Saturday, February 20, 2010

Art Discovery: Gavino Reyes Congson's Touches of Humor in Filipino Life Ca. 1936-41

 All the time we've been reading the Philippine Magazine in the University of Michigan online digital library collection, which has the June 1928 to June 1941 issues (volumes 25 to 38), we did not show much interest in the covers until we saw one by Gavino Reyes Congson in color.

The artist's name doesn't ring a bell but his drawings evoke the American artist Norman Rockwell whose illustrations graced 322 covers of The Saturday Evening Post from May 20, 1916 ("Boy with Baby Carriage") to December 16, 1963 ("Portrait of John Kennedy").

Congson could have been inspired by Rockwell.  His slices of Filipino life were simple drawings tinged with wit and humor, which could have elicited loud chuckles or hearty laughs (and they still do) from Philippine Magazine readers much like those of The Saturday Evening Post when they saw Rockwell's detailed colorful depiction of small-town Americana.

Congson's illustration of  a mother with two children haggling with "The Toy Vendor" (above, left) was his first cover and  this appeared in the February 1936 issue.  He did 57 more covers up to June 1941, the last in the UMich collection, which he titled  "Fire?" (above, right) where a man with a tobacco pipe in his mouth fell asleep while having a haircut.


Unlike Rockwell, Congson did not go to an art school.  He was a self-taught artist working with the Manila Electric Company.  This we learned from Philippine Magazine editor AVH Hartendorp in his notes about contributors and artists in the May 1937 issue.  Hartendorp wrote that "the artist's drawings of Manila street characters are notable for their keen observation and humor, and those who understand anything of art will admire the economy and efficiency of the means he employs in transferring what he sees and thinks to his sketch pad."

He was given a raise in his salary, according to Hartendorp, when his employers saw his works in the magazine.  Internet sources report that he died in 2006 at the age of 97, and nothing more can be found about the artist.  Could Manila Electric have asked him to do art work for their reports and adverstisements? Did he also contribute to other magazines? If they survived, where are his original works now?

P.S.  There are a few covers that UMich scanned in color. We think these were extra copy of issues that were not bound with a year's partial or complete set, which were all scanned in black and white.

The reproductions in this blog, in the order of appearance from the top, are --  "School Days" (May 1936), "Waiting for the Whistle" (August 1939), "My Turn Next!" (October 1939), "Guess What Ma Bought for Me" (December 1939), "Father Has Had No Luck" (February 1940), "Cuya Goes Acourting" (July 1939), "The Great Outdoors" (April 1940), and "His First Trophy" (September 1939).

A retrospective exhibition of the 58 Congson covers can very well be a showcase of how American influences changed the Filipino way of life forever.

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