Restoring a 'Lost' Artwork
First, Saving Hands and Feet
One of the most difficult - and exciting! - projects I've ever worked on is in a large swimming pool in the back yard of our Ambassador's residence in Manila, Philippines. Exciting because it involved adventures, discoveries, mysteries, and as with most of my projects, good talented people! This was also the first time I restored a priceless artwork.
Across the bottom of the pool is a sprawling image 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 not. Until this restoration, no one knew about it 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 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 addressed a safety concern. When the artwork was created, 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 diamond accessories) on the edges of more than 1000 tiles over three days. Couldn't have done it without Delmer in these mid-summer days of intense heat and humidity, even in the shade. I did ten minutes at a time. Delmer could do much more.
Preparing to Return
That done, I returned home to address the next set of challenges. Over time about 90 tiles deteriorated and were replaced without matching the original colors or shapes. Who could blame anyone. No one knew this was a valuable artwork. Luckily, these replacements were all a dark gray color distinct from the originals so they were easy to spot as seen in this image.
Not so easy was figuring out some of the original shapes. A close study of the entire piece plus elements from similar paintings helped me figure this out. Double checking my findings with colleagues, a conservator basic, settled it!
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.
Once the shapes were determined, the next step was locating a tile manufacturer to match the original colors. This too was a challenge since few companies do custom colors or small batches. I finally found Viuva Lamego in Lisbon, Portugal. They completed the order and shipped it to Manila to await my return.
Back to Manila
I brought special tools to cut curves in the tile. I also brought twenty tiles fabricated here in the US for a label about the artist in English and Filipino to display near the pool.
Special thanks to Gloria Shanstrom at Enduring Images for the label fabrication, and to Casper Talaeay from Lancaster, PA for the translation. I learned from Casper that there are many dialects in the Philippines. The major one is Tagalog displayed in the label.
As I mentioned, the artwork is so large that no photo exists that nicely shows 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 other employees. 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 military base, close enough that drones of any kind are prohibited. I tried a GoPro camera attached to a long pole from roof of the house overlooking the pool, and the picture at the top of this article was the result - still not very satisfying. I'm tempted on my next visit to simply use a drone at a very low level over the center of the pool and apologize later!
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.
The Restoration Continues
With a break in the Covid pandemic, I returned to Manila for six weeks in February 2022 to finish the work... or so I thought! It was a complicated trip this time with more costly airfare, a five-day quarantine, a Covid test, 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 custom color tiles I ordered - did they match? Yes for 23 but no for 5! So we completed our work with the tiles we had - a big enough task taking 6 weeks. But I'd have to return.
I also discovered that many more tiles were damaged than I originally observed. On closer inspection, some previous repairs were done too quickly causing 'overcuts' in adjoining tiles. These too needed to be replaced.
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!
Another source of damage were gouges and cracks caused by dropping objects on the tile, such as tools, mop handles, and even extension cords as seen below. Though tile is very resistant much like our teeth to scratches even by metal dental tools, dropping something hard easily causes cracks and chips.
So I returned for another final six weeks in May 2022 to finish before the new ambassador arrived in July.
This is a gorgeous piece and without a doubt the most interesting and valuable I've ever worked on in my 45-year career. Two mysteries topped the bill!
Manansala experimented with the limits of cubism throughout his career, achieving an innovation in three-dimensionality which is now known as ‘Transparent Cubism’. Below is a great example. Notice the stained-glass, transparent effect that Manansala achieved - this was a first!
I believe that in this pool Manansala experimented again. This time he investigated movement. If this is true it adds even greater importance to the artwork. Take a look at the images below. I apologize for the blue - we were under a blue tarp to provide shade while we worked and too big to remove every time I took a photo!
These are particularly difficult, time-consuming, and expensive cuts, detail which makes no sense unless Manansala had an important reason. My masons confirmed that such extra time and expense would never be done unless specifically requested. Why choose small curves and indentations rather than easy straight cuts? Why create details that no one can see when the pool is filled? Why place such details only on the sea creatures? I think Manansala discovered that these details work along with sunlight and water to create movement, a theory to be tested when the pool is filled.
I also discovered another odd detail, two small heart-shaped tiles. These are also hard to create in tile, or even see, and hearts are not found in seascapes. This is a curious decision by the artist. Is it a signature? Do any other of his artworks include a heart? Further research is needed.
The restoration is complete, but the project is far from over. So glad to be done with the exhausting and grueling part of daily heat, dust, noise, and rather dangerous tools. But my research was limited to the internet to find what other tile artwork the artist created and any other art with that would help determine the missing shapes. And I was not yet able to test my theory before I left because the pool requires 4 days to fill, and there was no time to spare before my next scheduled project. So there is more to do.
Manansala created another small cubist tilework depicting the Crucifixion - 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. I used 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, and there are many fake Manansala's. Given the uniqueness of the pool artwork and the 'national treasure' status of the artists this comp gives us a starting value in my opinion starting at $2,000,000. But if this is an example of yet another innovation, this time in cubist movement, it is the only example and thus elevates the value to priceless.
And Finally, Maintenance!
Manansala 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 as I usually do in every embassy restoration.
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, never carrying tools into the pool, 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.
Below are images of the artist.