By Rome Jorge
What is it to be peers with the likes of National Artists Cesar Legaspi, Benedicto “Bencab” Cabrera, Anita Magsaysay Ho, Arturo Luz and Eduardo Castrillo? How does it feel to have the likes of Soler and Steve Santos as sons and protégés?
Turning 78 on January 20, Mauro “Malang” Santos knows.
The seasons have turned his short-cropped hair to the color of tinsel and frost. The weight of the years has hunched his stocky, rough-hewn frame. Yet shake his large hands and you feel both the strength of a mason and the warmth of a father. Ask him about controversies and a devilish glint lights his eyes. Share a joke with him and a mischievous grin tugs at all the weatherworn creases of his cheeks.
Just as smiles have etched his wrinkles and toil has sculpted his hands, Malang is a man shaped by luck and hard knocks, intuition and discipline, pragmatism and passion.
The school of hard knocks
Malang didn’t graduate from any fine arts college. He didn’t graduate at all. Just as well.
Malang became a painter through the newspaper.
“My first job was as an illustrator for the Manila Chronicle. Back then artists didn’t just do daily editorial cartoons and illustrations; we did advertising, layout and photo retouching,” he recalls. “We called it the ‘Chronicle University.’”
His commercial work with poster paint explains his ease and affinity with the opaque water-soluble colors of gouache, his favored medium.
Such was his luck—because his boss was the National Artist and leading abstract expressionist exponent Hernando “HR” Ocampo.
“He would leave his oil paints to me,” Malang fondly recalls of his mentor.
Ocampo often had prestigious artists such as the National Artist and painter Carlos “Botong” Francisco, and the National Artist and author Nestor Vicente Madali “NVM” Gonzalez drop by the office. Through Ocampo’s friends, Malang enriched his artistic vocabulary and established lasting bonds.
But Malang’s work for the paper was but his “college degree.” The man remembers being dragged by his father when he was still studying Grade 3 to art lessons in a night school in Avenida, Rizal Avenue, run by Teodoro Buenaventura, an art professor at the University of the Philippines.
Malang confesses, “I hated going there. I didn’t know what my father saw in me. My eldest brother was better at drawing.” But such is the wisdom of fathers. Both the skill and discipline he acquired in that tiny nook of Manila would later reward the painter.
After his work at the Chronicle, Malang would tirelessly busy himself painting at home with oil and canvas. Like many of today’s noted artists, he took the initiative in entering painting contests, most notable of which was the Shell Art Competition, where he won the top plum.
When he finally launched his first exhibit at the Philippine Art Gallery, mostly of landscapes, his show was a sellout. But ever pragmatic, Malang would stay on in the Chronicle for some 20 years before leaving the paper to become a full-time painter. Malang explains, “Segurista ako. I made sure I had enough contacts and commissions before I made it on my own.”
Some 37 years ago, National Artists Vicente Manansala, Ocampo and Legaspi along with Malang, founded the highly revered Saturday Group of Artists. Malang led the Saturday Group after Legaspi passed the baton to him. Today, he still provides counsel and inspiration to a new generation of artists.
Among today’s young crop of painters, Malang admits to admiring surrealist Ronald Ventura, Elmer Borlongan and members of the Saling Pusa arts group. “This generation is very talented,” he exclaims.
All in the family
Malang himself has sired two noted artists: Soler, known for his organic forms, and realist Steve Santos—his youngest and eldest sons. Malang recalls Steve one day showing off paintings he did for his subjects at the College of Fine Arts at UP; they clearly took after his father. Malang advised his son to find his own style or else, “Nothing will come of us.”
His two other children help run the family business. In their Marisan Building on West Avenue in Quezon City, Mon Santos maintains Video 48, a haven for cinemaphiles where one can find copies of such film classics as Oro Plata Mata, Nunal sa Tubig and Oro Pronobis, as well as an enviable collection of movie memorabilia. For her part, Sarah Santos manages Art Prints Philippines, a producer of fine serigraphs.
The Marisan building is named after Malang’s wife, Mary Santos, who passed away in 2002. Such an inspiration was she that in 2005, the Santos family mounted a joint exhibit entitled “Tribute to Nanay [Mother].”
But though age and family life often bog most men, Malang still wields a prodigious brush and a sharp tongue.
“Scrap it! It should be abolished. It has no credibility,” says Malang of the National Artist Award, for which he has been nominated several times. He argues that geniuses come only once in a lifetime and that the awards, given every two years, are now scraping the bottom of the barrel.
He also decries the lack of government support for the arts. “You have to kneel before the NCCA [National Commission for Culture and the Arts],” contends Malang. He also decries what he perceives as a lack of direction in NCCA programs.
Malang also finds incredulous that the government’s authentication board, held every Wednesday at the NCCA, proclaims the veracity of paintings on the spot with but a few experts. He relates that, he along with other dear friends of Legaspi, deliberates arduously among themselves before authenticating paintings attributed to the great artist.
Today’s art world is rife with forgeries. He recalls the incident when a buyer approached them about authenticating a painting attributed to Malang. The man had already given a considerable down payment. It was an obvious fake.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then growth is the true test of longevity. If one wants to truly know a painter like Malang, one has to listen to his paintings.
Malang’s signature style—women portrayed with flat circular forms—is now evolving in his latest exhibit, “Celebration,” at the Art Center of SM Megamall.
Birds and hearts still crown his women. But now his once highly linear works and formal compositions show movement through a blurring of colors. Their faces are less defined. Malang explains, “I am moving toward abstraction.” In a sense Malang is both pushing forward and coming home to the style of his mentor HR Ocampo.
Both the deftness acquired through hard knocks in life and the thrill of experimentation show in his most recent works.
It takes a young man to dare himself. At 78, Malang is such a man.