Bencab sings Lennon-McCartney
Edgar O. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - November 15, 2015 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – Upon viewing the ongoing retrospective of National Artist Benedicto “Bencab” Cabrera, Bencab: The Filipino Artist, at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila (MMM), the link of his art to the Beatles, particularly John Lennon and Paul McCartney, finally turned apparent.

Bencab never painted the Beatles but his art is suffused with strains and themes of Lennon-McCartney songs such as Existentialism (Nowhere Man), mother and child (Golden Slumbers), the working class (Ob-bla-di Ob-bla-da) and scums of society (Maggie Mae). His works circa 1960 depict them in the Filipino experience.

Pursuing art at the same time the Beatles turned rock ’n rollers in the early ’60s Bencab officially marked 1965 as the beginning of his artistic evolution. He is currently celebrating his 50th year as artist with Bencab: 50 Creative Years involving year-long multi-venue exhibits and other related events, such as Philippine Ballet Theater’s Sabel.

In 1966, Beatriz “Betsy” Romualdez, niece of then First Lady Imelda Marcos, opened Cafe Los Indios Bravos on Mabini St. Malate. Manila. Romualdez had in mind setting up a Greenwich Village-capable community of artists and writers. The way it turned out, they included Marcos boys, rebels with causes, substance abusers and other hangers-on.

With its colonial ambience of stained glass windows and turn-of-the century furnishings interrupted only by a spiral staircase that led to the mezzanine, Indios Bravos put the urban culturatis on a time warp. To complete the European atmosphere, a Tiffany lamp hanged over the top table presided over by Virgie Moreno and Romualdez if Nick Joaquin or Jose Garcia Villa were not visiting. Bohemians in chic versions of the moptop and hipster fashion mix it up with barong-clad men attempting to fit like square pegs in a circle. They argued about art and artifice, evolution and revolution, environment and existentialism, or anything and everything over hot or cold brew.

Decorated with age-beaten santos side by side with Charlie Chaplin as a tramp, the disc jockey spinned Edith Piaf to the Beatles. This hip incongruity was where Manila’s beautiful people and intelligentsia gathered at night. Avid participants in the mind games included Bencab in the periphery, observing and absorbing.

On July 4, 1966, the Beatles had two sold-out concerts at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. Close to the Manila Hotel where the moptops were billeted, McCartney wandered into Ermita the following morning with road manager Mal Evans for sightseeing and local color. He stopped over on Mabini St., particularly at the art galleries where he bought two paintings from Sining gallery as souvenirs. One was Bencab’s acrylic on canvas, Fishing in Sexmoan (1966).

Being a newbie painter, McCartney bought Bencab’s work purely on artistic merit. He was clueless about him as he had yet to hold a solo exhibit. With a developing post-modern spirit, McCartney must have recognized a vital energy in the artwork, a cross between a painting and a drawing.

Bencab eventually decided to leave Bambang St. in Manila where he had been living for years with his parents. Moving to the apartment adjacent to Los Indios Bravos, he turned the ground floor into an art exhibit space which he named Gallery Indigo and rented a room in the mezzanine floor as his studio-cum-living quarter.

Working at a newspaper by day and breathing bohemia at the café at night, he could exhale his angst on the canvases in his studio and doze off once his creative juices run dry. It was a very convenient arrangement as he could be with like-minds and be himself at will.

In the same year, Bencab held his first solo show about scavengers at the opening of Gallery Indigo, showing oil and acrylic paintings with nebulous human figures priced at P500 and pen-and-ink drawings at P100 of his preferred subjects of squatter shanties. Alfredo Roces described it as “festooned by balloons to make any hippie forget pot.”

In this exhibit, Bencab put faces into Lennon-McCartney’s themes depicting them as pained looks of voiceless acceptance in a milieu that is empty or possibly decaying. He debuted show-stealer Sabel in the oil on canvas Sabel in San Andres Bukid (1966). Bencab chanced upon the real-life vagabond mad woman he named Sabel rummaging among the neighborhood garbage while living in the family’s rented house in Bambang.

Besides this painting on display at the MMM retrospective, there is also Scavengers (1966) from this exhibit.

Sabel could be Bencab’s visual interpretation of Lennon-McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby (“Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been / Lives in a dream / Waits at the window, wearing the face / That she keeps in a jar by the door / Who is it for”) which the Beatles had released before this exhibit.

Nick Joaquin observed in his review titled Hues of Hurts: “The crazed woman whose bed is the Bambang pavement has sardonically became the ‘Lady Madonna’ in the Mother-and-Child Pictures. In one, her face is lifted in a scream, the child astride her back. On another, the child at her breast seems to be at the same time in her womb.”

Did the future National Artist refer to the eponymous Lennon-McCartney song and its mother as prostitute theme (“Lady Madonna, baby at your breast/ Wonders how you manage to feed the rest”)? Regardless, Bencab and Lennon-McCartney shared the universality of the decade’s ethos.

Upon meeting British writer Caroline Kennedy in Los Indios Bravo in 1968, Bencab sketched her head on an ordinary paper napkin. Hey Jude must have played (“You have found her, now go and get her/ Remember to let her into your heart/ Then you can start to make it better”).

Recalled Kennedy about that first meeting with the painter: “He was going to throw (the sketch) away as he thought it was a really bad sketch. But I picked it up and saved it, for some reason. Perhaps because I was falling for him and wanted it as a memento.”

No wonder she found it evocative of the year: “Whenever I hear Hey Jude, my mind immediately drifts back to Indios Bravos.”

Bencab and Kennedy fell in love, got married and lived in London where he rediscovered his Filipino roots.

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