Bettina’s memories of Onib Olmedo

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas - The Philippine Star

Family and friends, as well as some of the country’s leading art collectors, recently gathered at Manila House, a membership club at the Bonifacio Global City, to celebrate Onib Olmedo’s 80th birth anniversary. The exhibit featured paintings from his iconic “Vienna Collection” – first presented at the Philippine Embassy in Vienna, Austria, in June 1996 – the last art exhibit of Olmedo before he died in the same year.

Onib Olmedo, born in Manila on July 7, 1937, has been acclaimed by critics as “a major artist of the 20th century, who has played a significant role in the history of Philippine art.”  

The artist’s widow, Bettina, who more than anybody else, knew him as artist and person, said at the opening of the exhibit, that Onib “created  a body of works that utilizes the figurative expressionist technique of distortion to portray the inner torment experienced by modern man. His paintings have a disturbing but ennobling effect on the viewer, celebrating the ultimate triumph of the human spirit in the face of intense pain and anguish. His paintings are soul portraits of the denizens of Sampaloc and Ermita, Manila’s red light and entertainment district, as well as people from the upper strata of society.”

Olmedo garnered all the major awards during his lifetime, including those given by the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Art Association of the Philippines, Mobil Oil Philippines, and the Manila city government. In 1992, he placed the Philippines in the world map, winning an award for two of his ink wash paintings, “The Apartment” and “Concert at the Alley,” at the prestigious competition in Cagnes Sur Mer, France – the very first Filipino to be accorded such a distinction. In the 80s and 90s, according to Bettina, Onib reached “the apex of his career, marking a new era in Philippine art when the public showed their adulation for his work, proving that he had succeeded in raising their art consciousness to a level that went beyond the appreciation of paintings as mere ornamental pieces, grasping their nuances in terms of their cathartic value.”  

 Bettina proudly described the influence of Onib Olmedo as being “felt to this day, with young artists, who are his self-confessed disciples, producing paintings inspired by their figurative expressionist master, at art exhibits presented as tributes to one of the Philippines’ most important  artists.” 

A word about Bettina. She is a woman of note herself. Gifted with good looks and a good mind, she  graduated summa cum laude from St. Scholastica’s College, worked as a well-respected  public relations officer whose book on her experiences as PR specialist, won the coveted Public Relations Society of the Philippines award. 

Flashback to the summer of 1996. The Olmedo  home was abuzz with excitement. Onib Olmedo was then the toast of Manila. Four years earlier, he had won an award at the prestigious art competition in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, France, for two of his ink wash paintings. Locally, the society matrons who used to declare that they wouldn’t even hang Onib’s paintings in their bathroom, were now queueing up to commission him to do original Onibs – custom-made for each of them.” Two years earlier, Onib and Bettina had celebrated their silver anniversary as a married couple in 1994.

And now, the Philippine Ambassador to Austria, Jose Zaide, better known as “Toto,” had invited Onib  to put up an art exhibit in Vienna, with the participation of two other Filipino painters – Manny Baldemor and Gus Albor.

Bettina and daughters Bambi and Franjo went with Onib to Vienna. There the family  spent some of their happiest moments in their lives.

It was summer time in Europe, the weather was cool and nice,  allowing the family to take long walks. Vienna, the capital city of Austria, was as pretty as a postcard. The flowers were in full bloom. The family strolled down the cobbled streets, having a magical experience. They  spent hours viewing the exquisite paintings in museums and walked at the park on Sundays where Onib waltzed with his “girls” to the strains of the music provided by a string ensemble.  

Onib – a coffee drinker who could gulp down as many as five to seven cups per day, and a non-gourmet who could eat pork and beans straight from the can – now found himself daintily sipping tea and savoring delicate-tasting pastries and cakes in one of Vienna’s tea parlors.  

Finally, the big day came – the opening of Onib Olmedo’s art exhibit. The paintings, now known as the “Vienna Collection,” represent the quintessential Onib. Said Bettina: “They feature exquisitely grotesque portraits that capture the loneliness and profound sense of alienation experienced by his favorite subject – musicians – as well as the diverse personalities whom he met in the neighborhood where he lived, Sampaloc, and his watering holes in the district of Ermita. There are also lovely still lifes and a painting depicting two ballet dancers, inspired by the period in our daughters’ lives, when they became obsessed with ballet, just like many other young girls who dream of becoming great ballerinas someday.”

 “These works bear the hallmarks of Onib Olmedo’s figurative expressionist style – distortion and unorthodox composition that enable him to evoke in the viewer an experience like no other:  the opportunity to join him in his quest to explore the innermost recesses of the human psyche – the turmoil and the anguish, the tumult and the pain, and ultimately – the transcendence of modern man over life’s trials and tribulations.”

There is no art critic who adequately described her  husband’s unique style, said Bettina.  It was their   two daughters – then only 6 and 8 years old – who hit the nail on the head, blurting out on different occasions, as they watched Onib passionately painting his works in his studio: “Daddy, bakit and galing mong gumawa ng pangit?” (Dad why do you paint ugly faces so well?) If the social media had existed then, that statement would have gone viral, said Bettina.  “As it turned out -- at that time, the mainstream media instantly picked it up, and it became the most famous quotation in art circles during the seventies.”

Gilda Cordero Fernando once wrote a dedication in the books that she gave the two Olmedo daughters: “Bakit ba palagi na lang sinasabi nila na puro pangit and gawa ni Onib? (Why do people say Onib painted only grotesque figures?) The two of you are the greatest proofs that marunong rin palang gumawa ng maganda si Onib ( He knew how to paint beautiful faces as well).

“Actually, these statements are not contradictory,” Bettina said. “We can reconcile them in my description of Onib’s work: to my mind, Onib’s paintings are beautifully grotesque, and grotesquely beautiful.” Words from the lips of Bettina, who loved Onib and his works, and not necessarily in that order.

The 80th birth year anniversary exhibit of Onib Olmedo was organized by Right Mind Philippines, which seeks to bring Filipino artistry to Asia and the rest of the world. The company is headed by Rocky David, a young, trend-setting businessman, whose partner is Maiqui Pineda, a millennial entrepreneur. The event was handled by Bambina Olivares, who is in charge of the art, cultural, and educational programs of Manila House. The exhibit was curated by publicist Lisa Nakpil. 

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