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Close Up Fernando Zobel: Get To Know The Artist And His Dreams

Fernando Zobel: Get To Know The Artist And His Dreams

Fernando Zobel: Get To Know The Artist And His Dreams
By Gino Dormiendo
June 04, 2021
An artist, art educator, and philanthropist: Fernando Zobel had lofty dreams for Philippine art. Tatler Philippines elucidates on the man and his vision.

This feature story was originally titled as Zobel: The Artist and His Dream published in the August 2005 issue of Tatler Philippines.

As a child and well throughout the incipient period of his artistic life, Fernando Zobel de Ayala (1924-1984) had one recurring obsession: he dreamed of building a museum that would house his personal collection of Philippine art. His lofty desire to educate a public on modern art, along with his own sympathy for artists who needed help in their art-making, propelled the young Zobel to become a collector. He believed that that the best way to support artists was to buy their works and help them get started in their careers.

More than just an artist, Zobel was known for magnanimity throughout his life, whether it was drawing for the children he encountered on the streets of Spain or obtaining scholarships for young, gifted artists back home in the Philippines.

The artist Fernando Zobel in his youthful days
The artist Fernando Zobel in his youthful days

Zobel belonged to an affluent and influential family well entrenched in the country’s business world. A Spanish citizen at birth, the son of Enrique Zobel de Ayala and Fermina Montojo, he was nine years old when his family decided to move back to their home in Madrid, Spain.

Besides being a successful businessman, Enrique Zobel was a philanthropist and patron of the arts. He was also a skilled essayist who contributed regularly to the newspapers of the day. For his work, he was awarded the Isabel la Catolica del Merito Civil. In his later years, Zobel established the Premio Zobel, a prestigious literary prize that honours Filipinos who have made contributions to Spanish culture. (Don Enrique’s grandnephew and grandniece, Alejandro Padilla and Georgina Padilla de Mac-Crohon are now in charge of bestowing the prize.) It is not farfetched to assume that the young Fernando would have been influenced by the artistic leanings of his father.

When his family returned to the Philippines in 1936, Fernando studied at De La Salle College, and proceeded to pursue a pre-med course at the University of Santo Tomas. It was in 1942, after the outbreak of the Pacific War, when the 18-year-old Zobel developed a spinal deficiency, a lingering ailment that forced him to spend most of the year in bed. While recuperating, he started to sketch, drawing scenes observed through the window, the faces of his family, and things that caught his precocious mind. He also devoted a great deal of his time to reading, realizing later on that he had practically read many of the titles assigned to students in college. He was, in the words of his niece Rocio Zobel, a “voracious reader” and his interests besides painting extended to archaeology, comparative religion, philosophy and art history.

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"El Balcon II", 1964. Acrylic on canvas, from the Ayala Museum Collection.
"El Balcon II", 1964. Acrylic on canvas, from the Ayala Museum Collection.

After the war, Zobel went to the United States to finish a course in philosophy and letters at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude. It is told that having decided to get ready for history and literature, the first thing he did was buy a box of oil paint. It was mainly his interest in painting that made him stay on as a bibliographical researcher at the university. It was around this time that he met artists from Boston, such as Reed Champion, Hyman Bloom, and Jim Pfeufer, who helped launch his career in the arts. He began to take up painting seriously, and as he wrote to a friend, “You must create not only paintings but the people that go with them.”

The period between the 1950s to the ’60s, a time of recovery and rebuilding in the Philippines, was particularly trying for the fledgling artist. Zobel was toying with the idea of building a museum of modern art in the Philippines. His associates in Manila were enthusiastic at the museum prospect, and soon began discussing plans for its establishment. But, with only three people present in the group’s last and final meeting, Zobel, totally exasperated, stood on a chair and wrote on the wall: “Do we want a museum?”

The project was aborted and promptly abandoned.

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"Vasata", 1960. Oil on canvas from the Ayala Museum Collection
"Vasata", 1960. Oil on canvas from the Ayala Museum Collection

For the Modern and the Abstract

In 1952, Zobel held his first solo exhibition at the Philippine Art Gallery, then operated by the writer Lydia Arguilla. The war between the moderns and the conservatives that began a few years earlier was still raging, and Zobel, a leading exponent of the former, was all for pushing the borders of the then-emerging abstract style. Thus, Zobel chose to mount a show that immediately opened the eyes of the public to modern art, with works that were “subtle,” “subdued” or “understated”. Though he wanted to depart from the Boston style, he was virtually hooked on abstraction. However, having become dissatisfied with his works, he abandoned his first attempts and even destroyed many of his works. At this period, a deeply personal battle raged as he tried to balance his business life and the overpowering need to paint.

