Preparing the artscape...

Reminiscing Purita Kalaw-Ledesma: The Triumphs and Struggles of a Filipina Art Servant

The name Purita Kalaw-Ledesma resists from merely couching, rather comfortably, on the name and achievements of her government-official-turned-writer-and-historian father, Teodoro M. Kalaw. Hers strides alongside a story of a woman art servant without whom would have greatly changed the narrative of the rise and development of modern art in the country. In fact, according to the editor of the book, Purissima Benitez-Johannot:

[The book] “The Life and Times of Purita Kalaw-Ledesma” could only have been written in tandem with the ascendancy of modern art in the Philippines. Purita’s life was not simply intertwined with the arts; it was also dedicated to professionalizing the field and advocating with others to make modern art accessible and comprehensible to the broadest public possible.

The 200-paged hardbound book, spearheaded by the Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation in partnership with Vibal Foundation, charts the triumphs and struggles of Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, as a foremost art worker and patron, “personal turned institutional” archivist, scholar, and educator. The eighty-three scrapbooks, which house the clippings laboriously and lovingly collected by Purita from 1948 to 2000, played central in the writing of the book, acting as the main reference of the four scholars — the editor Purissima Benites-Johannot, and art scholars and curators, Patrick D. Flores, Clarissa O. Chikiamco, and Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez — who penned different perspectives on and aspects of the life and works of Purita, and the content of her archives.

Perhaps Purita is best known to be one of the pioneering founders, and first president of the Art Association of the Philippines. In the association’s “broad ambitions” of “improving the climate of art in the country and uplifting local art standards”, the association contributed much in the professionalization of the artists through competitions, scholarships and other kinds of funding; in the formulation of plans and frameworks for a government arts commission (upon which the existing National Commission for Culture and the Arts is based on), and a cultural center (upon which the Cultural Center of the Philippines is patterned with); and many more. These were achieved not without the challenges and hardships a rising independent group encounter as it gained prominence to what it is today.

In as much as she brought herself to wrestle with the undertakings of the art scene during her time, Purita has always been spotting herself within both the past and the future, by means of her writing and archiving endeavors. Through the acts of art history, criticism and “scrapbooking”, she amassed bits of knowledge which proved to be critical for the next generations that came after her.

Purita has published books on modern art history, specifically The Struggles for Philippine Art (1974), which centered on the Art Association of the Philippines and the development of modern art in Manila starting the late 1940’s; Victorio Edades: National Artist (1979), which is on the modern artist who arguably introduced modernism in the Philippine art scene; and The Philippine Art Gallery: The Biggest Little Room (1987), which is still the most comprehensive book on the 1950 to 1960’s art gallery, who patronized then struggling modern art, written up until the present.

Purita, through her writings, rallied for critical discourse and education on the arts. This is reflected in her MA thesis at the University of the Philippines, which called for a more liberal type of education, not only in the aim of promoting appreciation of the arts, but also to enrich the grounding of the artists to the local culture. Such grounding is important because for her, what makes modern art is the contemporaneity of it, while being rooted in Filipino culture. She asserts that art education brings out the consciousness of the artist, which is also critical aside from technical skill in art-making. As per Patrick Flores:

For her, the modern was about the new and the surprise of the unknown, and it was finding its way into contemporary life. … In her estimation, it did not play out in a vacuum: the art was modern because it was current at the same time that it was rooted.

Purita’s archives, dutifully compiled in numerous volumes of scrapbooks, are now digitally scanned by the Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation for the global researcher, emphasizing the intent to contribute to the art scholastic field. Being not only an observer, but also an active participant of the arts sector, Purita performed an emic kind of archiving — an archiving from within the group. In addition, she has prepared most of the archives for future use, keeping in mind the perspective of a future researcher into her methods.

Through these first-hand art historical references, scholars may be able to correct existing “truths” and mine new ones. Chikiamco, for example, found that the infamous “walk-out of the conservatives” during the 1955 Northern Motors Showroom competition, which is a seminal milestone in Philippine art history, was overly dramatized. This competition was conveniently and simplistically written in history as a losing feat for all conservatives, who due to their lack of sportsmanship, took their works out of the showroom, and hang them outside along the streets. Not all those who left clamoring for explanation about the outcome of the competition were conservatives. Also, the archives even offered other under-examined perspectives of art history: the modernist’s “in-breeding”, and the conservatives bringing art outside the enclosed walls of the gallery, and closer to the general public.

Other fresh knowledge from the archives include the diagnosis of Cesar Legaspi’s color blindness, and the impasse of the National Museum during the after-War years, among others. The “mythical” 1928 Edades exhibition — as how Legaspi-Ramirez had put it — may also have to be treated with a grain of salt.

Aside from revisiting the past, Legaspi-Ramirez also finds the archives worthy of constant reexamination given how it may reflect the events and occurrences in the present. She specifically pointed out the commercialism in the art scene, specifically reflected in the rise of art fairs and the proliferation of commercial art galleries; and the critique of the institution, such as the existence of artist-run and alternative spaces.

The book, replete with high-quality reproductions of the collection of the Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation, and some clippings of the archives, is a valuable reference to any scholar of Filipino modern art, and the role of Purita Kalaw-Ledesma in the rearing of the movement. 

The Life and Times of Purita Kalaw-Ledesma is now available in FullyBooked and the Vibal Shop, and will soon be available in other leading bookstores in the country.

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