MiraNila, the heritage house that belonged to Conrado Francia Benitez (1889-1971) and his wife, Francisca Tirona-Benitez (1886-1974), and later their daughter, Helena, stands as a testimony to Philippine history, arts, and culture. Since the 19th century, the Benitez clan of Pagsanjan, have been patrons of the arts, and this legacy can be found in their 1929 home in the Cubao district, of Quezon City. Looking through the Benitez collection, one might glimpse at how members of this family took on roles as patrons to artists who would create programs to further promote Philippine art locally and internationally.
In a previous article, this author had written how in 1876 the Francia family of Pagsanjan, Laguna commissioned noted portrait painter Antonio Feliciano Malantic (1821-1886) to paint portraits of all five Francia family members. After migrating from the province of Bulacan to Manila, Malantic studied at the Académia de Dibujo y Pintura when it reopened in 1845 under the tutelage of Agustin Saez, Enrique Nieto y Zamora, Ventura del Arco, Luis Perez Domine, Nicolas Enrile, Jose Bosch, and Manuel de la Cortina. Upon finishing his studies, Malantic became known for rendering minute details of the intricate embroidery and weaving patterns worn by his subjects, as well as for a few religious works of equal craftsmanship. The portraits of the sisters Soledad (Conrado’s mother) and Inocencia Francia are the only extant Malantic portraits as the others of the Francia family were destroyed during the war.
The Benitez family’s first major foray into national government was when Conrado’s father, Higinio Ortega Benitez (1851-1928), received an appointment as judge to the Land Registration Court in 1899. To commemorate this esteemed position, Higinio commissioned the painter, Simon de la Rosa Flores (1839-1904), to create a portrait wearing his official robes. Hailing from the province of Batangas, Flores migrated to Manila and enrolled at the Académia de Dibujo y Pintura, studying under Lorenzo Guerrero (1835-1904) and Lorenzo Rocha (1837-1898). Flores’ career as a master portraitist was launched when his painting of King Amadeo I of Spain (1845-1890) was presented to the governor of Pampanga Province. From then Flores was introduced to the wealthy families of the province for whom he would create many of his famous portraits, including that of Judge Benitez. Aside from his finely detailed miniaturismo portraits, Flores was likewise noted for his religious works and genre painting of everyday life. During the 1876 Philadelphia Universal Exposition, Flores won silver medal for the “La Musica del Pueblo” (The Music of the Town), making him the first Filipino of native blood to garner an international art prize. From then on, Flores would receive more honors, such as the 1891 Tercentenary of San Juan de la Cruz in Poland and the 1895 Exposición Regional Filipina. He posthumously participated in the 1904 Universal Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, USA.
On the second floor is the Reading Room with an interesting two-sided painting on wood featuring a certain “Mang Moneng” by Fabián Cueto de la Rosa (1869-1938). Conrado and Fabián likely met some years after the founding of the University of the Philippines in 1908 and on their return from scholarships abroad, Conrado 1906-1911 in Chicago, and Fabian later in Paris.
Conrado returned from the U.S. to teach at the Philippine Normal and would soon after serve as the first Filipino dean of the University of the Philippines’ School of Liberal Arts from 1911 to 1920, while Fabián would teach and later direct University of the Philippines’ School of Fine Arts from 1927 to 1937. Before teaching at the University of the Philippines (UP), De la Rosa had undertaken formal studies at the Escuela de Bellas Artes y Dibujo under Agustin Saez. Unable to complete his studies, De La Rosa took private lessons under Lorenzo Guerrero (1835-1904) and Miguel Zaragoza (1842-1923). He was later sent to Paris as a scholar to study at the Académie Julien. Returning to the Philippines, De La Rosa would make a name for himself in commercial design and painting and eventually join the faculty of the UP School of Fine Arts in 1910, which he directed from 1927 until the death of his wife in 1937. Under De la Rosa, many of his students became instructors, including Ambrocio Mijares Morales (1892-1974), Guillermo Tolentino, Irineo Miranda, and his nephews, Fernando Amorsolo and Pablo Amorsolo. De la Rosa first took his studies at the Escuela Superior de Pintura, Grabado y Escultura under the directorship of Don Lorenzo Rocha y Ycaza (1837-1898). In 1904, De la Rosa won a gold medal in the St. Louis Exposition for his painting “Planting Rice.”