Sometime in 1954, he returned to the United States and entered the Rhode Island School of Design, and discovered the works of Mark Rothko, soon to become a famous American abstractionist. “I was astonished,” recalled Zobel, “at looking at some pictures absolutely without topic. Rothko used big masses of colour while I essentially was a designer.” It was a turning point for the artist to embrace a radically different philosophy, more Eastern in sensibility, and decidedly closer in spirit to his roots in the Philippines.

What ensued was a protracted period of artistic trial, and Zobel, though growing wary of the Boston style that had fascinated him, was yet unable to find what he really wanted in the realm of abstraction. He would go into creative spells, working on his abstract pieces, but the perfectionist in him could not just be cajoled into instantly liking what he had painted. He finally abandoned his earlier style, dumped his finished works, and started to pursue his muse all over again.

The artist in his studio
The artist in his studio

Zobel joined the faculty of the Ateneo de Manila University in 1956. He was 32, and was undergoing a difficult transition in his art, still in a quandary whether to abandon the Boston style or remain spellbound by Rothko’s fields of colour. He was in the midst of developing his own visual vocabulary. His influence was growing, especially among his students, who found an ally in his ecumenical taste, the breadth and width of his interests, and his intellectually restless, passionately erudite mind.

In 1958, he went back to Spain and befriended such artists as Saura, Sempere, Chirino, Magaz, and Rueda. Prior to his trip, he had quit his job in the family business to concentrate on his art, devoting from thereon his life to painting. It was also around this time that he took serious interest in Chinese and Japanese art, taking classes in calligraphy under Chinese master Ch’en Bing Sun.

In a documentary from the 1980s made by a Spanish television crew, Zobel gave hints of the Eastern influence on his art. “My painting has always been tranquil. I seek order in everything that surrounds me. In order, in the broadest sense of the word, I seek the explanation of beauty. Long ago, I had already been struck by the fact that in Japanese, the adjectives ‘clean’ and ‘beautiful’ are expressed by the same word.”

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Museum of His Dreams

Zobel’s dream of putting up a museum was partially realized when he donated his collection of Philippine modernist art to the Ateneo de Manila University in 1959. Zobel’s donation formed the core of the university gallery. It included priceless international prints, such as those by Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso. Zobel had modestly called it, “a study collection,” though it was to grow in later years and contained prime examples of Philippine modernist art.

His life-long dream finally came to fruition in the city of Cuenca, Spain. At that time, Cuenca was little known save for its Hanging Houses (Casas Colgadas) built on slopes. With the help of the Cuenca mayor, Rodrigo Lozano de la Fuente, Zobel converted the cliff into a museum in 1966. To earmark funds in building the museum, he sold his personal collection of rare stamps, even donating his own paintings to fill up its exhibit spaces. It became known as Museo de Arte Abstracto Espanol, the first museum in the country to house Spanish abstract art. Today, Cuenca is well known for the museum visited by art pilgrims everywhere.

"El Charles IV", 1949. Oil on canvas from the Ayala Museum Collection
"El Charles IV", 1949. Oil on canvas from the Ayala Museum Collection

Zobel became a byword for the museum he founded. In fact, in 1967, Alfred H Barr Jr, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) came visiting. After touring the museum premises, he spoke to Zobel, saying it was the most beautiful museum he had ever seen. Zobel asked him to repeat his comment, and repeat loudly he did. Barr was made honorary curator on the spot.

Perhaps Barr was impressed by the organisation of Zobel’s studio as well, which was always immaculate, and everything in order. Among Zobel’s quirks were his extraordinary neatness and attention to detail, which bordered on the obsessive. He would document nearly everything in his life, leaving volumes of sketches, journals and essays upon his death – a veritable treasure-trove for scholars in the years to come.

In 1963, King Juan Carlos of Spain conferred on Zobel the Medalla de Oro al Merito en las Bellas Artes.The King had told him it was long due him, and Zobel concurred, jokingly. Humour was another trait Zobel was known for, and his self-deprecating wit won him many friends and admirers.

Spain’s highest accolade would come shortly before his death in 1984, when he was elected to the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. By that time, Zobel was a byword in international art circles, as famous as the museum that he built.

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"Boy with Kite," 1952. Oil on wood from the Ayala Museum Collection
"Boy with Kite," 1952. Oil on wood from the Ayala Museum Collection

Much earlier, in 1962, the Ateneo de Manila University had conferred on Zobel an honorary doctorate and appointed him honorary director of the Ateneo Art Gallery. It was in fact as a teacher in art that Zobel would leave his imprint. As teacher, he opened his students’ eyes to art – to objects of art and, more importantly, the art of seeing. Among the people who had attended his lectures was the late Leandro Locsin (later proclaimed National Artist for Architecture) although he was not enrolled as a student. Enthralled, Locsin spoke of hero worship for the man who would “talk a little about music and compare painting to that, or compare it to dance, then talk about history, a lot of things.”

