Juvenal Sansó’s ‘Triumph of Spirit’ at Alliance Française

THE Alliance Française de Manille and Fundacion Sansó, in cooperation with the Embassy of France to the Philippines, present an exhibition of the works of the renowned visual artist Juvenal Sansó, titled The Triumph of the Spirit: A Healing Inspired by the Coast of Brittany. It opens on April 20, 6:30 pm, at the Alliance Française de Manille Total Gallery.

The exhibition will be opened by Gilda Socorro Salita, director of  Fundacion Sansó, in the presence of  Thierry Mathou, French ambassador to the Philippines. This collaboration is a fitting tribute for this year’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Philippines and France.

Triumph of the Spirit is a meditation on several texts chosen in relation to Sansó’s early works, the post-war trauma that is the springboard for his creative process and the timelessness of the message of hope, particularly in this time when recent attacks to Sansó’s beloved Paris have been made. In essence, this exhibit, which celebrates the spirit of the artist, is construed as an act of solidarity with the people of France, and is a celebration of  the strength of the human spirit against adversity. This exhibit also celebrates the healing Sansó experienced inspired by the coast of Brittany.

Another component of this exhibit is his transition from his Black Period to his Brittany Series, which is an admiration of the famous French coast.

There will be five groups of artworks that will be exhibited, with Artworks 1 being all for exhibition purpose only.

Artworks 2 are prints from the Black Period, which will be for sale. These will include the Black Series prints reprinted by Fundacion Sansó as special-edition prints for the “Sansó 70 Years in Art Retrospective”, as well as a few acrylics-on-canvas works sourced by the Fundacion Sansó. Artworks 3 are en plein air paintings of the coasts of Brittany from the Fundacion Sansó collection.

These works are not for sale. Artworks 4 will be Brittany Series paintings supplied by Sansó’s official gallery, Galerie Joaquin, which partners with Fundacion Sansó for the project. A series of photographs of the coast of Brittany by photographer Abby Frias will augment the exhibit to serve as a counterpoint to Sansó’s paintings.

The art of Sansó, a Spanish painter who has lived many years in the Philippines, is a vibrant one with an ample and grave poetic presence. This artist has lived all the tragic realities of human existence, but, through the magic of  his love for art, he has sublimated them to offer dramatic events and desolations a great harmony. Though young, Sansó can be considered a master in modern pictorial creation. He has an accomplished craftsmanship, an inborn taste for beauty, balance, lyrical lines and color. Even when his art finds its sources of inspiration in the simple realities of life in flower bouquets, landscapes and skies, he transcends them, overtakes them and leads us to knowledge of veiled light, so beautifully divinated.

Juvenal Sansó was born in Reus, Catalonia, Spain, in 1929, but moved to Manila five years later, where his family established El Arte Español, a wrought-iron business. The young Sansó spent his boyhood in Paco and had many wonderful memories of  halcyon days swimming in the Pasig River and family outings to Montalban in Rizal.

The blond and blue-eyed young Sansó learned to speak Tagalog fluently and freely mingled with boys his age, forming many lasting friendships, with Henry Sy foremost among them.

It was an unusual childhood for Sansó, but as Nick Joaquin said: “There were other things to remind him that he and his family were ‘different’.” They had unorthodox religious beliefs; not only that, the children were home schooled. And though there were other Spaniards in town, the Sansós did not associate with them, as many of them were Castellian and the Sansós were Catalunians. Moreover, many of the Spanish community in the Philippines supported Franco, while the Sansós were strongly anti-Fascist.

The war years left scars on the sensitive artist’s soul. From his idyllic childhood in Manila, he experienced privations and came upon the ruins of his beloved city devastated by bombs. “I had a very traumatic experience as a result of the war. Our fortunes were destroyed, my family had to flee back and forth between Montalban and Santa Ana, and I myself suffered severe injuries when an artillery shell blasted through our house during the liberation. I’m still deaf in one ear because of that,” Sansó said.

This resulted in Sansó’s Black Period when he painted exclusively in black and white with gruesome imagery and hideously deformed beggars.

Sansó’s first art teacher was Alejandro Celis. His father thought that such artistic training would be of great help when Juvenal took over the wrought-iron business. But it was not to be: the young man realized his true vocation was not in wrought iron but in painting. He was able to persuade his father to enroll him as a special student at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts. It was to be his only experience of formal schooling. At the UP School of Fine Arts, he studied under such professors as Fernando Amorsolo, Dominador Castañeda and Ireneo Miranda; he then took special classes at the University of Santo Tomas.

The years 1950 and 1951 were turning points for the talented young artist. During the first year, his work Incubus won first prize in the watercolor category of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) competition. He repeated the feat the following year with Sorcerer, which won first prize in the AAP oil category. During the same year, he also won third place in the Shell Art Competition and left for further studies in Europe at the Academia di Belle Arti in Rome after establishing residence in Paris. He also enrolled at L’ Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts.

Sansó held his first one-man show in Paris, then came back to Manila in 1957 for his first local one-man show at the Philippine Art Gallery. After that, he continued traveling extensively and holding solo exhibitions in Italy, the US, England and Mexico, regularly coming back to Manila for occasional shows. In 1964, another significant year, his work Leuers was adjudged Print of the Year by the Cleveland Museum of Art, giving Sansó the distinction held by previous winners like Henri Matisse and Salvador Dalí. In the same year, he held a major all-media one-man show at the Cleveland Museum of Art, as well as one-man shows at the prestigious Philadelphia Print Club and New York’s Weyhe Gallery.

In his latter years, the angst-filled grotesqueries of his Black Period of surreal bouquets of faces and heads were eventually replaced by genuine blooms in the most striking shades of red, green, orange and blue. His catharsis came in the mid-1950s, when he spent summers vacationing in the Brittany coast with the Le Dantec family, a lifelong friendship that was a balm to his soul.

As a way of giving back to the art community in his adopted country, Juvenal Sansó has played a significant role in encouraging young Filipino artists to excel in their field. In 2008 and 2009, he served as the artist-in-residence for the Art Interaction program of the Shell National Students Art Competition. In 2015 upon his guidance and with his generous support, the Fundacion Sansó (Sansó Museum) was established in San Juan City.

After 50 years of living in Paris, and although he maintains a studio in Spain and in Iran, in 2008, Juvenal Sansó decided to come home and establish permanent residence in his beloved Manila.