Painterly Parallels: The Ties That Bind Kenneth Montegrande And Juvenal Sansó - Arts & Culture

For Fundacion Sansó’s first exhibit of the year, the works of the Spanish artist find kinship with those of the young Filipino artist.

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Fundacion Sansó is mandated to preserve the legacy of its artist-namesake, Juvenal Sansó, whose works find home in such impressive galleries as New York’s MoMA and Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne. To open its slate of exhibits this year, Fundacion partners with Galerie Joaquin anew, and pairs the works of the Spanish master with that of contemporary artist Kenneth Montegrande.

The Filipino artist is the youngest to have contributed to the Malacañan Palace collection, which he did so in 2019. Montegrande is the also first Filipino and Southeast Asian whose works are included prized acquisitions of Japanese mega collector and Contemporart Art Foundation director Yusaku Maezawa.

Fundacion Sansó museum director Ricky Francisco lays down the parallels between the two artists for this exhibit, titled “The Beautiful Expanse of Sea and Sky,” and the juxtaposed works separated by a generation:

Juvenal Sansó

Imaginary landscapes

Serendipities, in life and sensibility, are some of the many things which happen to tie this exhibition together. Looking through their life experiences, we see parallels in life, not just in practice. Both are artists with international audiences; with Sansó having had an active practice in France, Spain, and the US, while Montegrande has an Asian audience.

Both had careers in the press, with Sansó having a column in The Philippine Star, while Montegrande had a column for several newspapers of The Journal Group of Companies. Both developed their work ethic through periods of hardship, with Sansó having to be his father’s assistant in their post-war make- shift bus plying the Sta. Ana route; while Montegrande plied snacks with his siblings as a child in Ermita. And both became spokespersons of government branches at some point, with Sansó being the image of the Philippine Retirement Authority, and Montegrande as the spokesman for the Department of Tourism’s National Parks Development Committee.

“Symphony of Peace,”  6 x 12 ft (2020)

By broaching parallels of life and approaches to art between the multi-awarded Juvenal Sansó, and the dynamic Kenneth Montegrande, this exhibition explores how both of them use the imaginary landscape as a means of achieving inner healing and hope. For Sansó, from his traumas from World War II. For Montegrande, from the cumulative effects of the devastation of the environment, and the isolation from the lockdowns due to COVID-19.

War and pain

As a young man, Juvenal Sansó was traumatized by World War II. He narrowly escaped death by jumping into the Pasig River after having been tortured by the Japanese as a teen. Later on, Sansó found himself again nearly dying just before the war ended, when an American bomb exploded near him, killing his companion and injuring him in the process.

The horrific experience of the war, and having to deal with life in its aftermath, has traumatized the artist.

“I had a very traumatic experience as a result of the War,” recounts Sansó to art historian Reuben Ramas Canete in a recorded interview. “Our fortunes were destroyed, my family had to flee back and forth between Montalban and Sta. Ana, and I myself suffered severe injuries when an artillery shell blasted through our house during Liberation. I’m still deaf in one ear because of that. I had to work immediately after Liberation to help us get food, and the human misery I experienced as a bus conductor, and a resident of the rough-and-tumble areas of Sta. Ana, gave me a huge mental burden that was only relieved by drawing. That is why, early on, I decided not to emulate Amorsolo and instead draw and paint in a more direct manner of presenting pain via a figurative expressionistic style. It was my catharsis from the pain and suffering, my so called Black Period, when I painted exclusively in black and white, with very disturbing imagery like the hideously deformed beggars…”

Expunging trauma

In the mid-50s, through the fortuitous invitation of newsman and publisher Yves le Dantec, Sansó explored the Brittany coast of France and created the iconic landscape that has become synonymous to him—an expanse of sea and sky, which, French art critic Jean Dalveze describes as “conveying the melancholic tenderness of the world, its vastness and the small part we share of it.” Collectively called his Brittany Series, these works have been crucial in expunging his trauma from the Second World War.

Starting off with dark colors, and a preoccupation with ship wrecks and stony landscapes at the beginning, through the decades, his Brittany series acquired color and focused more on the vast expanse of the horizon, as Sansó himself felt relieved of his trauma.

