A Brush With Greatness

Ocampo's "River of Life" (Source: theonlinesomething.blogspot.com)

I first saw Galo B. Ocampo’s work in the late 1980s, when art critic and university professor Emmanuel Torres hired me to work as his curatorial assistant at the Ateneo de Manila University’s Art Gallery. Almost a quarter of a century later and thousands of miles away, I was granted a new opportunity to get to know Ocampo and his art. In a foreign city, I found legacies of a full life.

The curatorial assistant position was my first job after college. The gallery had been planning to expand for some time and the university library adjacent to it shared additional floor space just as I graduated from college. As the gallery acquired more space to display its collection, one of my immediate tasks was to retrieve works of modern and contemporary Filipino artists that had been in storage for years. It was a rewarding experience to see, up close and for the first time, many of our country’s priceless art and cultural treasures including oil paintings, prints and drawings, and sculptures of Arturo Luz, Ang Kiukok, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Fernando Zobel and J. Elizalde Navarro. 

Among the works of these premier artists, I found striking Ocampo’s “River of Life” (1954), a painting in his “Flagellants Series.” The sinewy figures, the twisted branches and the jagged landscape create tensions and sharp, erratic movements. The images bring to mind Jesus Christ with another figure, most likely John the Baptist, wading in stagnant, murky water. Although the Scriptures’ account of Jesus’ baptism is often portrayed as serene, Ocampo’s rendition of this theme is, by contrast, unsettling, possibly a foreshadowing of Jesus’ fate. 

It has been a rewarding experience, finding out more about Galo B. Ocampo. Although until recently I thought of him primarily as an artist, it is clear that he was so much more.

“Brown Madonna” (1938) and “Ecce Home” (1953) are cited by the Washington Post as two of Ocampo’s best-known works. In the history of Philippine modern art, Ocampo is often described as a member of the Triumvirate with Victorio Edades and Carlos V. Francisco, though the lives of these two other artists seem to have been documented more widely. The Triumvirate valued realism in art, in contrast to, say, Fernando Amorsolo’s idyllic, colorful and festive works. They were thought to have rebelled against “conventional” art during the middle of the 20th century, seeking instead to portray its subject matter more accurately, more personally and, in effect, more realistically. The “Brown Madonna” is an example of Ocampo's depiction of realism in art—Mary is portrayed in the image and likeness of a Filipino woman dressed in traditional Filipino attire. A non-Caucasian Virgin Mary somehow renders the Divine a bit more accessible to me and my culture. 

I knew very little about Ocampo back then. I do not recall ever visiting any exhibitions featuring his art or ever reading about his work. But my interest in Ocampo was rekindled recently when my family started working on a research project on landmarks of Philippine-American history, culture and art in the Washington, DC area, including the former residences of artists, poets, political and religious figures that are or were based in the Washington, DC area. I was surprised and excited to learn that Ocampo had in fact lived for a number of years in DC area, near where I live now, for several years just before he died in the mid-1980s. 

Ocampo's "Brown Madonna" (Source; www.postcrossing.com)

My first thought was to connect with his family. I wanted to find out more about the artist and his works from his family’s perspective. With the help of friends, I arranged informal interviews with Dennis, Ocampo’s son, who generously shared stories about his father’s life and his time in the United States, particularly in the DC area. 

It has been a rewarding experience, finding out more about Ocampo. Although until recently I thought of him primarily as an artist, it is clear that he was so much more.

In New York, he served with Carlos P. Romulo’s foreign-service staff when Romulo was president of the United Nations Assembly in 1949. This was one of several government service posts that Ocampo held during his life. It was likely the most prestigious, at a time when the world was re-building itself soon after the Second World War and the Philippines was gaining recognition in international affairs and assuming its place in the global community. 

Upon his return to the Philippines, Ocampo held teaching posts at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Santo Tomas and at the Far Eastern University. He was also appointed director of the National Museum in 1961 and curator of the Presidential Museum. 

