Monograph on artist Betsy Westendorp released

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FOLLOWING Spanish painter Betsy Westendorp’s ongoing retrospective exhibit PASSAGES: Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila is the release of a commemorative monograph of the same title.

Similar to the ongoing retrospective, the catalogue goes through over 100 artworks of Ms. Westendorp’s various subjects, from portraits to Philippine flora (specifically orchids), and sunsets and cloudscapes called atmosferografias (atmospherics), a term coined by Spanish art historian and critic Elena Flores.

The monograph is not the first look at the artist and her oeuvre — in 2017, the DLSU Publishing House published a two-volume coffee table book titled Betsy Westendorp which was released together with an exhibition.

Born and raised in Spain, the artist was 21 when she first arrived in Manila in 1951 after marrying Filipino businessman Antonio Brias. One of the significant doorways to Ms. Westendorp’s career as a painter was in 1971 when the then-Philippine ambassador to Spain, Luis “Chito” Gonzalez, invited her to an exhibition at the Instituto de Cultura Hispanica in Madrid. The ambassador’s wife, Vicky Quirino-Gonzalez then introduced her to Spanish royals who then posed for portraits. Throughout her accomplished life dedicated to painting, Ms. Westendorp is best known for painting portraits of society’s elite, her floral still lifes, and landscape paintings.

During the catalogue launch — which was held via Zoom and streamed through the museum’s Facebook page on Feb. 27 — art critic Cid Reyes who was the author of the retrospective catalogue, noted the difference between the new monograph and coffee table book of which he was also the author.

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Mr. Reyes said that for the coffee table book, it was a directive from the artist’s family to focus on the art. “In the first book project, the Westendop family requested that only the art be written about [with] nothing at all about the personal life.”

It was a reverse for the Passages catalogue where the collection of artworks featured also illustrate the artist’s personal joys, and pain and sorrows.

“[The author] was given complete access to the personal life of Betsy Westendorp,” said Mr. Reyes, referring to himself. “The result was a refreshing and historically interesting unveiling of the artist’s life. Betsy was forthright, candid and frank, even at flinching in recalling or painful memories,” Mr. Reyes said, citing the deaths of her husband, her young grandson, and her eldest daughter.

In the almost six decades of the artist’s career, Ms. Westendorp had always wanted the public “to know what she feels with what she paints,” he said.

Ms. Westendorp thinks carefully about canvas choice, oil and acrylic color choice. “She makes sure that the people who buy her work are really happy with what she does,” said gallerist Silvana Diaz, a member of the retrospective’s executive committee.

Mr. Reyes ended the discussion by noting Ms. Westendorp’s legacy as an artist on two things: her extensive paintings of Philippine flowers, and the symbolism of life seen through her cloudscapes.

Differentiating the Spanish artist’s flowers from Dutch artists such as Rembrandt, Mr. Reyes said that Ms. Westendorp’s are always illustrated springing from where they were grown and never uprooted or placed in vases.

“Nature is so ordinary to us, but to the eyes of foreigners this is a strange miraculous discovery and revelation,” Mr. Reyes said.

Through the series of “atmospherics,” Ms. Westendorp expresses the stages and emotions of life. “She is the only artist [working in the country] who universalized and transcended a figurative subject such as clouds into something metaphorical, poetic, and symbolical,” said Mr. Reyes.

In December last year, Ms. Westendorp celebrated her 93rd birthday. She has had “a long fruitful life devoted to her vocation as an artist,” said Mr. Reyes.

“In that pandemic year where all mortal life hung in the balance — it still hangs on uncertainty to this very year — the life and art of Betsy Westendorp is a worthy cause for celebration.”

PASSAGES: Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp runs until Mar. 15. Watch the virtual guided tour of the exhibition at http://bit.ly/PassagesVirtualTour and explore the exhibition (in 3D) at https://bit.ly/BWestendorp3DExhibitTour. To order the catalogue, e-mail info@metmuseum.ph. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman

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