How Kiukok Learned to Sign his Paintings

Header image: Self-Portrait (2000). Paulino and Hetty Que Collection

While all artists begin by imitating others, only those who seek an art of their own, later on, leave a lasting legacy. Artistic identity is what separates the master from the amateur. Borne out of a master’s imagination and creative process, his work also bears his identity. Anyone who sees it would know for certain that it was done by that artist. Such is Ang Kiukok’s art.

“[I]t is startling to realize
how much emotion and
energy can be conveyed by
these cubistic renditions of
the human body.”

Kiukok’s unique blend of Expressionism and Cubism became his signature style. For him, it was not enough to copy reality as it appears to the naked eye. Through distortion and exaggeration, he was able to achieve that rich expression that he so desired. Figuring out his own style did
not happen overnight; this took him decades of intense study and practice. For him, this meant not settling for what was commonplace, and further exploring the possibilities of the paint brush. The exhibition Ang Kiukok: The Golden Years (1954-2004) at the Ayala Museum narrates the journey of this National Artist as he strove to discover his art that is now loved by many.

Fisherman (1981) Hon. Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. Collection
Fisherman (1981) Hon. Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. Collection

There is nothing particularly extraordinary about Kiukok’s early paintings. These works, which were done in the 1950s, are what one can expect from a student still learning the craft. As a Fine Arts student at the University of Santo Tomas, Kiukok honed his skills by imitating other artists. His Artist’s Model and Blue Lady are so ordinary that anyone at his level then could have painted them just the same. However, these works already hinted at Kiukok’s talent in drawing.

In the early 1960s, Kiukok discovered his penchant for forms. At this point, the artist had started looking for his own kind of art. It was a big leap from the Kiukok who used to copy elements from the works of Vicente Manansala and his other mentors in UST. Two of his paintings—Old Chapel and Pieta, both done in 1961—show how lines and shapes began to take center stage in his work. This style made him see how beauty could be achieved by a choreography of forms on the canvas.

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Old Chapel (1961). Felix and Grace Ang Collection

Kiukok’s trip to the U.S. in 1965 was a turning point in the artist’s life. In those days, he was appalled to witness the excessive industrialization of people: how human beings worked or were forced to work like machines. This desolation that he felt found resonance in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which he saw face to face at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on display at that time. This encounter caused a profound change in Kiukok, who felt as though “the Book of Revelations had been thrown at him…A synoptic vision of the contemporary world as a battlefield worth painting many times over, art that confronts the gut issues which matter to contemporary man: violence and survival.”

This explains the drastic change in his style thereon. His experience in the U.S. gave birth to a series of paintings that revolved around dreary themes such as aggression, pain, and suffering. As such, appreciating these paintings poses a big challenge to many people. Nevertheless, a longer or closer look at them is all one needs to discover the unsuspected beauty
behind his depressing subject matters. Although Kiukok’s works are not what one readily regards as “beautiful,” it is easy to see and appreciate the harmony among his geometric shapes and stark contrasts, and the overall power of the completed image. As can be seen in two paintings included in The Golden Years, both entitled Seated Figure, it is startling to realize how much emotion and energy can be conveyed by these cubistic
renditions of the human body.

Crucifixion (1969) Dr. Jaime C. Laya Collection
Crucifixion (1969) Dr. Jaime C. Laya Collection

Later in his life, Kiukok found a way to apply the same techniques in rendering paintings with more amiable subject matters. His Harvest shows how he was able to convey the triumphant feeling that accompanies such activity. His use of warm colors set the mood of the painting. The distorted heads and bodies of the farmers help in communicating the enthusiasm with which they reaped their harvest.

There is no question about Kiukok’s pioneering contributions to Philippine art. His success as an artist can be explained by his sole determination to constantly improve his craft. Making money and gaining popularity were secondary to him. It was with such attitude that he discovered his style for which he is now known, a style which he used with unmatched audacity to tackle everything, including the depressing topics that others would never dare attempt.
Ang Kiukok: The Golden Years (1954 – 2004) exhibited at the Ayala Museum from 2 March – 26 June 2016 under the Images of Nation Program