Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Carmen Westendorp Brias Comes Home

The Excelsior, along the coastal boulevard of Roxas in Parañaque City, was bathed in the afternoon sunlight, highlighting its age. Inside, it reeks of the 1970s, its walls having dulled through the times and the dark wood accents contributing to the somberness. The ride on the elevator felt like a slow travel through time. At the twelfth floor, the hallway was empty with a series of doors. I opened the one nearest, a latticed door that opened to another, one with the knob at the center. From the dim and narrow hallway, I emerged to bright light and sounds of conversations.
“My soul is Filpino,” I first heard 55-year-old, Filipino-Spanish painter Carmen Westendorp Brias telling a small group of journalists. They sat around a large round table like the legendary knights with the light streaming through the curtains of the large windows.
Slowly the seats around the table would be filled up. They were not talking about strategies in slaying a dragon but the discussion was not less magical.
Carmen returns, after so many years, to the Philippines where she was born to mount an exhibit of her paintings with her 81-year-old painter-mother Betsy Westendorp, a celebrated artist especially during 1970s Manila when the city’s high society was clamoring for their portraits to be painted by her.
Betsy, in all white like a high priestess and still regal, hovered around preparing food and taking photographs of the whole thing. She joined her daughter briefly. After answering a few questions and nibbling on a piece of prosciutto, she floated away, refilling the plates with prosciutto, salami and cheeses; serving soft drinks; and taking more photographs. She was letting her daughter shine. She had her moment when she mounted an exhibit here in the Philippines a few weeks ago called “Reflections” after five years of absence. Admirably, she still paints and mounts exhibits, many of which have won acclaim. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo awarded her the Presidential Medal of Merit for arts and culture in 2007.
Around the apartment were Carmen’s and Betsy’s paintings, mostly Carmen’s now, ready for the mid-April exhibit at the Ayala Museum. There were two large paintings behind Carmen — one showing a girl sitting on a chest and behind her the deep blue sea, and the other a bird in flight in a dense jungle. Nearby was another large painting, striking because of its hot pink color and an image of a jeepney.
Lately, she has been using lots of blues, greens and pinks. It is a phase, she thought.
The 2003 painting Girl Sitting on Muslim Chest, about 50-inch tall, interested many people. The girl, wearing a colorful hat and a shirt with the word Love, is sitting on a baul, the kind with mother-of-pearl inlays crafted by the Muslim Maranao, with seashells and a horse figurine with an American flag. The sea is calm behind her.
Carmen thought of it after the September 11 terror attacks in New York . The girl is Filipino, and the shells represent material wealth while the sea represents love, she explained.
“When you see the sea, don’t you feel loved? Something big is loving you,” she laughed.
The bird in the other painting, Flight, is a Philippine eagle, which she refers to with its old moniker, the monkey-eating eagle. Peace Jeepney, painted in 2003, depicts the Philippine icon, gaily decorated like a fiesta, with lyrics from the John Lennon song “Imagine” and words she picked up from real jeepneys.
It is evident that many of Carmen’s paintings are of Philippine inspiration, even the colors — the blue, green and even pink. She said that there are many old churches in Spain , where she lives and works, but she doesn’t like painting old churches. She likes painting tropical scenes, which can be found in the Philippines.
“The Philippines is an Aquarian country,” she said. “Spain is Sagittarius.”
“It’s hard to come from an all green island,” she commented. “In Madrid, everything is dry.”
Carmen maintains a lifelong love affair with the Philippines, springing from fond memories she has of her childhood here. Like her two sisters Isabel and Sylvia, she was born here. Her father was Spanish-Filipino businessman Antonio Brias.

