Mabuhay Joya!
ARTWEB - Ruben Defeo () - June 16, 2003 - 12:00am
Last June 3 was the 72nd birth anniversary of the late José T. Joya Jr. And what a poignant birthday present for him that the official announcement declaring him as National Artist for the Visual Arts this year came out in the papers the same day.

Joya must now be beaming in heaven with the much-delayed honor. Of the five men declared by the President as National Artists this year, it is only Joya who is being honored posthumously. In this case, Joya will no longer be able to bask in this latest glory reaped on his person.

I need not dwell here on the issue of Joya being bypassed for the awards on several occasions. One only has to refer to the eye-popping piece written by Bambi Harper last year where she listed down the petty reasons for such a grave omission.

But that is all water under the bridge now. What matters is, finally, Joya is our National Artist. And we heartily applaud.

With this honor, the nation is richer for this well-deserved vindication, nay rectification. On a particular plane, the University of the Philippines brings to seven the number of National Artists for the Visual Arts in its fold, out of a league of 12 thus far honored. Joya also becomes the fourth dean of the UP College of Fine Arts (1970-1978) accorded this distinction, together with Fernando Amorsolo (1938-1952), Guillermo Tolentino (1952-1955) and Napoleon V. Abueva (1978-1989). The other three – Carlos Francisco, Vicente Manansala and Cesar Legaspi – are all alumni of the UPCFA.

During his lifetime, Joya was hailed several ways: "Prophet avatar of Expressionism," "exponent of pure painting" and "pillar of Philippine art." He was the Filipino painter. As the eminent Leo Benesa once chronicled, in the mid-’60s, Philippine painting was a Joya painting.

Joya, without doubt, is a household name in Philippine art, the way Juan Luna and Fernando Amorsolo might have enjoyed the distinction during their times.

The cognoscenti and the dilettanti not only know his name. More importantly, they are aware of his art – his colors, his technique, his medium, his message and above all, his value.

Joya splendidly remained consistent and steadfast in his artistic creations. Other than his familiar four-letter black signature, each work carried the stamp of a highly personal style, a style that was not accidentally discovered overnight, but nurtured through years of a painting career that strung more than four decades. Each work was a result of painstaking tests, one after the other, all to pave the way for the eventual mastery of what we now recognize as the Joya style.

His early works and drawings were naturally representational, easily debunking the popular myth that abstractionists are unskilled draftsmen. Joya believed in draftsmanship as a necessary tool in painting. He subscribed to the philosophy of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres that drawing was the best armature of a painting. During his early stages of painting, he would make earnest and fastidious studies before approaching the canvas with his brush.

In Joya on Joya, the artist personally chronicled his stylistic development:

"As my experience widened, however, I abandoned this method in favor of direct execution of paint on canvas. Occasionally, my drawings of this earlier period became independent studies conveying distinctive expressions. Though descriptive on the whole, they embodied my artistic insights and profound observations of man, evolving from – but not necessarily mirroring – objective reality. I was then primarily interested in capturing the essence of the subject and in the artistic elaboration of my concept, qualities that frequently asserted themselves in my abstract art.

"Although I may occasionally alter to modify objects in the process of creation, drawing has always been my most direct form of relating to the universe around me. Embodying the seeds of an idea – especially in my earlier works – drawing, for me, has always represented complete, exacting works of art. This is specially true today when my drawings have ceased to be adjuncts to my paintings."

Joya’s straying into Philippine art happened at a most opportune moment. The country was just convalescing from the ravages of war. As the people began to rebuild their homes, there was an apparent and insistent craving for comfort and beauty, if only to make up for the ugliness and grief wrought by the war. The latest architectural trends were cultivated and applied. Interior decorators, formerly a forgotten group, were once again commissioned to work, and they, in turn, took to paintings and sculptures as décor. Soon thereafter, it became fashionable for an oil portrait of the lady of the house to lord over the living room of the new home.

The prevailing consciousness of the period paved the way for fresh, if not new, visual idioms in the arts. The years that followed saw Joya traveling to the United States and Europe to further expand his knowledge in art. He obtained his Master of Fine Arts from Cranbrook Academy in Ann Arbor, Michigan, took up printmaking studies at the Pratt Institute in New York, and avidly quaffed the ambiance of the great masterpieces in the museums and galleries all over Europe.

Upon his return, he introduced abstract expressionism in the country and thereby expanded the repertoire of modernism in the country, a legacy that is so secure and so pervading, especially today.

Joya’s paintings, as noted by art critic and poet Recaredo Demetillo in the 60s, "are the most brilliant in the country, vital, suggestive. He has given us a new way of seeing the familiar, and therefore his art recovers marvel for all who behold his canvases that are characterized by spatial tensions, calligraphic boldness, and interesting patterns of textures and colors."