While serving as dean, Conrado likely met one of Fabián’s first students, Fernando Cueto Amorsolo (1892-1972). Amorsolo would return to the School of Fine Arts in the 1920s, about the time that Conrado stepped down from his deanship and began teaching as Professor Emeritus. By this time, Amorsolo was earning recognition for his fine portraits and brightly lit pastoral scenes. After taking over from his uncle, Amorsolo would serve as the dean of the College of Fine Arts from 1938 to 1952. From then on, Amorsolo would receive numerous commissions, including the 1953 portrait of Conrado’s daughter, Helena Zoila Tirona Benitez (1914-2016).
Aside from this portrait are other works by Fernando Amorsolo in the Benitez collection. Among these, “Afternoon Meal of the Rice Workers (Family under the Mango Tree)” that he painted in 1958 as a part of a series of similar themes rendered between 1952 and 1958. Amorsolo created other paintings during this time frame that had similar visual elements, with little variation. He was also known for designing the label of the popular gin, Ginebra San Miguel. Even then, the painter had been known for portraying beautiful and dignified peasants of the Philippine countryside. In later years, this preference for the countryside and country maidens was viewed as a form of silent protest against the rapidly spreading American styles and attitudes among urbanized Filipinos. By insisting on these themes, he was perforce focusing attention on the Filipino spirit still to be found in the provinces. In 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos conferred on Amorsolo the first National Artist award.
Fernando’s younger brother, Pablo Cueto Amorsolo (1898 -1945), may have met and would certainly have known of Conrado Benitez at UP. Pablo returned to teach at UP, where he may have given or sold Conrado the 1941 painting, “Winnowing Rice.” After graduating from the UP School of Fine Arts in 1924, Pablo quickly became known for his editorial illustrations for Philippine magazines such as the Philippine Graphic, Tribune, La Vanguardia, The Philippines Herald, and Manila Times. This strong sense of nationalism in the Amorsolo family also brought tragic consequences. In the 1890s, their eldest brother Perico joined the Katipunan movement in the revolution against Spain. He was later captured and killed. This event led to heartache for their father, Pedro, and Pedro’s eventual death. During World War II, Pablo was believed to have served as a Japanese collaborator, a likely choice as Japanese-occupied Malacanang regularly commissioned works from the Amorsolo workshop. Filipino guerillas captured and killed Pablo in Antipolo.
The taste for art of Conrado and Francisca seemed to veer towards the classical, romantic styles epitomized by works of Fabián de la Rosa, as well as Fernando and Pablo Amorsolo in their collection. However, daughter Helena had an openness towards modernism, a movement in the Philippines that was emerging in the 1930s. One of the friendships that Helena made was with Paris-based Macario Cruz Vitalis (1898–1989), who espoused the cubist style favored by many in the School of Paris. The two met in 1962 when the Bayanihan Dance Company performed in that city. Vitalis hailed from the province of Ilocos Sur, before travelling to Manila and later to France in 1957. He took private painting lessons under a Señor Ocampo in Vigan before moving to the United States in 1917. While working to pay for his studies abroad, he took formal art classes at the California School of Fine Arts (now part of the University of San Francisco-Berkeley). In 1925, Vitalis moved to London and later settled in Paris. In 1937, Vitalis started working for the famed art patron Camille “Gargantua” Renault (1904-1984) through whose connection Vitalis interacted with the Neo-Cubist Puteaux, a group that regularly hang out in Renault’s restaurant. During World War II, the Germans incarcerated Vitalis in Stalag 23, where he continued to paint until his release in 1944. In 1957, he moved to the French coastal town of Plestin-les Grèves, where he continued to hone his craft, intermittently traveling to Paris to exhibit and sell his paintings. While living in Plestin-les Grèves, he would exhibit locally and create murals for various public buildings, earning him honors from the mayor and the community. After his 1962 meeting with Helena, Vitalis was invited him back to the Philippines to showcase his works at the National Library in Manila in 1963, returning for his retrospective at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1986 and an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila in 1987. His last show was at the Finale Art File in 1988. Due to his advanced age, Vitalis was unable to return to France and passed away in Iligan City, where his remains lie beside his sister.