Many years later, back in the United States, Ocampo lived in Arlington, Virginia, a block from St. Ann Parish. He stayed with one of his sons and spent his time working on pre-commissioned artworks in a basement studio. When it was time to head back to the Philippines, he would roll his canvases, stick them into a tube and hand carry his artworks to the family home in San Juan, Rizal. 

The Coat of Arms of the Republic of the Philippines, designed by Ocampo (Photo by Ruel Hector R. Tiongson)

While living in Arlington, Ocampo was commissioned by the Pastor of St. Ann Parish, a family friend, to paint a portrait of St. Ann. The oil painting was displayed at the Rectory, but the work was taken down and sent to storage soon after the pastor was re-assigned to a new parish. 

During a visit to St. Ann recently, I was pleased to see that the portrait of St. Ann is back again on display. St. Ann is radiant, wearing vestments that remind me of the Virgin Mary with an angel by her side. The painting is serene and reassuring as St. Ann and an angel prayerfully watch over the parish named in her honor. 

My research also led me to two rare finds at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library and the Woodstock Theological Center Library: A 1937 book of sketches and a monograph published during the Opening Exercises for the University of Santo Tomas Academic Year 1965-1966. I very much enjoyed browsing through The Portfolio of Churches and Other Scenes. This book is a slim volume of sketches featuring the Manila Cathedral, the Malate Church and the Quiapo Church, to name a few. Other scenes feature popular landmarks like the Post Office, Escolta and the Villamor Hall at the University of the Philippines. These sketches have an architectural quality characterized by clean lines, the use of proportion and perspective. The dates on most portraits are visible and I noted that these were sketched over the 1934 to 1936 period, which meant that Ocampo would have in his early twenties when he made them. I wonder if the original sketches have been preserved somewhere. I certainly hope so. 

After his death, a solo exhibition of Ocampo’s works was held in Washington, DC, filling up the floors of the historic Charles Sumner Building on 17th and M Streets, NW. In addition, his works in an exhibit hosted by the World Bank featuring several visual artists. 

Galo Ocampo's self-portrait (Photo courtesy of Mitch and Dennis Ocampo)

Ocampo and his wife Loretta are interred at the Arlington National Cemetery. He was an officer of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) during the Second World War and when he died on September 12, 1985, his family received an official notification from the United States military to inter his remains at the Arlington National Cemetery. In recognition of his service as Army captain in the United States and the Philippine armed forces, Ocampo was buried with full military honors. 

It has been a year since I started collecting research materials on Ocampo’s life. Earlier this year, I received from Dennis a key chain and a pin bearing images of the Coat of Arms of the Republic of the Philippines. As technical adviser of the Heraldry Office of the President of the Philippines, Ocampo designed the crest with iconic symbols like the three stars representing the major island clusters in the Philippines, the eight rays of the sun representing provinces that revolted against Spain, the Eagle and the Lion representing the United States and Spain, and the primary colors of the Philippine flag. The Philippine Congress endorsed the design on July 3, 1946, one of its final acts, prior to Philippine independence. I must have seen this coat of arms countless time before, never once connecting it with Ocampo. In retrospect, however, it is not surprising that such an iconic symbol turned out to have been designed by him, his life of service traversing three distinct periods of a young republic’s history. 

I feel that I have come full circle from my first job at the Ateneo Art Gallery, where I first saw Ocampo’s work. Through my research and through Dennis’ many stories, I have come to know him much better. He sits among Filipino masters at the Ateneo’s art collection, but for me he is much more than an artist. I see the Coat of Arms as a fitting reminder of Galo B. Ocampo’s full life—as an artist, an educator, a diplomat and a patriot. 

Ruel Hector R. Tiongson

Ruel Hector R. Tiongson

Ruel Hector R. Tiongson was raised in Solano, Nueva Vizcaya. He and his wife Woweeene work in Washington, D.C. and share a home in Arlington, Virginia.