Loyal Followers

Zobel was highly revered by then-emerging abstract artists, such as Arturo Luz and Lee Aguinaldo, who were beginning to carve a name for themselves and badly needed a role model who would inspire their passion for abstraction.

Two of Zobel’s enthusiastic students emerged to become the country’s foremost art critics: Leonides Benesa and Emmanuel Torres. Torres would go back to the Ateneo as a teacher and later became the director of the Ateneo University Gallery, a post he would hold until his retirement. It was also the Ateneo that published his book, Philippine Religious Imagery, in 1963, an analytical study of the impact of religion on Philippine art and culture. In this book, Zobel laid out his pursuit of the Filipino artistic expression. His book, Cuenca: Sketchbook of a Spanish Hill, published in 1970, is a visual chronicle of the city that he loved most and lived longest.

A photograph taken for his El Monte, Sevilla exhibition catalog in 1984
A photograph taken for his El Monte, Sevilla exhibition catalog in 1984
Homenaje a Teobado Boehm, 1976. Hand-tinted print from the Ayala Museum Collection
Homenaje a Teobado Boehm, 1976. Hand-tinted print from the Ayala Museum Collection

Zobel was so steeped in the intellectual milieu as a teacher and writer, though his activities extended beyond the academic boundaries. He wrote essays for exhibition catalogues of his artist-friends, delivered lectures in Manila and on many occasions elsewhere throughout his life. In 1975, he was appointed by Harvard University as a member of the school’s advisory committee for the acquisitions of rare books and manuscripts. As a letter writer, he continued to parlay his thoughts and his erudition to situations and developments.

In one of his letters to a friend about the New Realisms at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, in 1964, when pop art was in its heyday, Zobel wrote: “Super exhibition at the Janis. Super catalogue. Everything’s super except the objects. I found them forced and boring.”

He would write an addendum the following year: “Pop art feeds off the advertisement, the photograph, vulgarity. To my mind, this double digestion is excessive: the first is quite enough. The rasping sensation produced by the pile of cans of soup is something I feel and have felt perfectly without needing Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol to show me.”

It was in Rome, in 1984, that Zobel met an untimely demise, the victim of a massive heart attack. The news of his death, at 60, was a great shock to his family and relatives in the Philippines. He was in fact at work on a new project, Zobel’s Dialogos, a series of paintings that comments on the works of the masters, many of which he had seen while visiting famous museums across Europe.

In his eulogy, the Spanish academic Antonio Bonnet Correa praised the rare gifts of Zobel the intellectual, characterising him as “an enthusiastic promoter of disinterested, almost impossible, undertakings” and as “a mirror for academicians and an artist with a passion for beauty, (who) now forms a full part of the history of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.”

The artist during his Harvard school days
The artist during his Harvard school days

An Artist’s Life

With his numerous travels and manifold interests, Zobel had long and precious moments of contemplation, a purely mystical way of arriving at the singular element that had, as he wrote in his diaries, captured his gaze, such as the effect of light, or a rhythm. He believed that the first phase in his creative process was meditation, and the stages that followed involved calculation and intuition in eliminating and selecting details, a reductive process that abstract artists true to their name has foresworn to uphold.

There was also another equally revealing way Zobel worked with memory, not that of his own, but the viewer’s – “climate painting,” as he calls it. And these paintings that delve into a storehouse of memories complemented his Dialogos. As man and as artist, Zobel had lived for the free exchange of ideas between artist and audience. He chose to be a bachelor until his death, totally unhampered by familial obligations, having married his art, his lover and muse. While Zobel never married, he was never alone. His home was open to whoever wanted to visit – and it is told that the doors to his studio were never locked. True enough, a steady stream of visitors, whom Zobel unfailingly entertained, always broke his solitude, and oftentimes, his work.

Six years after his death, in 1990, a book on him, simply titled Zobel by Dr Rod Paras-Perez,was a fitting tribute to the man who helped change the course of art in the country. He was a man of boundless generosity, whose most generous acts were born out of the need for conversations that in his final works were silent dialogues between the viewer and the artist. Until his death, Fernando Zobel was, an eminent art collector Benito Legarda’s words, still “helping shape the Filipino element that is not completely derivative of foreign models.”The late Purita Kalaw Ledesma paid him tribute by acknowledging that “Zobel lifted the vision of Filipino artists from the purely parochial to the international level.”

In his relatively short life, the artist bequeathed a legacy for a new generation of Filipino artists in pursuit of identity. Its value can only be summed up in one word: priceless.

Read more: A Sneak Peek At Fernando Zóbel's Catalogue Raisonné


The works of Fernando Zobel are featured in the exhibition, Pioneers of Philippine Art at the Ayala Museum. More information is available at the website fernandozobel.com

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Close Up From The Tatler Archives Artist In Focus Fernando Zobel Zobel de Ayala Artist Modernist Post-War Philippines Filipino Artists National Artist

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