Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp
Curated by Dannie Alvarez
Exhibition and catalogue written by Cid Reyes
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The Metropolitan Museum of Manila presents the retrospective exhibition of Betsy Westendorp, a beloved artist born in 1927 in Madrid, Spain. By virtue of her marriage to Spanish-Filipino Antonio Brias in the 1950s and a lifetime residency in Manila, Westendorp has through the decades become a perceptive observer and, more importantly, an active participant in the Philippine art scene. As such, Westendorp has produced and shared with the Philippines an astonishing body of works, now highlighted in PASSAGES: Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp.
In 1976, His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain bestowed on Betsy Westendorp the distinguished Lazo de Dama, an exclusive Order and the equivalent of knighthood for women. Beyond measure, Westendorp has enriched the artistic heritage of her adopted country, the Philippines. In recognition of the artist’s valued contribution to Philippine art, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Merit in 2008.
The exhibition gathers Westendorp’s portraits of the society elite of Madrid and Manila, her landscapes of Philippine terrain, seascapes of Manila Bay, her colorful celebration of Philippine flora, especially the various species of the native orchid, and, literally in the sunset of her years, the grand symphonic cloudscapes across Philippine skies. Over 100 artworks of the artist’s illustrious painting career form this retrospective collection, celebrating her journeys that span more than sixty years of prolific art practice.
Portraits: Confronting Mortality
By her own admission, Betsy was first a portraitist before becoming a painter of flowers. Evidence abounds in the many early portraits of her own family. Of the excessive personal ornamentation of attire and jewelry of the nineteenth century, she will have little use. In truth, she has a discrete distaste for it. That type of Philippine portraiture goes against the grain of her painterly reserve. Betsy believes that at its core the art of portraiture is about character, personality, identity, dignity, essential nature—and all these, as it were, written all over the face.
For Betsy, presence is all. It is the foremost reason why she stages the sitter as a solitary figure, bereft of any external appurtenances that only tend to detract attention from the subject of the portrait. No props to buttress any preconceived glamorous scene—for there is to be none. Occasionally, when Betsy feels it proper, the subject is seen against a lavish flutter of orchids. Otherwise, for the sitter, Betsy envisions not a physical space that will perforce situate the subject in real time; rather, she creates a dream landscape, a vision of an individual impervious to discerning or intrusive gaze, remote somehow, outside of time. Upon completion, the portrait often assumes the character of an apparition.
Landscapes and Seascapes: Nature Beautified by Art
Of the beauty of Betsy’s Taal scenery, it seemed as if she had “transported” her critic-friend Elena Flores to the actual place, as indeed she was in transport when she rhapsodized:
“There is a special beauty in these paintings. Although it is usually said that nature imitates art, here we can say that nature is beautified by art. Taal Volcano is studied in its different moments: at sunset from the town of Tagaytay, in broad daylight, at dawn and from diverse angles. The hues of blue, the skies, the mists that envelop some dusks and dawns show the crater’s silhouettes and the tiny flowers by a brook, the kakawate tree surrounded by greenery and in its branches with pink flowers embellish the Taal’s perspective and the smaller volcano craters that emerge from the lake’s surface. The fire tree also adorns a few scenes, from a piece of land that frames the volcanic panorama under cloudy skies.”
Landscapes and Seascapes: Nature Beautified by Art
Corollary to the seascapes are the underwater scenes where Betsy finds a distinct pleasure in limning the shapes and whorls of seashells. Often Betsy isolates the image of the nautilus, singly in its contained glory as pure form, taking particular delight in its minute detail. Till her late eighties, Betsy Westendorp would still swim daily in the residential building’s swimming pool. For sure, the activity is one physical exercise that keeps her, in the autumn of her years, in good stead. Submerged in the pool’s clear waters, Betsy can luxuriate in the bliss of long-ago memories when, with her paintbrush and colors, she can summon, gracefully, the wondrous sea into her art.
Flowers: In Perpetual Bloom
Whilst in the beginning she has painted a variety of flowers, such as the hydrangeas, poppies, peonies, birds of paradise, azaleas, irises, sunflowers, and water lilies worthy of Monet, the best of Betsy’s works are dominated by the orchid, forming a large part of her oeuvre. This hothouse tropical flower is ultimately the subject, the image, that drove her floral art to its peak of excellence. It will not be an exaggeration to claim that, having journeyed to distant Philippines, Betsy was to find the subject that she was born to paint. This was itself, according to the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, “half of the work done.”
“The flowers die so soon…,” rued Van Gogh. Betsy too was aware of that. She did the thing that would keep her flowers ever fresh and imperishable: she bred them in her memory. Like some avid botanist, she had closely studied their physical structure and preserved them not only in her memory bank, impervious to the changing seasons and the passage of time. Betsy absorbed their essence, internalized them consciously and subconsciously, to fuel her aesthetic engine. Thus, all her flowers are painted from memory, where they are always present and in perpetual bloom.
Atmosferografias: The Search for Celestial Space
It was the late Elena Flores, the distinguished Spanish critic, who christened the heretofore prosaic series “Cloudscapes” with something that transcended the visible world. Flores ascribed to the series the label “Atmosferografias.” Flores wrote, “After searching in several Spanish dictionaries of the 20th and 19th centuries where I found nothing, until, at last, there it was, in a dictionary published in 1852. Inscribed in the fourth meaning of the Spanish word for ‘atmosphere’—as a generic word—it specified its derivations into the word atmospherograph, which means: ‘Description of the atmosphere and its qualities.'”
These section notes are excerpts from the forthcoming Passages: Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp catalogue written by Cid Reyes, co-published by the Metropolitan Museum of Manila and the De La Salle University Publishing House.
The exhibition is presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Manila with the support of Pioneer Insurance and Surety Corporation, and the De La Salle University Publishing House.
Patrons: Alay Kay Inang Maria Foundation, Ramon Antonio, Antonio and Maricris Brias, Rosemarie T. Delgado, Jay and Ana De Ocampo (of Wildflour), Raul and Joanna Francisco, Randy and Irene Francisco, Antonio and Linda Lagdameo, Jaime Ponce de Leon, Alfonso and Yolanda Reyno, Beatrice Roxas, Carlos and Isabelita Salinas, Rick and Bonnie Santos/Santos Knight Frank, Teresita Sy-Coson, Steve and Loli Sy/ (Focus Global, Inc.), Bienvenido Tantoco, Sr. (SSI Group, Inc.), Rico and Nena Tantoco (Sta. Elena Golf & Country Estate), Wilfred and Kerri Uytengsu, Randy and Pia Young, and Jaime and Bea Zobel de Ayala.