The family of Conrado Francia Benitez (1889-1971) and his wife, Francisca Tirona-Benitez (1886-1974), moved to their new home in the San Juan del Monte district in 1929 and a few years later named their new home Mira Nila (shortened from the Spanish “to see Manila”). Now part of the Cubao district of Quezon City, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines has declared MiraNila as a heritage house for the significant contributions that the Benitez clan has done for Philippine politics, education, and culture. Housed in MiraNila is the Benitez collection of paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts that offer visitors a peek into Philippine culture and arts that span centuries.
Some of these artifacts hail from Philippine ethnolinguistic groups that Helena Zoila Tirona Benitez (1914-2016), daughter of Conrado and Francisca, collected during her travels when she accompanied the staff of the Bayanihan Dance Company and, later, when she became senator of the republic. She founded the Bayanihan Dance Company in the Philippine Women’s University (PWU) in 1956. After years in research, preserving, and presenting traditional Philippine dances locally and internationally, the President of the Philippines in 1998 declared Bayanihan as the Philippine National Dance Company. Some of these artifacts, including musical instruments and costumes, stand as testimony of the family’s attempt to preserve intangible cultural treasures.
The Benitez collection of colonial era artworks and 20th Century Filipino art objects by masters have been detailed in the last two articles, however not mentioned are some impressive works of international decorative arts. This collection reflects the Benitez family’s wide interest in fine and decorative arts from international travel that ranges from Chinese jingtailan cloisonné enamelware, tianqi and celadon ceramics, and moxian lacquerware that trace back to the Ming Dynasty, to Japanese gold-laden kintsugi earthenware and bamboo woven awaji pottery, European Höchst and Capodimonte porcelain figurines, Italian Murano glass art, and more.
In the main hall, one of such piece is the porcelain figurine of two female Maranao dancers performing the traditional dance of the “Singkil” by the famed Spanish ceramic company Lladró. The figurine was created based on the 1961 Bayanihan World Tour and was 728th of a 1,500 limited edition series entitled “Philippine Folklore.” Vicente Martinez, one of Lladró’s top sculptors, created the original cast.
In the ground floor library are three bronze figures on display, representative examples of French Art Deco purchased between the 1910s and 1930s. Such pieces may have come from trips to Europe, particularly by Francisca Benitez’s sisters, Joaquina, Ramona, and Felicing Tirona. The siblings also brought home a magazine that featured Italian houses rendered in the modernariato Stile Liberty and inspired the design for MiraNila.
Among the collection is an Art Nouveau lamp of a nymph carrying two flowers that serve as light bulb casings. Probably an anthusae, of Greek myth, the sculpture may have been created by the French artist Auguste Moreau (1834-1917), Georges ‘Geo’ Maxim (1885-1940), or Jean Sola. All three had rendered works of similar styles and motifs.
Along the same library wall sits another sculpture, “L’ Accident,” by Louis Justin Laurent “Helli” Icart (1888-1950), a French Art Deco sculptor who was also a poet, philosopher, playwright, decorated World War I pilot, and member of the French Legion of Honor. Icart started in the fashion industry as an illustrator, creating many advertising illustrations for La Maison Valmont. After his military service during World War I (1914-1918), Icart would follow a career in printmaking, creating many works that were translated into sculpture. The muse for many of his pieces was Fanny Volmers, who he would later marry. She may have been the subject of this sculpture.
Beside the Icart is the sculpture “Deco Hands Down” by Fayral (Pierre le Faguays, 1892-1962), another noted Art Deco sculptor and painter. Fayral, who sometimes used the pseudonym of Raymond Guerbe to explore variants in art styles, was a product of the Paris Salon and the Geneva School of Art. After his studies, Fayral would distinguish himself in the use of ivory, wood, stone, and bronze, and was awarded the French Medal of Honor in 1927.
Along the ground floor hallway are two paintings of Manila streets by the Japanese artist Toyoharu. Little is known about this artist, with only a few brief mentions of his name (not to be mistaken with the modernist Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, 1886-1968), the latter was active painting watercolors of city life in the 1920s and 1930s. Could this Toyoharu possibly have been connected with the Japanese intelligence officer working for the Benitez family as a gardener before revealing himself at the start of the Occupation in the Philippines?
The Large Dining Room in the ground floor breaks from the European Art Deco styled interiors to feature the Mexican hacienda style. Helena traveled to Mexico and South America in the 1960s and admired the revival of interest in colonial styled architecture, sometimes called colonial californiano. The Mexican inspiration is further enforced by an Árbol de la vida, a traditional Mexican painted terracotta of the “Tree of Life.”
At the end of the dining hall is a study by the great Mexican modernist painter and muralist, Diego Rivera (1886-1957), part of Helena’s collection that used to hang in her office at PWU. Born Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez, Rivera first moved to Europe in 1907 after completing his studies at the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico. In Paris, Rivera experimented with various styles of painting, including Cubism with Pablo Picasso. Returning to México in 1921, the Minister of Education José Vasconcelos tasked him to create murals to celebrate Mexican history and culture as a means to unify the people after the material and social devastation of the Mexican revolution (1910-1920). Along with other artists, Rivera painted murals in México City’s government and educational buildings. In 1922, Rivera completed his first mural entitled “Creation” for the Bolívar Auditorium of the Colegio de San Ildefonso. In 1921, he painted a study for it of a peasant head that is now in MiraNila, dedicating it to Anita Flynn Pairó in 1931.
Up in Helena’s bedroom on the second floor, visitors will immediately notice that the wall above her headboard is decked with religious images, most in the Russian Orthodox style of iconography. Unlike the Greek-style mosaic “Our Lady of Remedies” in the chapel, the Russian style is often recognized by the ornate silver repoussé oklad “frames” that surround the tempera painting of the saint’s face. These icons may have been collected by Helena when she accompanied the Bayanihan during their international performances, including in Russia and the Eastern block, being the first Philippine cultural group to perform in the region.
While the 2,000 plus artworks and artifacts in MiraNila have been cataloged, the challenge remains for the interested researcher to surmise their historical and cultural importance. With such a vast assortment of things to see, one visit is hardly enough to fathom them, one has to keep coming back to discover other objects of Philippine history and art, as well as world culture.