Joya was the first Filipino painter to be linked with abstract expressionism or action painting, New York school. It may well be said that he "internationalized" Philippine contemporary art by representing the Philippines at the 32nd Venice Biennial, in 1964, the only time the country ever participated in that prestigious international art exhibition and competition to date.

The works exhibited in Venice (e.g., "Hills of Nikko," "Granadian Arabesque," "Karate Blow," "Quiapo Black Nazarene Festival," and others) belonged to this stylistic phase, which was described by critics as his "exploding galaxy" period where forms and shapes fly outward from a nuclear center.

The Venice Biennial paintings constituted one of the most exciting chapters in Philippine contemporary painting, and in fact established Joya as a major painter in the country, second to none in his chosen field.

The year Joya was born, 1931, also marked the occasion when Tirso Cruz, legendary band conductor in the country that time, composed Mabuhay – My Philippines! James King Steele, then executive secretary of the Philippine Tourist Association, set the inspired lyrics to Cruz’s music. The song did not only combine Philippine savor with the characteristic jazzed up mood of the period, it also introduced to the world a new word of cheer. As the song goes,

Deutschland toasts with prosit, Sweden answers skoll

England says here’s cheerio, and lifts the flowing bowl.

Hawaii sings aloha, Japan shouts her banzai

But out in the Philippines you hear this cheery cry

We say Mabuhay, we say Mabuhay

Under the blue sky when our friends sit by

Greeting a farewell, a toast that will wear well,

We lift our glasses and say Mabuhay!

The catchy tune was played and sung for the first time on May 16, 1931, by the Manila Hotel Orchestra with the composer himself as conductor. Soon after, everyone was singing and dancing to it in prewar gay abandon.

Eighteen days later, on June 3, half the hour past 1 early in the morning, José Tanig Joya Jr. was born. It was as if the ditty lustily heralded the infant’s parturition. The 64 years that followed cogently fleshed out the zestful cheer of the song.

Joya may not have lived as a musician like Tirso Cruz. But what he was unable to compose or express in music, he exquisitely sang them in his paintings.

Like any other child of his generation, he satisfied his urge to draw with the quotidian yellow Mongol pencil and Crayolas prescribed in elementary school. Ill-proportioned figures initially populated every surface his hands could get on, including house walls to the distress of his parents, school desks to the dismay of his teachers, even frontispieces of books. A precocious child, the young Joya never understood why these should be left undecorated. He decided to do something about it, a situation psychologists would have doubtless interpreted as symbolic of childhood aspirations.

Joya’s prodigiousness for drawing made him oblivious of time and environment. At school, he was inclined to inattention, doodling endlessly. He was impressed and fascinated by the magical images of the drawings his gifted hand brought to life before his very eyes. "Those moments of extreme delight and satisfaction," Joya recorded, "were soon to be forgotten and replaced by pages of notebooks, reams of scrap paper, even telephone pads as my voracious hands continued, almost unconsciously, to conjure up faces and animal shapes from sheets of blank paper. Volumes of these youthful outpourings have long since disappeared, destroyed by indifference and neglect. They remain in my memory, however, as the touchstones of my widening and expanding visual vocabulary."

One of these drawings, done by Joya circa 1936 when he was about five years old, fortunately survived the cruel onslaught of time. Joya did it on the frontispiece of a Bureau of Customs pamphlet in the library collection then of his father. The very economic linear drawing was executed in pencil, and it reflected Joya’s early experimentation with the basic elements of lines and shapes.

It was not until June 20, 1949, when he was admitted to the UP School of Fine Arts, that his education as an artist was formalized. During his first semester in the university, he enrolled in seven subjects – Still Life Drawing, Pictorial Perspective, Watercolor Paintings, Introduction to the Arts, Pictorial Composition, Elementary Modeling and English 1. When the semester was over, his student records revealed a creative genius in the making. With flat 1.00 in two courses, Watercolor Painting and Introduction to the Arts, his average for the period was 1.45, thus making him a university scholar.

In the nine semesters more that followed, Joya earned a consistent record-high academic performance. Four years later, on April 14, 1953, Joya, with a general weighted average of 1.39, graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting, magna cum laude, the first time such honors were bestowed by the school since its founding in 1908.

His death on May 11, 1995 may have stilled the brushes that he virtuously wielded to bequeath sparkling gems to Philippine painting. But certainly, Joya’s artistic legacy that the nation is finally recognizing with his elevation to the Hall of National Artists, shall endure forever. Like the song that ushered his birth, his art will always be synonymous to cheer.

To Joya, we joyously say Mabuhay!
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