The Pioneer: Fernando Zobel

Header image: Self-Portrait Above Sinks (c 1950) Ayala Museum Collection. Gift of Jaime and Beatriz Zobel de Ayala

In the course of his relatively short lifetime, Fernando Zóbel built a career as a respected artist in three countries, set the foundations for three museums in two continents, taught the first Art Appreciation course of the Ateneo de Manila University, and pioneered religious art research in the Philippines, among many other achievements.

Born in Manila in 1924, Fernando Zóbel was the youngest child of Enrique Zóbel de Ayala and Fermina Montojo. As a young man, he was enrolled in a pre-medicine course in the University of Santo Tomas. When World War II broke out, he was forced to stop his studies, and then in 1942, something happened that led him to seriously consider a career in the arts.

He fell ill with a spinal problem, and was admitted to the National Orthopaedic Hospital. “For a whole year, I was bedridden. I had all the time in the world to think and it was then that I started to consider the idea of becoming an artist.” After the war, Zóbel took up philosophy and letters at Harvard University, where he found inspiration, intellectual conversation, and friendship among eminent Boston painters. After graduating as magna cum laude, Zóbel retuned to Manila to join the family business, Ayala y Cia, now known as Ayala Corporation. He painted in the early mornings and went to work as a managing partner during the day.

His early works, with their bright colors and bold lines, were semi-figurative and highly expressionist. It was during this period that he painted The Charles River IV (El Charles IV; 1949), his earliest work in the Ayala Museum Collection. Professor Emmanuel Torres cites, “When [Zóbel] first appeared in the Manila art scene in a 1951 exhibition of the Philippine Art Gallery Group, its cofounder-curator, the indomitable writer-critic-painter Lydia Arguilla, hailed him as a godsend. In the years
immediately following World War II in the Pacific, she ran the only exhibition space in town open to modernists who were all struggling then for the art public’s recognition. She found him to be an exceptional defender of what her gallery stood for: the progressive, the experimental, the new… When he started to exhibit regularly at the PAG, Arguilla totally took to him… He had talent, intelligence, and sedulity to equal those of others… A solid grounding in the humanities, personal charisma, and articulate energy made him perfectly equipped to explain what Modern Art was all about to various audience types…”

El Charles IV (1949) Ayala Museum Collection. Gift of Alexander Calhoun
El Charles IV (1949) Ayala Museum Collection. Gift of Alexander Calhoun

Zóbel patronized the works of his contemporary Filipino artists and recognized their value at a time when Modern Art was still incomprehensible and unpopular in conservative Manila. Among many others, he collected works by Arturo Luz, Vicente Manansala, Jose Joya, H.R. Ocampo, and Cesar Legaspi—all of whom would eventually be recognized for their contribution to Philippine art and be named as
National Artists.

In 1953, the Dean of the Ateneo’s Graduate School convinced Zóbel to teach a three-unit course on Art Appreciation. It was soon followed by an introductory course on Contemporary Art, Chinese Art, and Japanese Art. His didactic method of teaching encouraged students to learn how to see, stop, and think. He discouraged them from taking down notes and
memorizing dates and terms. Armed with slides and his own personal collection of paintings, he challenged them to think of what the artist was trying to say and how well it was executed.

Zóbel was fascinated with Philippine religious art. Through the 1950s, he travelled all over the Philippines with Benito Legarda, Jr., among others, in the pioneering study of our colonial churches. He sought to pinpoint common characteristics and explore our religious art without oversimplifying what was “Filipino.” His studies would be published in two books on Philippine colonial sculpture and Philippine religious imagery in 1958 and 1963, respectively. Another key event in Zóbel’s development as an artist was his trip to the Rhode Island School of
Design in 1954 as a visiting artist, where he saw a major exhibition of paintings by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Zóbel realized that the use of a single element, such as color, could communicate a range of emotions he previously experienced only in figurative art. This would
later on continue to inf luence his search for a visual language in the years that followed. At the end of his residency, he took a three-month tour around Europe where he met and befriended Spanish abstract painters whose works he soon collected to fill his Madrid home.

Though the early works of Zóbel began as semi-figurative and representationalist, by the late 1950s, he was working towards pure abstraction with his Saeta series. By using a hypodermic syringe, Zóbel explored the use of line—changing its density and angularity—to evoke emotions, in the same way that the colors in the works of Rothko arouse reactions from its viewers. His experimentation with abstraction led him to his Serie Negra, black and white paintings that exhibited the artist’s fascination with Japanese Sumi-e paintings and Zen Buddhism, which utilized negative space as an active element in his compositions. His intellectual approach to art brought about the start of Dialogos series, where he interpreted and analyzed the works of other artists. “The idea behind Dialogos is to speak of art with art, but with the brushes at the ready. I stand before a picture I like and I prefer to communicate with that work by painting too… When ‘I speak’ in these dialogues, I concentrate on one facet and the result is not an imitation but a comment.”

Dialogo Con Puntos (1964) Ayala Museum Collection. Gift of Ayala Corporation
Dialogo Con Puntos (1964) Ayala Museum Collection. Gift of Ayala Corporation

Zóbel believed in education and in the role that museums play in the cultural life of a nation. In the 1950s, he envisioned a museum of Philippine history—a way of communicating the past to future generations. This idea gave birth to the Ayala Museum, a museum of Philippine history and iconography in its earliest days. In 1954, as president of the Art Association of the Philippines, his plan to establish a museum of fine art did not materialize due to the lack of support from his colleagues. In 1960, he donated his personal collection of modern art to the Ateneo de Manila University, creating the foundation for the Ateneo Art Gallery (AAG). Today, the AAG is widely recognized as the first museum of Modern Art in the Philippines. By establishing a museum dedicated to modern art based in an institution of higher learning, Fernando Zóbel legitimized the movement that was criticized by the conservatives. When he finally moved to Spain in 1961, he settled
in the medieval town of Cuenca, where he fell in love with the casas colgadas, or hanging houses. Once a summer home to the royal family of Spain, the site was transformed by Zóbel into the renowned Museo de Artes Abstracto Español—a leading museum of Spanish abstract art.

Zóbel’s works soon found inspiration in the landscape of Cuenca—from the Jucar River to the view from his studio’s window. The Jucar would also be the inspiration for the last works of Zóbel. In 1984, Fernando Zóbel died of a heart attack while in Rome. He was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal of the City by the Local Corporation of Cuenca, the Medal of Honor by Universidad Internacional Menendez y Pelayo Santander, and the Presidential Medal of Merit by the Philippine Government.

El Lago (1971) Ayala Museum Collection. Gift of Ayala Corporation
El Lago (1971) Ayala Museum Collection. Gift of Ayala Corporation

In Zóbel’s lifetime, he mounted 42 solo exhibitions, participated in 150 group shows across the world, published two books, and befriended and earned the respect and admiration of artists and art lovers across generations. Though his life may have seemed brief, Zóbel’s legacy as a pioneer of Philippine Modern Art continues today, through both his lasting works and the institutions he founded and filled.