Although Conrado and Francisca Benitez seemed to have favored traditional styles in their art and furniture, they also supported early modernists like Diosdado Magno Lorenzo (1906-1984). The 1934 portrait of Francisca Tirona Benitez and her son, Alfredo, entitled Guardian of the Sick, came as a result of Francisca and her sisters helping the artist and his Italian wife find a home in Manila, a way of thanking Francisca. MiraNila boasts of two other works by the artist, one of them a 1972 painting, Two Boys Cockfighting under a Tree.
Diosdado Lorenzo graduated with honors from the UP School of Fine Arts in 1928. He was soon exhibiting alongside his mentor, classicist painter Fernando Amorsolo. In the early 1930s, Lorenzo pursued further studies at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid and in the Asociazione Internazionale Artistica in Rome. In 1936, he helped organize the Academia di Belle Arti, the first art academy in Hong Kong. Returning to the Philippines, he started teaching at the University of Santo Tomas, where he served as director for 26 years. Lorenzo painted in a style that was a cross between impressionism and expressionism. This break with classicism led to Lorenzo’s inclusion with the Thirteen Moderns of Philippine art. Lorenzo received the Araw ng Maynila Award in 1969 and the Republic Cultural Heritage Award in 1970.
One modernist artist with whom Helena Benitez had a long history was Anita Corpus Magsaysay, later Ho (1914-2012), who did a portrait of Helena in 1943. Helena and Anita were classmates at the Philippine Women’s University in the 1930s. Anita was known for her stylized renderings of rural women in daily scenes, often with local flora as their backdrop. Anita undertook formal art studies at UP, where she learned to paint in the classical style under Fabian de la Rosa, Vicente Rivera y Mir, and the Amorsolo brothers. However, her tutelage under Victorio Edades and Enrique Ruiz in Edades’ School of Design influenced Anita to explore modernist techniques and prompted her to pursue further studies in art-making at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and in the Art Students’ League in New York. In New York, she would meet Robert Ho, a Hong Kong national who she would later marry. During the 1940s, Anita and her husband would live in Brazil, Canada, Hong Kong, and Japan because of Robert’s work. Anita’s paintings would undergo several phases, from expressionism to calligraphic-inspired painting and to the soft toned paintings of her later days; all the while exploring her idealized native women. Until her final days, Anita painted her vision of the Filipina, inspiring fellow artists for generations.
Another UP Fine Arts student was Carlos “Botong” Villaluz Francisco (1914-1969). He did not finish his collegiate studies due to financial constraints. His 1945 mural of the “Abaruray” dance of Tayabas is in the large dining room in MiraNila was commissioned by the controversial American physician, George Hill Hodel, Jr. (1907-1999) for daughter Diana with his Filipina wife and Congresswoman, Hortensia Laguda Hodel Starke (1921-2010). It was later purchased by painter, sculptor, and international jeweler Celia Molano, an alumna of the Philippine Women’s University (PWU). The mural was one of Botong’s earliest before his career took off in the 1950s. From Angono in Rizal Province, he moved to Manila to take up formal studies at the UP School of Fine Arts under Fernando Amorsolo. Having left school before graduation, Botong had to work for a living, preparing illustrations for the Tribune and La Vanguardia and providing sets for films and painting murals with modernists Victorio Edades and Fermin Sanchez. These works were used in productions at the Manila Grand Opera House and the Clover Theater. Botong, whose distinct style of painting set him apart from classicists of the period, would later be part of the first wave of Philippine Modernism that changed the course of local art. After World War II (1941-1945), Botong began teaching at the University of Santo Tomas. During that period, he collaborated with film director Manuel Conde Urbano (1915-1985), later to be declared National Artist. They developed the script for the film Genghis Khan (1950) and two uncompleted projects: Putol na Kampilan (Broken Sword) and Tatlong Labuyo (Three Wild Roosters). Botong also designed costumes for Conde’s films, including Prinsipe Teñoso (1941), Ibong Adarna (1941), Siete Infantes de Lara (1950, Seven Princes of Lara), and the Juan Tamad series (1947, 1959, 1960, and 1963). Botong’s unique compositions and bright color palettes won him many awards, but his greatest distinctions lay in the major murals that he executed for the Bulwagang Katipunan of the Manila City Hall and the Stations of the Cross of the Far Eastern University, among others. In 1964, Francisco received the Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan Award from the City of Manila and was honored in 1973 as National Artist for Painting.
