Restoring a 'Lost' Artwork
First, Saving Hands and Feet
One of the most unusual and difficult projects I've ever worked on is in a large swimming pool in the back yard of our Ambassador's residence in Manila, Philippines. Across the bottom of the pool is a large work of art made of over 7000 individually cut colored tiles.
It was created by the Picasso of the Philippines, Vicente Silva Manansala (1910-1981) in 1965 when the pool was constructed. Manansala is now considered a national treasure, and although he is well-known in the Philippines and beyond, this artwork is unknown to fans and experts alike. No one seems to know it exists except the US State Department's Office of Cultural Heritage which asked me for help.
Mr. Manansala was prolific, creating many paintings and stained glass artworks, but only a few compositions in tile, and this is one of them. It is a cubist depiction of sea creatures and aquatic plants, a work of great beauty and great value.
Part of the problem is that there is no complete image of this artwork because it is so large - spanning a 60'x35' pool. I took the photo above but as you can see, it's so large that such an image does it no justice. It needs an overhead photo which presents a unique problem I'll explain in a moment. Below are examples of other work by Manansala.
The Initial Work
The first step in this multi-year project was to address a safety concern. When the artwork was created, the tiles were cut and installed but never 'softened', resulting in sharp edges that occasionally caused minor cuts to feet and hands.
With the help of the embassy mason, Delmer, we carefully used a special tool (Dremel 4000 with several diamont tipped accessories) on the edges of more than 1000 tiles over three days. I really couldn't have done it without Delmer as it was mid-summer and very hot even in the shade. I did ten minutes at a time. Delmer in his special hat that completely covered his neck, did a half hour at a time.
Back to Manila
That done, it was on to the next problem. Over time, some tiles - about 90 - deteriorated and were replaced without matching the original colors or shapes. Who could blame anyone when so few knew this was a valuable artwork. Other tiles were damaged by pool chemical stains, scratches from pool cleaning equipment, dropping tools, etc.
Notice in the photo the tiles that I've marked with red dots. These are just a few of the tiles that were replaced over the years. Luckily, as you can see, they are all one distinct dark gray color so it's easy to spot them. Not so easy was the job of ascertaining the original shapes and colors. A close study of the entire piece plus elements from similar paintings helped me finally figure this out with certainty.
The Director of the Office of Cultural Heritage decided not only to restore this important and unusual artwork, but also track down relatives, cultural officials, editors of art publications, and museum directors to plan a special dedication when the restoration is finished. After all, an unusual, important, valuable, and 'lost' work of art by a renown Filipino artist deserves special attention.
It took months to determine the original shapes and colors. That completed, I located a tile manufacturer in Lisbon, Portugal willing to match the colors in small batches. That company, Viuva Lamego, completed the order and shipped the tile to Manila to await my return.
I brought special tools to cut curves in tile. The lack of these tools may have been the reason the original tile shapes were not previously matched. I originally planned to show the mason how to use this equipment and leave it so that he and his team can do future restoration without help. But that plan changed for reasons I'll explain.
I also brought twenty tiles fabricated here in the US to place in a bronze frame to display near the pool. This is a label in English and Filipino indicating for visitors a bit about the artist.
Special thanks to Gloria Shanstrom at Enduring Images for the tile fabrication, and to Casper Talaeay from Lancaster, PA for the Filipino translation. I learned from Casper that there are many dialects in the Philippines. The major one is Tagalog displayed in the label.
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As I mentioned, the artwork is so large that no photo exists showing the entire piece. A simple solution is a drone camera, but drone photography is a hard ask for embassy security folks tasked with the protection of our foreign diplomats and their families. Photos are strictly forbidden that show security cameras, or even doors and windows. But that was just the beginning of the problem. This residence happens to be close to a Philippine armed forces base, close enough that drones of any kind are prohibited. So we will try photos from the roof of the residence, maybe with a GoPro camera attached to a long pole. Let's see if that works! The photo shown here taken from one side of the pool with a wide-angle lens is only half of the piece! You can just make out a few cubist sea creatures and Delmer in the background.
I located two granddaughters of the artist, and a grandson. One is an expert on her grandfather's artwork. I continue to follow leads and hope to locate many more interested parties.
June 2022 Update
With a break in the Covid pandemic, I returned to Manila for six weeks in February 2022 to continue the restoration. It was a bit more complicated this time with more costly airfare, a five-day quarantine, a negative Covid test before I got on the plane, and a Philippine visa which I could only get in-person at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC.
First thing when I arrived, I checked the color tiles - did they match close enough? Yes for 23 but no for 5! So we did our work with the tiles we had. I also discovered that many more tile repairs were needed than I originally realized. On closer inspection, the previous 'repairs' were done quickly causing 'overcuts' in adjoining tiles. These too needed to be replaced. And more replacements had been done in the recent past despite admonishments not to! And scratches - so many scratches and chips caused by mops and typical pool cleaning accessories. What was originally a 90-tile restoration became a 800 tile project!
So I returned for another final six weeks in May 2022 to finish before the new ambassador arrives in July.
This is a gorgeous piece and one of the most interesting and valuable I've ever worked on in my four-decade career. But even more exciting is a mystery! The tilework is very fine with tight 'toothpick' seams between the tiles and hard-to-cut details. And the details... here's the fascinating part!
Why such details? Why did the artist require that his masons cut difficult and time-consuming shapes that can't be seen when the pool is filled? There must be a reason.
Manansala devoted his life to the cubist movement and was always experimenting, always pushing the limits. He became particularly famous for what is now known as 'Transparent Cubism' which pushed the cubist concepts of 3-dimensionality.
I believe he was experimenting again, this time with another idea. I think he discovered that these details work along with sunlight and water to create movement. Take a look at the fish photo. I apologize for the blue - we were under a blue tarp to provide shade while we worked. If you look closely you can see intricate and difficult detail which makes no sense unless Manansala figured it would DO something. But I can't test this theory until I see these details with the pool filled - next time!
I've also discovered that this is a rare piece. Manansala created another small cubist tilework depicting the Crucifiction - this is in a private collection - and a large representational mosaic entitled 'Our Lady of Fatima - Thank You' on the chapel facade of Far Eastern University in Manila. The small (18"x53") cubist tile piece appeared at auction years ago at a bid of $10,000. We can use this as a comp but a poor one at best since there is no date of the auction, no final sale price, and no authentication - there are many fake Manansala's. This comp gives a value to the pool piece of at least $2,000,000.
Regardless of the price, this artist is a 'national treasure' of the Philippines and a major contributor in the Cubist art movement. Without question the pool artwork is valuable and important. Thus, I feel differently about the idea of training staff to do future repairs. Though the embassy masons are very skilled and careful, I feel that only conservators should touch it, and there be strict guidelines for cleaning it such as never stepping on it, never using abrasives, etc. I don't even feel comfortable with anyone but CH cleaning it! It's an expensive proposition, but in my opinion well worth it.
The project is complete. It meets my perfectionist standards! And so glad this grueling project is over - daily heat, dust, noise, and rather dangerous tools made for an exhausting project. I was not able to test my theory before I left due to the fact that the pool requires 4 days to fill and I did not have that time to spare before my scheduled flight home. But in the fall I may be returning briefly to participate in a ceremony marking this important restoration. I'll test the theory then.
Below are images of the artist.
The US Dept of State May newsletter features cultural heritage projects including two of mine! Take a look.
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