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Totally unexpected were the prices realized for works by contemporary painter Geraldine Javier and National Artist Fernando Amorsolo
THE CHRISTIE?S auction of Southeast Asian Modern and Contemporary Art in Hong Kong last May 30 yielded both expected and unexpected results.

Keong Ruoh-Ling, head of Christie?s Southeast Asian Art Department, said in a post-sale release that ?the spring sale demonstrates clear strength and depth in the Southeast Asian contemporary art market.?

Before the bidding, however, while confident that the Philippine pieces would sell, she was quite conservative about the prices they would realize, given the political and economic situation of the country. She was more upbeat about the Indonesians.

Her preferential optimism was not misplaced. Of the items sold, eight Indonesian and two Philippine works realized top prices.

The auction?s top-seller (US$772,968 or P36M) was ?Young Balinese Girl with a Hibiscus,? by Romualdo Locatelli. He was born in Italy in 1905, and in 1943, he disappeared in the Philippines, where he is presumed to have died. (A superb, larger work by Locatelli is in the UST Museum collection.)

Totally unexpected were the prices realized for works by contemporary painter Geraldine Javier and National Artist Fernando Amorsolo.

Javier, born in 1970, originally studied to be a nurse but shifted to art. At the age of 40, she has come into full flower, as her latest painting?arguably her best so far?proves.

Sacred element

?Ella Amo? Apasionadamente y Fue Correspondida (For She Loved Fiercely, and She Is Well-Loved)? is a 90 x 63-in portrait of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) painted in oil on canvas, with insets of framed embroidery and preserved butterflies.

Kahlo, born to a German father and Mexican mother, painted ?pain and passion,? using symbolist, surreal, folk art elements. She (like Javier) originally studied medicine, but shifted to art. She led a difficult life marked by illness and injury, extreme pain and a tumultuous marriage to the muralist Diego Rivera.

M. Samson, in his catalogue notes for the auctioned painting, waxes eloquent: ?It is this transcendence from suffering to grace that lends Javier?s work a sacred, almost religious sense?for it is this same tortuous road that saints and mystics travel. Javier accentuates this feeling by deliberately placing Frida at the center of an explosion of gigantic flowers, like a Madonna engulfed in cold flame... In her 66 self-portraits, Kahlo always painted herself gazing directly at the viewer with unflinching eyes... She looked directly at the viewer to show this suffering and to show she was not defeated by it. By showing the icon with her eyes looking away from the viewer, Javier offers a resolution to the nature of pain. Beyond the dark cloth of sorrow, there can be beauty and peace?like the quiet ground after an earthquake, like the stillness at the heart of an exploded star.?

Javier?s work realized a new auction record for the artist, fetching nearly 10 times more than the original low estimate. The Filipinos at the auction, about two rows in a roomful of Indonesians, found it difficult not to break into applause after the spirited bidding.

An unnamed and so far unidentified ?Asian institution? is said to have purchased the piece.

Javier, Ronald Ventura and Jose Santos III are among the New Painters, a group of artists mostly born in the 1970s, who came into their maturity at the turn of this century.

Despite the high prices realized by Javier?s works in recent auctions, Ventura retains the record among the New Painters for highest hammered bid so far, for a huge work sold a couple of years ago.

In the Spring 2010 auction, a buyer walked away with Ventura?s ?Overtones? (84 x 60 in) for a more sedate price.

?Overtones? is mostly black and white, except for the stream of colorful images of commodities?representing materialism?that today comprises transgenerational cultural transference, from the generation in traditional garb and wielding a classical musical instrument, to the next one, naked and still innocent.

Decent amount

?The Closet? (72 x 60 in) is a work by another New Painter, Jose Santos III, which fetched a decent amount. The work is a portrait of a self that remains diffident, largely imaginary, living an ad hoc life.

The trompe l?oeil work depicts the back of a stretched canvas, across which is strung a wire from which it would have been hung. A still-to-be-made-into-something piece of yellow cloth is slung on the wire on one side. Almost the whole undersurface is taken up by an apparently found, weathered piece of thin wood with peeling paint, over which a makeshift frame is held by duct or packing tape.

Torn prints of a long-sleeved shirt, pants and a shoe are arranged as if someone uncertain were trying to decide if they fit together. The ghostly garments are topped by a box of crumpled plain white cloth where the wearer?s brain would have been. That such insouciant everyday things could demand such deep thought speaks of a master.

All works by other Filipino artists were sold, including those by Lao Lian Ben, Wire Tuazon, Kiko Escora, Rodel Tapaya and Yasmin Sison.

Amorsolo pieces

Also unexpected was the hammer price of Lot 1200, ?Lavanderas (Washerwomen)? (23 x 32 ? in) by Filipino National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, dated 1923. It fetched the second highest price in the sale.

The work merited little attention in Manila?s art circle before the sale, although it is a work done when the artist was in his prime (1920-1940s). Throughout his life, Amorsolo struggled to master light, attempting to capture every nuance of sheen and shadow.

In ?Lavanderas,? the day is just beginning to break on the horizon, a still cold blaze of yellow and orange outlining the huts. In the half-light of the foreground, two miniscule figures are already busily washing laundry by a stream.

To bring it home, a private collector paid US$433,992 (about P20.2M), around 11 times its original low estimate (all auction sales figures include premium). It surpassed the artist?s previous record of less than P20M a few years ago for the vastly superior ?Portrait of Fernanda de Jesus? dated 1915 (32 x 21 in).

The hammered price of another Amorsolo also raised eyebrows. Lot 1202, a ?Rice Planting? scene (24 ? x 34 in) dated 1951, fetched US$142,366 (approximately P6.6M), about four times its original low estimate.

The work has brilliant, joyous colors and a dynamic composition. Most Filipino collectors, however, would have preferred to pay less for this particular painting, because of its date. By convention, 1950 is considered the beginning of Amorsolo?s decline, when his work became more commercialized, when his eyesight had begun to deteriorate and he is said to have begun relying more and more on assistants.

Lot 1201, a common Amorsolo scene usually referred to in Manila as ?Under the Mango Tree? (dated 1949, 24 x 34 ? in), fetched a more logical US$67,818 (approximately P3.15M), perfectly within the prevailing parameters and indeed on the low side.

Top Southeast Asian artist

Overall, I Nyoman Masriadi cemented his place as the top Southeast Asian contemporary artist, with all four works of the Indonesian artist in the sale?s Top Ten, and purchased by dealers?that is, meant to be resold.

Bidding was also competitive on key modern works, resulting in two new auction records and strong prices on Indonesian, Filipino and Vietnamese works in general.

In the end, 13 lots recorded over P6M each, ?pointing to a clear appreciation of modern masterworks alongside invigorated bidding for quality contemporary lots from a broad Asian demographic,? according to Keong.

?Compared to the sale total a year ago, this sale marks a 118-percent improvement and a full recovery of the Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art market.?

The May auction augurs well for the Autumn 2010 sale.