, harried women of her early paintings have been taken over by serene women with quiet mien. But Anita’s women with their distinctive angular faces, long necks, long skirts and white bandanas have remained. Transported to urban milieus – Manila, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Hong Kong—Anita continued to paint her women friends in portraits. In doing so, her portrayal of women covered a wide social spectrum.
Less known is Anita’s role in the development of modern art in the country. Her first show at the Manila Hotel shortly after she returned from studies in the United States was the first time Manila was exposed to an exhibition where the artworks defied the classical ideals of harmony and proportion. Purita Kalaw Ledesma, an ardent supporter of Filipino visual artists and the respected chronicler of the development of modern art in the country, states that cubism first made its appearance in the local art scene through Anita’s awkward, angular lines, which replaced the traditional curved lines. In an art environment dominated by Amorsolo’s genre paintings, Anita’s charming portraits of women—with their use of distortion and the dominance of rhythm—exhibited a fresh individual style that resisted academic norms.
Anita’s later exhibitions at the Philippine Art Gallery and her entries to the annual Art Association of the Philippines competition, where she was a consistent winner, helped immensely in exposing Filipinos to the modern art movement that was dominant in the West. In the conflict between the Conservatives and Modernists, which escalated in the early fifties, Anita straddled both schools. Her angular lines, distended figures and bold strokes classified her as modern, but her predilection for genre earned her the label of “female Amorsolo,” hence of the conservative school. The charm of Anita and her works was said to have softened the grumpy Conservatives, and the general public took to her paintings because they were accessible. Anita’s popularity contributed immensely to the acceptance of modern art in the Philippines, to her being named one of the Thirteen Moderns and to the development of some of the younger artists. Jose Joya and H R Ocampo are said to have learnt from her the technique of using the outlines of shapes to lead the eye around the canvas.
In her studies at the art students’ League in New York and later at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan, Anita learnt different techniques and methods of creating artworks that she later brought to the local art scene. She thus expanded the horizon of modern art by introducing egg tempera, photograms, woodcuts and other media. Though versatile enough to excel in any art medium or technique she chooses—oil, acrylic, lithography, etching on pottery or woodcuts—egg tempera remains Anita’s favourite medium. Early in her career, Anita made a number of artworks in egg tempera, but the physical demands of the medium caused her to abandon it in favour of oils and acrylics. Among the early works done in egg tempera are Pounding Rice (1947), Cooks (1952) and The Fish Market (1953). Today, any work of Anita is much in demand and commands top prices in the art market, but her works in egg tempera are by far the most prized.
In all her artworks and in her own words, Anita exhibited her love of the Philippines. It seems ironic that the foremost Filipina painter whose exhibitions and illustrious body of artworks testify to her love for the Philippines has yet to be given the highest award for any Filipino artist: the National Artist Award. By all counts, she is certainly most deserving. However, having married a Chinese citizen, her Filipino citizenship was wrestled from her. Subsequently, Anita became a citizen of Brazil and then of Canada.
Well-meaning friends and relatives with the National Artist Award in mind have urged her to re-acquire her Filipino citizenship, something allowed by a law passed in the 1970s. But Anita, always humble, has not pursued it.
Anita was always grateful to her husband Robert for giving her a protected feeling regardless of where they lived and what they were doing. She marvelled at how she had so much courage living all over the world with their five children. Remaining at heart a Filipino, this self-assured lady, is confident that her paintings speak to Filipinos and declare her love for the country of her birth.
Robert Ho's notes
What inspires me most about Anita is her kindness, generosity of heart and inner serenity. During our long conversations, she never spoke ill of anyone. Watching her paint is like witnessing someone in meditation. Her belief is that she is an instrument of God, manifesting His will. This is best described in a poem she wrote and lived by. — Robert Ho
If I could but paint the sunset,
with the emotions aroused in me,
To unfold its passionate beauty
as ‘tis reflected on the sea;
The yellow as it blends with fire,
red-hot as it meets the cold;
The violet twilight creeping in
struggling with the gold!
The ever-changing shapes of clouds,
now pink; now grey; now white;
The multi-coloured glaze above,
the heavens extremely bright!
I gaze at my drab colours
and at the grandeur that is Thine;
Lord, how can I depict Thy work,
without Thy hand in mine?
Anita Magsaysay Ho
5 January 1945