Rediscovering Macario Vitalis the road less taken

- Claude Tayag () - February 27, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines –  In the autumn of 1979, when I had embarked on a cultural immersion trip to Europe, I found myself in Paris staying with family friends Marc and Ofelia (nee Gelvezon, the artist) Tequi in their 19th arrondissement flat in the city of lights. During one long weekend the Tequis drove me, together with some scholars from U.P. studying at the Sorbonne University, to Brittany, some 5 hours’ drive west of Paris, past the autoroute then through narrow country roads, winding through villages, castles and town cathedrals. There, I was introduced for the first time to Macario Vitalis, a Filipino painter living in this picturesque town in Brittany, Plestin le Grèves, since 1957.

He lived in a stone cottage that was part of the property of a chateau overlooking from a hilltop. A family of farmers shared the common courtyard with Vitalis as a well, fed by a spring, and watercress growing in the nearby brook. He asked us to step inside and I was overwhelmed by the profusion of art materials, objects and mementos accumulated over the decades. Near the wide chimney was a large easel on which sat a huge work in progress of hot-air balloons floating over a blue landscape with a yellow rayed sky. This said painting, Air Show, is now with the Lopez Museum.

Like the other Filipino students, I visually explored this cluttered universe in which Vitalis lived. There were books in French and English stacked up on well-worn tables. In some dusty shelves were crystal stem glasses, fine porcelain plates and damask table linen. But there were also paint-stained rags, innumerable oil color tubes, stretched canvases lined up against the wall and the persistent smell of turpentine and linseed oil. Vitalis saw that we were too crowded in his house and felt relieved when Marc proposed we all go somewhere to eat.

The Magician, 1958. In this painting, Vitalis froze the sleight-of-hand trick of birds fluttering in mid-air through his use of shifting, dynamic colors and forms.

We took a big table at the Hotel des Voyageurs, underneath a brilliant landscape painting by Vitalis. After a delicious seafood lunch, we all went to the Town Hall where Vitalis had filled two huge wall panels with a joyous pictorial ode to the town of Plestin. Again, in the Home for the Aged, there was a triptych. It seemed to me that everywhere we went, the town displayed Vitalis paintings. I later learned from Ofelia that many of the townspeople, like the nurse who treated him, the butcher from whom he bought his meat, the hotel owner with whom he went fishing, all had paintings by him.

Ofelia filled me in on the life and struggles of this solitary yet accomplished octogenarian. She first heard of Vitalis in 1963 when he exhibited at the National Museum in Manila but never got to see the show. When she had married Marc and resided in Paris, the Tequi clan always spent their vacations in a summer house in Brittany, and it was in 1978 that Ofelia sought him out. She asked around where he lived and went to see him and bought a seascape. The Tequis had adopted “Lolo” Vitalis into their family, and on the old man’s subsequent visits to Paris he stayed at chez Tequi, where I coincidentally met him a couple of times after 1979 on my succeeding trips.

Born in 1898 in San Juan, Ilocos Sur, the young Macario studied at Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepcion in Vigan, and at 17, he knew he wanted to devote his life to painting, taking private lessons with a Señor Ocampo, a classical and figurative painter, two to three times a week. In 1917, he left the Philippines for San Francisco where he studied at the California School of Fine Arts (later to become part of the University of San Francisco-Berkeley) while working as a hotel night porter and taking on similar odd jobs.

He left the United States in 1925, stayed briefly in London and then proceeded to Paris. He lived in Montmartre, within its artistic community, and struggled to pursue his training in painting while going through his “bohemian years” characterized by hard life, sharing an atelier with two other artists not far from where Van Gogh had stayed.

In 1937, he met and became fast friends with Camille Renault who offered him to stay at his theater-restaurant “Big Boy” in Puteaux, a suburb west of Paris. While there, he did set designs and decorated the theater, and sometimes helped in the kitchen.

During the German occupation in 1941, he was brought to Stalag 23 in Compiègne by the Germans, since he was holding a Commonwealth of the Philippines, U.S.A. passport, and hence was considered an “enemy” by the occupying force. He painted and drew daily scenes in the camp, a fine extant example is the “An American Shoeshine Boy.” After his release from the German camp in 1944, he returned to Puteaux and resumed his stay at Renault’s restaurant. He met Picasso at “Big Boy” who said upon learning that Vitalis was Filipino, “Juan Luna is a great painter.”

By 1957, he decided to live permanently in Plestin-les Grèves, a coastal town in Brittany, which he has seen and fell in love with from earlier visits. In 1962, he sold about 40 paintings exhibited at Camille Renault to a Lebanese, Ubdel Nour, and to Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to West Germany, Pharoah. Most of these works are now in a museum in Beirut.

In the same year, he saw the Bayanihan performing in Paris and was so enchanted by them that he decided to come visit the Philippines. This resulted in a “homecoming” exhibition of sorts at the National Library in Manila in 1963, sponsored by then French Ambassador Francois Brière and the Bayanihan Folk Arts Association.

Upon returning to Plestin-les-Grèves, he did several major commissions from the Municipal Council to do a mural for the Plestin Town Hall and the Maison de Retraite, and received a citation by then Plestin Mayor Marcel Hamon at a gathering for an exhibition of Vitalis, as deserving to be the only honorary citizen of Plestin for “it is he who has given the highest honor to our community.”

In 1982, he was presented by the Community of Plestin with a bust carved in oak by Breton sculptor Lucien Prigent and unveiled by then Philippine Ambassador to France Felipe Mabilangan in a ceremony during Vitalis’ 84th birthday. In July 1984, Vitalis opened a major retrospective exhibition in Plestin-les-Grèves of works spanning a period of over 50 years, an event marking the first of a series of annual exhibitions of noted artists in the region. In the same year, he was given an award of recognition for his painting “La Crêperie” at the Grand Prix de la Peinture, Main d’Or organized by the Institut Académique de Paris.

It was in June 16, 1986 that he arrived in Manila, the first and last visit after 1963. Due to his advancing age, he was accompanied starting from Plestin by his two surviving nieces living in Iligan City, Lita Benitez and Tess Barcenas, to Paris then to Manila. A retrospective exhibit of his works opened at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery. I was privileged to be one of the organizers of this show, and was also the designated guide/driver to chauffeur him around Manila, bringing him from hotel to CCP (he has yet to do the finishing touches of a large painting already hanging on the wall) and to several social functions. What I remember most of this period was we were at par when it came to the dining table, having the same robust appetite, considering he was 88 then and toothless. He’d nibble on chicharon, albeit well steeped in vinegar til soft. Handicap wasn’t in the vocabulary of this hardy man.

Though he left Plestin knowing he’d come back after the CCP exhibition, he never did. After the show, he was flown to Iligan City by his nieces and provided with a painting studio that resulted in a productive period, with two exhibitions: “Galaxies” in 1987 at Metropolitan Museum of Manila, and “Coconuts” in 1988 at the Finale Art File.

He died on June 8, 1989, in Iligan City and was buried beside his sister’s tomb. She had died decades ago not knowing what had happened to her “manong” (elder brother) who left their home in Lapog when she was still a child. Manong was finally resting back home with his family.

Vintage Vitalis opens on March 1 at the Total Gallery of the Alliance Française de Manille, 209 Nicanor Garcia St. (formerly Reposo St.) Bel-Air 2, Makati. The exhibit runs until March 31. The paintings and drawings presented by the Alliance Française are mostly drawn from private collectors who had, over a number of years, patiently sought them out in flea markets and auctions in France. The majority of the works are from the estate of Camille Renault.

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