In MiraNila’s Music Alcove is a 1994 terra cotta bust of Helena Z. Benitez by Dr. Antonino ‘Ton’ Raymundo, also noted for his religious figures. Raymundo was active with many charitable causes, such as fundraising for PLDT’s Gabay Guro Program that gave scholarship awards to deserving individuals, including post-graduate students at PWU. Before making a name for himself in the arts, Raymundo practiced as an anesthesiologist in the Philippines and in Hamburg, West Germany, where he first enrolled in a ceramics workshop that would inspire him to pursue a career in the arts. Returning to the Philippines, Raymundo would join group exhibitions and win several local competitions before launching his first solo show in 1988. For his continuous participation in the local art scene, Raymundo would become a core member of the Tuesday Group of Artists, a board member of the Visual Arts Cooperative of the Philippines, the treasurer of the Society of Philippine Sculptors, and president of the Philippine Association of Figure Artists. Raymundo received commissions from several religious organizations to produce public sculptures throughout the country. This led to his recognition in 2001 by his alma mater as one of the Bedans of the Century.
There are far too many artworks in MiraNila to discuss singly. The collection was enriched with the family’s involvement in PWU and its College of Fine Arts (established in 1947). Some of the alumni include luminaries such as figurative painter Ricardo B. Enriquez (b. 1920), printmaker Efren Zaragoza (1940-1989), surrealist Raul Lebajo (born 1941), potter Nelfa Amante Querubin-Tompkins (b. 1941), symbolist painter Ivi Avellana-Cosio (b. 1942), abstractionist Raul Gomez Isidro (b. 1943), magic realist painter Eli Gajo (b. 1950), abstractionist Raul Piedra (1951-2009) and Danilo “Dani” Sibayan (b. 1953), social realist Antipas Polines Delotavo, Jr. (b. 1954), social realist Edgar “Egai” Talusan Fernandez (b. 1955), surrealist Charlie Sia Co (b. 1960), installation artist Alfredo “Freddie” Juan Aquilizan (b. 1962), surrealist sculptor Magdiwang “Dei” Jardiniano (b. 1963), figurative painter Hermes Alegre (b. 1968), and animator Victorio A. Bumanglag Jr. Other acclaimed former faculty members included Father of Philippine Printmaking, Manuel Antonio Rodriguez Sr. (1912-2017), art restorer Lazaro “Aro” Salamat Soriano (b. 1943), impressionist Antonio del Monte Ko, Jr. (Antonio Kua, 1956-1999), former deans of the College of Fine Arts hyper-realist Araceli Limcaco–Dans (b. 1929), abstractionist painter Rosario “Charito” de Lara Bitanga-Peralta (b. 1934), modern figuralist Mariano “Chito” Madarang (1937-2008), and printmaker Virgilio “Pandy” Arguelles Aviado (b. 1944).
Included in the collection are paintings by Benitez family members Jolly, Jana, and Bien. Displayed in MiraNila’s chapel are a crucifix commissioned from expressionist sculptor, Eduardo De Los Santos Castrillo (1942-2016) and a tabernacle by glass sculptor Ramon Orlina. The subject for the next article is MiraNila’s modest collection of international art.