France’s Brittany has inspired many artists like Paul Gauguin, Macario Vitalis and The Nabis painters, but none could possibly be as inextricably linked to the long, rugged coastline of its northernmost region as Juvenal Sanso.
For Sanso, a world-renowned painter who was born in Spain but made the Philippines his adoptive country, Brittany is more than a magical coast with its pink granite stones, wide shore dotted with seemingly abandoned boats, tile-roofed houses, and the occasional brightly colored lighthouse and uninterrupted horizon.
It is not just a place to the now 94-year-old artist; it is the friendship, acceptance, and unconditional and constant support that he felt and now expressed in his Brittany series, on exhibit until Feb. 11 at Galerie Joaquin Rockwell, Power Plant Mall, Rockwell Center, in Makati City.
“My going to Brittany has been the result of several friendships, but principally that of the friendship with the Rouault family,” said Sanso. He named Yves le Dantec, who is married to Georges Rouault’s youngest daughter, Agnes. “Yves became a second father to me in the long run. I owe him and Agnes the long introduction to Brittany and its breathtaking beauty,” he said.
Language of landscape
Sanso narrated that for over 22 years, he would go to the Le Dantecs’ house on the coast, and “they helped me ever so gently but efficiently to feel and understand a world so different from my visual past.”
For two years, he said, he kept staring at the sea and the changing tides, and the rose granite rocks.
“I simply could not paint,” he recalled. “I had to digest it first and filter it. If the friendship faltered or ceased, I would have developed an inner path to Brittany. This landscape was so beautiful. I felt I did not deserve it. I had no language to express it yet.”
And then: “Slowly it came, via the littlest color-ink sketches done very fast. I love them now! Year after year, my friends seconded me in every possible way. We eventually came to a simple program. After breakfast, Yves would take me to the rocks and pick me up at six in the evening, day after day. Whenever the tricky weather of Brittany came, when showers or storms exploded from nowhere, yes, he would come and fetch me to ensure that my wet acrylic paintings would not be spoiled.”
Scars of war
Brittany is the human experience that nurtured Sanso and allowed him to expunge his war trauma. His profile on his website reads: “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.”
Said Sanso: “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 Sta. 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.”
During the artist’s “Black Period,” according to the profile on his website, he painted exclusively in black and white “with gruesome imagery and hideously deformed beggars.”
“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-’50s when he spent summers vacationing in the Brittany coast with the Le Dantec family, a lifelong friendship that was a balm to his soul.”
“Brittany was a long beautiful period of slowly getting away from my early neurosis and the effects of war,” Sanso said. “There was no concept in this case, it was simply the beauty of Brittany, brought about by the human situation of having the friendship of the Le Dantecs…”
Sanso’s Brittany is thus a gift of gratitude to the Le Dantec family that embraced him as a member for 24 years. It is not always a faithful copy of the Brittany coast, but is always the inner landscape of his heart.
In his profile, Sanso is described as a multifaceted artist, painting in oils, watercolor, acrylic and ink and dry brush, and producing fine etchings in a very dynamic, strong-lined style. “He has also distinguished himself in textile design, printmaking and photography, as well as designed sets and costumes for several operas in France and in the Philippines,” it said.
After the war, Sanso’s father enrolled him as a special student at the University of the Philippines’ then School of Fine Arts, where he learned from the masters Fernando Amorsolo, Dominador Castaneda and Ireneo Miranda. He also took special classes at the University of Santo Tomas.
Sanso held his first one-man show in Paris and came back to Manila in 1957 for his first local one-man show at the Philippine Art Gallery. Later, he traveled extensively and held solo exhibitions in Italy, the United States, England and Mexico.
After 50 years of living in Paris, Sanso decided to come home in 2008 and stay permanently in Manila. He still maintains a studio in Spain and in Iran.
In the ongoing exhibition of 45 works, Sanso’s Brittany has evolved in the course of over five decades. The poetic juxtaposition of rocks, sea, and sky shows in the changes in color palette, as well as the selection of close- or far-range views.
We would see plein air sketches in the innermost section, represented by 12 artworks taken from one of his 1960s sketchbooks which he himself classified as “AA” (“really good”)—studies on the effects of light and wind on water and waves crashing or flowing over rocks.
Then there are interludes of some larger, more developed, and more-or-less imaginary emerald landscapes that combine rock and sea, as seen from afar. A few works representative of the more popular late ’70s to ’80s olive-and-brown “Brittany Series” which zoom in on waves splashing over rocks are also present. These are followed by works from the ’90s that combine yellow and green rocks with vegetation backgrounded by a sky-blue sea.
Lastly, there are works from the late ’90s to the 2000s that are predominantly orange canvas works, which carry over the yellowish rocks and light blue sea but foregrounded by a grand orange sky near the entrance of the gallery.
“I had no message to deliver to the world, nor did I have any preconceived ideas. In Brittany, I was simply living my painting, and painting my life,” Sanso said.
Ricky Francisco is the director of Fundacion Sanso. —Ed.
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