“Stillness of Night,” 12 x 18, (2020)

Art critic Dr. Rod Paras-Perez writes that “there is no question about the crucial synthesis wrought on Sansó by the shoreline of Brittany. It is the place that led him to self-knowledge, the place which helped define his style for him.”

Sansó himself has said that “it is for me a long and beautiful period, slowly getting away from my early neurosis and the effects of a war. The catharsis had worked. My going to Brittany has been primarily the result of my beautiful friendship with Yves le Dantec, and his wife, Agnes Rouault, the youngest daughter of Georges Rouault. I owe him and Agnes, the long introduction to Brittany and its breathtaking beauty. Through endless favors and true friendship that lasted a quarter of a century, I worked hard in crazy stints of raging infatuation with Brittany as my subject. Their family, up to their children and grandchildren, accepted me as one of the family, despite all the problems I brought with my painting. I was so happy to reward my friends with my endless activities. Brittany, for me, was the human result of a truly human interaction.”

Dark and light

Fast-forward 2020, the world is on a lockdown in an attempt to slowdown the spread of an unseen but dangerous threat to humanity’s existence. The lockdown has left many jobless, despondent, and a number with loved ones lost to COVID-19.

Inspired by what is happening in the world, Kenneth Montegrande creates a series of landscapes dramatic seascapes and cloudscapes accenting the contrast of dark and light, to affirm his faith in the providence of the divine. “Though my cloudscapes are mostly dark, you can see, in stark contrast, the glimmering light behind the clouds. The darkness amplifies the light. It is my expression of hope amidst despair. Through my faith, I choose to hope as I know darkness will have to give way to light,” says Montegrande while explaining some of the nuances of his works.

“While I was painting this, I had other concerns. I had some business that I could have closed, to cut down on loses, but there are people I employ. How will they fare, if I chose to close things down? I just held on my faith, and painted, and continued with my business. Thankfully, things worked out. With God there, they always do,” the artist explains.

New connections

Complementing the seascapes and cloudscapes are a series of abstract works ranging from rather small works of less than 24 inches at their widest, to an impressive mural-sized abstract expressionist work, approximately 12 feet wide, originally inspired by the burning of the Amazon forest, but whose final form signifies more the dynamic contrasts of color and tone.

Gestural, and with thick impastos of solid primarily colors set upon neutral browns, dark greens, and whites, the abstract works can also be analyzed in the contrast of light and dark of Montegrande’s sea and sky scapes, with drama highlighted in the push and pull of warm and cold colors.

“The Power of Faith in Times of Crisis,” 48 x 36 (2021)

As the repository of Juvenal Sansó’s personal collection, made accessible to the public through the museum; as well as the carrier of the mandate to preserve Sansó’s legacy, Fundacion Sansó uses its exhibition program to create new connections and new meanings to his works through the careful selection of artists to interact with the collection as well as draw inferences and new points of view from.

This is brought to a new level by Kenneth Montegrande who interacted with one of Sansó’s work through El Profundo, with the specific intention of raising funds for Fundacion Sansó’s active scholarship program. With eleven Fine Arts scholars from the Bulacan State University (with seven recently graduating during the lockdown), the program not only provides aid for motivated but financially challenged Fine Arts students, but platforms through which the scholars may enter art practice. And by interacting with Sansó’s works to augment the scholarship program, Montegrande has delved not only into Sansó’s art, but also in his advocacies. This is clear proof of parallels not only in life circumstances, despite the differences in years, but also, most importantly, in humanistic values.

El Profundo is tangible proof of these values. Aside from being an interaction, it is a work informed by astute faith and an unconditional optimism. It is a rendition of the burning bush from the Bible; a metaphor for the belief that through the workings of the divine, nothing is impossible. It is faith made tangible, with the intent of real help, in this case, for Fundacion Sansó’s scholars.

“Leap of Faith,” 60 x 48 (2020)

Through juxtaposing the works of Sansó and Montegrande, it is hoped that we are transported in the artists’ position, and see these landscapes as visions of their inner world—a world inspired by this one, but with the essence of their exceptional humanity laid out as art.

 “The Blissful Expanse of Sea and Sky: Sansó x Montegrande” runs until April 17, 2021. For inquiries, please call Camille Abello-Calimon at (+639) 17 582 2115, or visit Fundacion Sansó on Facebook.

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