But the way I saw it, he was neither. He was in a class by himself.
Gazing at his mural, “Magsasaka”, which had been likened to Millet’s “The Gleaners”, I saw no resemblance.
I came to the Musee d’ Orsay, Paris, precisely to view Millet’s Realistic masterpiece of three peasant women painfully stooped as they pick up stray wheat grains left over by harvesters on the fields. They were rendered in sombre earth tones, unlike Manansala’s sun-drenched women heaving sheaves of rice in a riot of faceted, overlapping planes of blues and tangerines, yellows and greens.
And unlike Picasso, the shapes and forms of Manansala’s subjects are not overly distorted. They are still recognizable.
But while I’m not really a great fan of the modernists, I was surprised I enjoyed Mang Enteng’s seven-mural Philamlife Series, which the insurance giant commissioned for its Manila headquarters in 1961 and now re-homed at the National Museum’s new Philamlife Gallery.
It was a visual feast!
The murals include “Kalabaw” (Water Buffalo) with the interlocking shapes of powerful bulls resting on the field around a rosy calf, with birds hovering on the backdrop of a shifting cityscape.
“Manok “ (Roosters) shows multi-hued gamecocks strutting about against a faceted cityscape with houses on stilts.
“Harana” (Serenaders) is a mosaic-style brushwork of seated musicians with their guitar and banduria in hand.
“Pamilya” (Family” depicts a family sharing two fishes, praying before meals against a backdrop of corncob and fishnet baskets.
“Pagkain” (Food) is an cubist’s still life rendition of overlapping tables with wooden bowl and green fronds, the other with a plate of chicken drumsticks and a bowl of fish.
In the middle ground, he put in a two-toned bottle, a couple of brown fish, a slice of watermelon below a guitar, a wooden chopping board along with a blue mortar and pestle.
In “Isda” (Fish), schools of fish swim in a gouache of painted paper cut-outs with birds flying overhead.
Over a decade before he painted the series, Manansala studied at the University of Paris with mentor Fernand Leger who advised him to simplify his shapes and color combinations to improve his overall composition.
All the places where Mang Enteng lived and travelled – Pampanga, Intramuros, Quezon City, Cavite, Makati, Paris, Los Angeles, New York – as well as World War II, which he survived – plus his peers and mentors – influenced the style which made him one of the most important Filipino painters of the 20th century, one of the Thirteen Modernists and neo-realists of the post-World War 2 period of the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Manasala was born in Macabebe, Pampanga in 1910. His dad was a barber, his mom a housewife. Growing up in Intramuros, he drew insects and did charcoal sketches. Aged 11, he worked as bootblack, newsboy and caddy. A year later, he enrolled at the Manila South High School, but had a spat with a teacher and dropped out.
As a teenager, he took formal drawing lessons under Don Ramon Peralta and painted backgrounds for movie posters. He studied Fine Arts in UP. His mentors included Fernando and Pablo Amorsolo, Ireno Miranda, Fabian de la Rosa. He was only 19 when he graduated, the youngest among the batch of 1930.
But while the state university taught him the classical style of painting, he developed an interest in cubism and dabbled with Chinese calligraphy, Japanese shibui as well as stained glass making.
In 1932, he worked as an illustrator of the Philippine Herald then signed up with a British ship, the Silver Palm, as a mess boy, two years later.
Upon his return to Manila in 1935, he returned to Herald, illustrating the writings of Nick Joaquin and Joe Rodas and serving as chief layout artist.
He was so poor, he can’t even afford chairs for his home in Callejon Reina above an “estero”.
Mang Enteng didn’t start gaining renown as a painter until 1940, when his “Pounding Rice” won the grand prize at the national exhibition at the University of Santo Tomas.
When war broke out in 1942, his early sketchbooks and award-winning student paintings were burned in Intramuros. He fled to Cavite with his family then relocated to Masantol, Pampanga, where he fed his household by fishing and doing portraits for four gantas of rice or eight gantas of palay.
After Manila was liberated, he went back to the capital, doing postcard-size pencil portraits of American soldiers for a living. Next, he became an illustrator for Liwayway, then layout artist for Saturday Evening News magazines.
In 1949, he got a UNESCO art fellowship in Canada. Another grant from the French government enabled him to attend École de Beaux Arts in Paris. He studied stained glass techniques at Greenland Studio in New York City on a specialist grant from the State Department of the United States.
For seven years, Manansala taught at UST. In 1957, he began the “Way of the Cross” murals at the UP Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice. He also painted murals for the Philippine Heart Center for Asia, UP Arts and Science lobby and the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
“During his birthdays, he would give out a sketch to the first person who greets him,” recalls Maritess Pineda, one of the original Friends of Manansala.
“So, we’d camp outside his bedroom door waiting for midnight. One time, all three of us made it and we badgered him till he let us loose in his studio to get whatever drawing we can find inside his drawers.”
Mang Enteng died in 1981, of uremia and was conferred the National Artist Award for Visual Arts posthumously .
Now, the National Museum displays fourteen Manansalas and three of his magnum opuses – “I Believe In God”, “Burial” and Calesa”.
And in his art, he lives forever.