Sanso on the Monkey’s eye

Beyond Brushstrokes
Maria Victoria Rufino

Posted on May 29, 2015

THIS LETTER from the famous, multi-award-winning international artist (and witty raconteur and friend) Juvenal Sanso was written to this artist-art gallery manager (1990) in response to my interview. In the spirit of admiration, affection and friendship, I am sharing excerpts -- on his keen observations on collectors and the process of authenticating artworks. I think you will agree on what the painter feels about before and during the presentation of one’s works to the very wide variety of collectors, pseudo-collectors and studio wanderers:

Dear Marivic,

I must tell you a story that illustrates this purpose. It seems that a very highly knowledgeable psychologist placed a monkey in a room filled with mirrors and all kinds of things used in a house to see what this animal would do in such circumstances... When the scientists put their eyes in the keyhole to observe... guess what they saw? They saw the monkey’s eye observing THEM!

This happens to all artists who show paintings to prospective buyers in any place around the world. The Philippines is not an exception.

(I must underline the fact that I am not speaking of Filipino collectors exclusively for someone might be offended if he or she thinks I am talking about them. My observations are a result of long years of practicing my vocation and its complement: that of presenting the works to the art lover.)

There are basic characters in the attitudes and strategies used by both sides that have a most interesting interplay of psychologies. I shall be underlining the most atypical of cases, for they will allow us to understand that there are, in between the extremes, the kind and normal persons who only leave a happy aura behind when they leave.

A very interesting case is the boyfriend of a wealthy business lady who was buying some of my works and who told him to do likewise. The poor fellow was in such a tight fix that he was sweating like a squeezed sponge all over the place: the perfect case of the napasubo. I could not release him from his predicament for I didn’t know what the intentions of the lady friend were; what kind of test he was going through. When confronted with another solution, he turned out to be classical: First he was only going to like the “reserved” or “sold” items in the studio. When similar works were presented, he would want them in a different size. His perspiring was getting so bountiful that I had to take my books and drawings away from this human fountain. Seeing the poor fellow suffer so much and seeing how the lady seemed to push this torture, I kept on the fence, waiting for some release. I wonder what the score at the end was! He left without buying and maybe not earning his stripes with Lady Love. Of course, he promised to come back... Promises, promises!

There are many ways that I use to judge if people in the studio are seriously interested in my works of simply taking a cultural paseo with his friends, either to show how they know painting or the painter. If I hear too much chatting among my visitors, I may put a painting upside down to test their attention. If the second time I do this, they still have not reacted, then I terminate the presentation, saying I don’t have any or finished works to show. It’s best for everyone.

Life is too short for one to devote time to indifference...

In the studio, more than three or four viewers at a time are to be avoided because they form subgroups chatting among themselves or trying to impress one another with their knowledge and their culture. This verbal smarty-pants ping-pong never profits the artist for he rarely learns anything from the show-offs except how ignorant they are and how pedantic are the ones who know a bit.

There is, sometimes, the decoration-oriented buyer who would rather choose a mediocre artwork that goes well with the curtains and wallpaper rather than a strong piece by a better painter...

I have relaxed and let each collector react according to his or her cultural capacity, for what is important is that he or she makes the first step and feels motivated enough to spend hard-earned money on a painting.

If the first step was the curtains, after a while the painting dominates and projects its inner message. Eventually, the curtain is changed... The kids of the house grow up with art around them and this second generation will have seen the painting “first” and forgotten the curtains.

Authenticating by the artist himself is no problem at all... I have an elephant’s memory for my own works, for they are a result of such a multiple interaction of emotional, technical, stylistic factors that, at a glance, they come back to me...

The immediate members of the family may be the second choice if the artist is dead; experts, assuming that the word “expert” is truly legitimate, may guide the collector to select the right (authentic) pieces. A reputable gallery is a very good base too... there are some, really!

Buying directly from the artist (an honest artist, of course) is still the best guarantee of authenticity... straight form the carabao’s mouth: or the monkey’s eye?

Sanso is one of the most prolific artists. His artworks are in the major collections of international museums and families around the world. He is Catalan, born in Barcelona more than 80 years ago. He came to Manila at age four, with his parents and sister. They founded the Arte Español wrought-iron furniture business.

A graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, he lived and worked in Paris for almost six decades, but Manila has always been his home. Sanso speaks Spanish, French, English. He startles people (with his piercing blue eyes) when he suddenly speaks in fluent Filipino.

Maria Victoria Rufino is an artist, writer and businesswoman. She is president and executive producer of Maverick Productions.