THERE used to be a species of still-life painting—the so-called vanitas—that was prevalent in the 17th century, replete with objects such as skulls, guttering candles, withering flowers, an hourglass, mirrors and butterflies.
All these remind us of the inexorable passing of time and the need, as the inspired saying goes, to find time to smell the flowers.
One Filipino artist who has devoted decades of her art to communicate the jubilation of floral still lifes is Tessie Duldulao. In both her life and art, she has brought, and continues to bring, a spirit of equanimity and repose and a disciplined commitment to finish what she has started.
Proof of this is her current solo exhibition at the SM Megamall Art Center (fourth floor) fittingly titled “Tessie Duldulao: Living a Still Life.” Organized and presented by Gallerie CMG, the show literally brings together an exhilarating harvest of still lifes from an artist whose extremely detailed works demand from the artist such patience and punctiliousness as to negate any tendencies to hasten the pace of their creation.
But before anyone could delight and sail into Duldulao’s still lifes, one must first pay heed to her choice of medium. Not the oils and acrylics or watercolors that are generally most artists’ material, but pastel. Many of us are more familiar with the word as an adjective, meaning “pale in color.”
These pastel sticks allow Duldulao to delineate and accentuate her creations with a sure and definite draftsmanship. Any student of art history will instantly recall the name of Edgar Degas, the 19th-century French Impressionist who elevated the lowly medium by dint of his passion for delineating ballet dancers, in performance and in repose. In like manner, Duldulao is among the very few Filipino artists who have mastered the medium of pastel.
Studio as sanctuary
Most writings on Duldulao nearly always remark at length on the artist’s studio. Located at the back and separate from the main house, the house is verily a chapel of artistry.
Entering the enclave of Duldulao can be likened to a visit to the preserved studio of the great still-life painter Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence and, once inside, to be greeted by the sight of the plaster cast of Cupid, such as one has seen in his paintings and, for years, has kept the solitary artist company.
Restraint and precision
Instantly, two distinguishing qualities define the art of Duldulao: restraint formality in the presence of effervescence and precision in the placement of objects. Undoubtedly, the artist has mastered, both by instinct of feeling and by training of the eyes, the exact correlation of distance and proximity between and among her objects.
In guiding our eyes to appreciate her works, Duldulao makes it subtly known to us that we are in confident hands.
Indeed, Duldulao will not start her painting unless the composition has achieved a perfect visual pitch.
Time and solitude
What must finally differentiate the still from other formats of painting is precisely the absence of the human figure, his presence which when visually acknowledged will bring the still-life arrangement out into the pale, reducing it once again to a mere setting for some enacted human drama. Ironically though, in the still lifes of Duldulao, while no human figure is seen, the presence of such a figure is perceptively felt in the artistic intelligence that brought this vision into fruition: the artist herself. Gazing at a still life, the viewer himself becomes more aware of his aloneness, his solitude, his wholeness, seemingly rooted on the very spot where he perforce must remain silent and motionless in order not to disturb the scene, so hypnotically in awe is he at the unfolding splendor before his eyes.
Springtime in autumn
At the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, her professors were Fernando Amorsolo, Ireneo Miranda, Dominador Castañeda; while, give or take, a few years her senior or junior were schoolmates the likes of José Joya, Napoleon Abueva, Rodolfo Ragodon, Juvenal Sansó, Angel Cacnio, Larry Alcala, Celia Diaz-Laurel and Jose “Pitoy” Moreno. Their lasting masterpieces have outlived or will outlive them all, an immortal legacy to the country and a time-defying testament to the gift of artistry that the Creator has blessed them with. But for an artist, though advanced in age but still wholly absorbed in his art, his imagination and skill undiminished, each day proffers ever new surprises and discoveries.
For Duldulao, despite being in her autumn years, every day holds the expectant coming of a masterpiece, as indeed, her best work yet may be the next. After all, where her art is concerned, each day, rain or shine, is always a promise of springtime.