Alcuaz got a Law degree in Ateneo but art kept calling 2
Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and details of his work entitled "Blue Eagle." All images courtesy of Leon Gallery

This painting embodies Federico Alcuaz’s time in Ateneo, a seminal period in his practice and career

As several Alcuaz paintings arrive at auction this month, we look back at an important period where the National Artist’s creative prowess was in full bloom
By Jed Daya | May 30 2023

What do Jose Rizal, Antonio Luna, and Federico Aguilar Alcuaz have in common? Well, aside from being three of the country’s cultural giants, they all attended Ateneo de Manila University. 

The Ateneo was a seminal part of Alcuaz’s practice and career. He entered the university with the intention of earning a degree in Law as per his father’s wishes, but ultimately ended up following a different path. He attended Fernando Zobel’s Art Appreciation classes in the graduate school while Father Thomas Cannon provided him with a proper studio within the campus.

Alcuaz in Barcelona
Alcuaz in Barcelona

Alcuaz’s Ateneo years were marked by the blossoming of his artistic prowess, counting among his achievements his first prize nods at the UP Art Competition (1953) and the Shell Art Competition (1954), and the privilege of having then President Ramon Magsaysay and his wife, Luz, as guests of honor in a solo show at the San Beda (1954), one of the two schools where he took up Fine Arts (the other was UP Diliman). 

Federico Alcuaz
Alcuaz brought Filipino art into the consciousness of an international audience.

But grounded in the Ateneo’s value of magis (doing more, being more, and loving more) and its mission of identifying, enriching, and embodying Philippine culture, Alcuaz became the exemplar of a highly acclaimed Filipino global artist who brought Filipino art into the consciousness of an international audience, imbuing his symphonic works with an ingenious weaving of his distinct European flair and love for classical music. In his long art career, he was “known for his diverse body of work, with gestural paintings, watercolor works, abstract sculpture and textile art.”

Blue Eagle by Federico Alcuaz
Lot 78 Blue Eagle by Federico Alcuaz. Signed (lower left). Oil on canvas. 38 1/2" x 51" (98 cm x 130 cm). Property from the Esteban Cabanos Collection 

Alcuaz had so much to thank the Ateneo and its brand of Jesuit education; it gave him the liberty and opportunity to zealously pursue his art. His painting entitled Blue Eagle, which is up for auction on the 17th of this month at Leon Gallery, immortalizes Alcuaz’s Atenean pride and honor. He painted the work when he returned to the Philippines (between 1964 and 1967) from his first Barcelona sojourn. The piece depicts the blue eagle, Ateneo’s insignia, flying above the vast university campus, safeguarding it and soaring toward the boundless horizon of greatness and excellence.

The work also happens to encapsulate the friendship between the National Artist and his compadre, Esteban Cabanos.

Alcuaz and Cabanos
Alcuaz (left) and Cabanos (right) having a few drinks and enjoying each other's company.

Cabanos was a lawyer and gentleman farmer from San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte. Born on December 23, 1914, Cabanos enlisted in the military, dedicating his service to the cause of Philippine liberation from the Japanese. After the war, Cabanos served as President of the Philippine Veterans Bank and held the post from 1966 to 1981.

The silver wedding anniversary of Esteban and Lydia Cabanos
The silver wedding anniversary of Esteban and Lydia Cabanos, with the painting hanging in the background.

Alcuaz and Cabanos met sometime in the mid-1960s, during the former’s homecoming from his “Barcelona period.” The two crossed paths through Cabanos’ brother-in-law, Walderico Aquino Valdes. Alcuaz and Valdes were classmates at the Ateneo Law School, where the painter studied from 1952 to 1955.

Alcuaz and Cabanos became very good friends. From time to time, they, together with other good fellows, would hang out in the popular Manila bars of the time (they likely indulged in the unbridled spectacle of the famed Dewey Boulevard and frequented its hip dining and entertainment spots).

Lot 52 Untitled by Federico Alcuaz
Lot 52 Untitled by Federico Alcuaz. Signed (lower right); signed and dated 1975 (verso). Oil on canvas. 19 1/2" x 15 1/2" (50 cm x 39 cm)

In the book Parallel Texts, Rod. Paras-Perez, the author, writes that “once in a while, as a gesture of friendship, he [Alcuaz] would leave one or more works with someone.” Cabanos would eventually acquire Blue Eagle from his beloved friend around 1967. The painting proudly hung in the living room of the stately Alta Vista residence of the Cabanos family, where it served as a reminder of Alcuaz and Cabanos’ brotherhood. 

Lot 123 Barcelona Series by Federico Alcuaz
Lot 123 Barcelona Series by Federico Alcuaz. Signed, inscribed Barcelona and dated 1964 (lower right). Oil on canvas. 31 1/2" x 24 1/2" (80 cm x 62 cm). Property from the Don J. Antonio Araneta Collection 

After earning his diploma in Law in 1955, Alcuaz exhibited at the legendary Philippine Art Gallery. His teacher Zobel, who saw a “promising” future for his student, recommended Alcuaz to the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a beca (grant). He would eventually study at the prestigious Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, the same institution that honed Luna, Hidalgo, and Amorsolo. In sunny Spain, Alcuaz would start creating his avant-garde and now-coveted “Barcelona series” paintings.

Lot 150 Night in Marantz by Federico Alcuaz
Lot 150 Night in Marantz by Federico Alcuaz. Signed, inscribed Barcelona, and dated 1961 (upper left). Oil on wood. 55" x 31" (140 cm x 79 cm)

The Ateneo conferred Alcuaz its Outstanding Law Alumnus Award in 1981. In gratitude to the institution that empowered him and his art, Alcuaz donated to the Ateneo Endowment Fund PHP1.06 million from the sales of his 1982 show at The Manila Hotel.

His formidable journey toward his search for artistic identity is encapsulated in the Barcelona Series. Life was in favor of Alcuaz because at the time when he decided to move to Barcelona to expand his artistic vision, it was a haven for the avant-garde modernists who rebelled against conservatism in art. The artist made a home for himself in the city, even setting up a studio on the fourth floor of the 285 Calle de Aragón, which he maintained for 40 years, from 1957 until 1997. As well, it was also at this time that the “Renaissance Man” embraced a new moniker, signing his paintings with “F. Aguilar Alcuaz” or “Aguilar Alcuaz.”

[Blue Eagle and a few other works by Federico Aguilar Alcuaz is part of Leon Gallery’s upcoming Spectacular Midyear Auction slated for June 17 at 2PM. ANCX is a co-presenter. For more details and to browse the rest of the lots, visit the Leon Gallery website.] 

All images courtesy of Leon Gallery