The Briases traced their ancestry to Guadalajara, Spain. The family patriarch, Enrique de Coya Brias, came to the Philippines in the 1800s and eventually became the general manager of the San Miguel Corporation. His son Antonio also joined San Miguel and eventually became its general manager and vice presidents.
Antonio met Dutch-Spanish Betsy, whose father migrated from the Netherlands to Spain. Despite her family’s objections, Betsy married Antonio and resided in the Philippines, making a name for herself as a painter.
Eventually, the Briases came to live in Spain. They could have gone there for good. Betsy remembered during his last days, Antonio was listless — suddenly wanting to go to Spain and when in Spain having the urge to go back to Manila. The doctors found some kind of virus in his brain after he died, Betsy said. After some time shuttling back and forth, Betsy grew tired of the packing and unpacking, the impulsive decisions and the traveling; decided to sell their Manila property; and permanently settled in Madrid. After Antonio’s demise, Betsy did not sever ties with the Philippines and would occasionally return.
Carmen, who studied in Assumption College, was always eager and excited when her mother took her along to the Philippines.
Besty Westendorp bought an airy apartment along Roxas Boulevard, which she still keeps and stays in whenever she is in the Philippines. It has a high ceiling, enabling her to do her big paintings, and a beautiful view of the Manila Bay and its much acclaimed sunset.
The apartment affords one a view of the sprawling SM Mall of the Asia, the biggest in the country, and acres of reclaimed land. Betsy remembered the time when the shore was nearer. Now, one can see more of the browns of the reclamation than the blues of the sea.
Carmen wondered if the Philippines became a better or worse place. But she is optimistic, she admitted, and will always see the country, the home of her fond memories, as always beautiful. She remembered enjoying her foray to Baclaran Church, which is near the apartment, and getting amused at the colorful things being sold at the stalls around it.
While she is always sure of her feelings for the Philippines, it is not the case for painting. Her family is into painting. Her great-grandmother Betsy Westendorp-Osiek (1880-1968) was a prominent painter. Aside from her mother Betsy, her sister Sylvia became involved in painting as well. Carmen grew up seeing painting but she was not pushed into doing it.
“I wanted to do everything but paint,” she revealed. “I did not know what exactly I want to do but everything but paint.”
One of the things she did was being a fashion reporter, something thrust to her.
Eventually, she came home to painting although in an unconventional manner and with some reluctance. She studied painting restoration at the Artes Aplicadas a la Restauracion de Madrid because she did not have the patience to pass the test for a painting school.
“I couldn’t spend ten years drawing statues in order to get into a painting school,” she said. “I decided to go to painting restoration because they were made to draw statues after statues. On the tenth, I kind of exploded. Painting restoration had an easier exam.”
“Restoring is related to painting,” she continued. “That’s what I did, and it was interesting but it is not creative; it is very scientific. This is a way of finding something else [besides painting], but I enjoyed restoring.”
She worked as a painting restorer for some time and painted on the side. Eventually, painting became her main line. She joined a group show in Madrid in 1985 and had a solo exhibit in 1992 at the Sotogrande in Cadiz. She had several group and solo shows thereafter.
Carmen was also coordinator of her mother’s art school in their family home in Aravaca, just outside Madrid. Also into doing sculpture, mostly in terracotta and wood, she put up her own sculpture school in Madrid, where she lives with her 14-year-old daughter Karla. “I paint to express myself and in order to make a living,” Carmen simply put it. “It is like any other job. It requires a lot of work. It’s like 90 percent work and ten percent inspiration….If you’re lucky enough, you’ll find your way through.”
And Carmen has found her way through. She has been included in the Dictionary of 20th Century Spanish Painters and Sculptors, in which her work is described as “a fantastic ingenuism with a surrealistic inclination, an exuberance of color using firm drawing to recreate the reality surrounds us.”
Carmen found it hard to describe her style though. She admitted being an unschooled painter like her mother: “I am a ‘wild’ painter. I try to experiment. I try to mix… I don’t have any one style.”
But she has a consciousness to veer away from what her mother and sister are doing, but not to the point that it bothered her. “I don’t get compared,” she said. “It is very clear who I am.”
She commented that its very handy having a painter mother, especially when she needs brushes or canvases.
Carmen’s work is usually marked by mixing media and using unconventional materials like paraloid, a non-yellowing acrylic polymer used for consolidating wall paintings.
Many times, Carmen’s works are compared to Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugain, both of whom she loves along with the Flemish painters, Diego Velasquez and Edvard Munch. But unlike some of the works, Carmen’s paintings depict “happy” subjects.
“I must feel good. I can’t paint when I am depressed. I must be happy,” she shared. “That’s what I have in common with the Filipino people. They don’t like angst.”
The sunset outside the apartment glowed brightly, like blood-tinged dragon breath, almost dissolving the grit and decay of the city.

The joint exhibit of Betsy Westendorp and Carmen Westendorp Brias “Mother and Daughter” will open on April 14 at the ArtistSpace, second floor Glass Wing of the Ayala Museum, Paseo de Roxas, Makati City . The show runs until April 26. For more information, contact Galleria Duemilaat 831-9990, telefax 833-9815, e-mail Visit

1 comment:

Sofia said...

The Baclaran Phenomenon is, first and foremost, the incredible number of people who come to the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran every Wednesday to make the Perpetual Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. It is estimated that at least 100,000 devotees come on regular Wednesdays, reaching about 120,000 on the First Wednesday of each month. The biggest turnout of the year is on Ash Wednesday. The crowd for that day simply defies estimate.

Baclaran Church Official Website