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For Betsy Westendorp there is no such thing as ‘only a flower’

WE often expect artists to rebel, but a grande dame like 93-year-old Betsy Westendorp hardly seems to fit the image. Blessed with patrician good looks with the matching mien, that very same quiet dignity bleeds into her work, seen at “Passages,” her retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. She’s famous for her portraits of Spanish royalty (she painted the present King of Spain, Felipe VI, as a boy; and his sisters, the Infantas, as well) and Philippine high society (famous last names are on the museum’s galleries). Her other specialty is painting exquisite flowers and peaceful landscapes, which are displayed in some of the city’s nexuses of power — hardly controversial.

Yet in an increasingly ugly world, the pursuit of beauty is an act of rebellion. “One art critic, when commenting about my painting, he said, ‘There are only flowers!’,” recounted Ms. Westendorp in a video during the opening of “Passages” on Jan. 29. “You know, a flower is one of the most beautiful pictures in the world — so why say it’s only a flower?” “My goodness — only a flower! That’s a wonder!”

The retrospective was the museum’s first remote exhibition opening, held via Zoom and streamed on Facebook. The exhibit, according to a speech by Met President Tina Colayco, had been planned as early as 2019, and had been slated to be opened in May 2020 — but the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down those plans. The exhibit was rescheduled to its present date — it runs until March 15 — in a new hybrid format as being presented at the museum but also through its website as a 360-degree experience. Furthermore, the retrospective will be presented as a printed and digital catalogue written by Cid Reyes, which will have its own forthcoming launch.

Upon visiting the exhibit’s page and 3D tour, one sees first the section dedicated to portraits. On the right hand side are portraits of the artist’s family: parents, her late husband, a self-portrait, and one of her daughter Isabel and her grandson Ian (both deceased).

The royals and society figures — like the one of the King of Spain as a boy, a princess; several members of the Zobel family, the Tantoco couple who founded Rustan’s, and a sprinkling of names famous especially in the 1970s — come after. They are painted almost the same way as her family. The section notes, taken from Mr. Reyes’ catalogue says, “Of the excessive personal ornamentation of attire and jewelry of the 19th century, she will have little use. In truth, she has a discrete distaste for it.” It then seems as if either her own family is just as important and worthy of note as the high and mighty; or else that the high and mighty are as intimate to her as family.

Born in Spain with a Dutch last name in the 1920s, Ms. Westendorp was named after a great-aunt Betsy Westendorp-Osiek, herself a painter. The gene expressed itself once again, with her picking up crayons and paints at an early age. While not studying art formally, she was allowed to be tutored in art at home and to attend studio classes of notable artists at the time. In 1951, she married Filipino-Spanish businessman Antonio Brias, who brought her to the Philippines. Her artistic efforts earned her the Lazo de Dama de la Orden de Isabela Catolica, as well as the Presidential Medal of Merit for Art and Culture.

Her other strengths — landscapes, flowers, and cloudscapes — are well-expressed in the exhibit too. There are over 100 works in total after all. The cloudscape called Passages, sharing the name of the exhibit, is present here too; a cathartic work made after the death of her daughter Isabel. It hangs now in the Instituto Cervantes de Manila. Another highlight is the artist’s recreated studio, with her table, easels, and paints. A video of her painting one of her large-scale works, Homage to Life, also plays in that section.

Is the 93-year-old Ms. Westendorp, who has been painting for over 60 years, a bit weary of this battle for beauty? Not one bit. She was asked by anchor Karen Davila (who hosted the webinar) how she is able to renew her creative spirit, and thus keep going. Her daughter Carmen, sitting beside her mother during the webinar, read a response: “I have been able to renew my creative spirit because I love painting. When you love something very much, there is really no effort. You can get tired, but the energy comes back with a little rest.”

View the exhibit at https://metmuseum.ph/passages-celebrating-the-artistic-journeys-of-betsy-westendorp/. — Joseph L. Garcia

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