Betsy Westendorp’s Passages

Maria Victoria Rufino


Betsy Westendorp is a radiantly beautiful artist. At her magnificent exhibition of 100 artworks, she declared, “I am very happy about this retrospective… It’s a dream! It’s so exciting that it’s unbelievable.

“Carmen (her artist-daughter Carmen Brias Westendorp) is so helpful, relaxing and cheerful. She’s a blessing,” she enthused.

The retrospective she was referring to was Passages: Celebrating the Artistic Journeys of Betsy Westendorp, was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila.

“The Metropolitan Museum of Manila retrospective of Besty Westendorp is an affirmation of her lifetime passion for her art. It is also a wondrous revelation of her deep love for her family, her caring friends, and for the country — querida Filipinas — she painted and adopted with every sunrise and sunset,” remarked Met Museum President Tina Colayco.

Cid Reyes, author, art critic, and artist, wrote in the catalogue, A Celebration of Besty Westendorp’s Artistic Journeys:

“Our very own Betsy Westendorp is in line with … historical precedence. Beyond measure, she has enriched the artistic heritage of her adopted country, the Philippines.

“In recognition of Westendorp’s valued contribution to Philippine art, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo awarded her with The Presidential Medal of Merit, second only in distinction to the title of National Artist.

“In 1976, His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain bestowed on Betsy Westendorp the distinguished Lazo de Dama, the equivalent of knighthood for ladies. This exclusive Order was originally created by His Majesty King Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1815.

“… Her great body of works consists of portraits of the society elite of Madrid and Manila. Her landscapes of Philippine terrain, seascapes of Manila Bay, her colourful celebration of Philippine flora …the various species of the native orchid, and literally, in the sunset of her years, the grand symphonic cloudscapes across Philippine skies — never depicted by any Filipino artist.”

Many admirers of the Spanish-born artist and life-long resident of the Philippines have collected her exquisite portraits, flowers (orchids, hydrangeas, poppies), landscapes and breathtaking sunsets. The word “Atmosferografias” was used by her friend, the art critic Elena Flores, to describe Westendorp’s cloudscapes.

Mr. Reyes wrote, “The spirit is where the imagination lies… taking refuge in the manifest expressions of creativity, communicating by the instruments of a flat surface and a multitude of colored pigments. Suddenly, we are rendered mute by the evocations of Nature cast in stupendous, overwhelming space.

“Westendorp’s paintings are her personal journey into the Sublime…. The audience participates in the emotional awe and turmoil …

“Romance… is the unclouded origin of her cloud paintings.”

After a whirlwind courtship in Spain, prominent businessman Antonio Brias brought his young bride Betsy to the Philippines. He used to take her for walks along Manila Bay to watch the famous sunset. The alluring images were imprinted in her photographic memory. Throughout the decades, long after her beloved husband had passed, and when she was living in Madrid, she would continue to paint her impressions of the Philippine sunset. She has spent many years going back and forth and considers Manila her home too. Her good friends and countless admirers are here.

Mr. Reyes revealed, “She is a disciplined experimenter of optical alchemy with a technique that divides its focus between an austere palette of carnelian reds and warm oranges and luxuriant masses of floating forms… Are these impressionistic depictions of cumulus or simply gestural brushstrokes of abstraction?”

“I paint not the water, not the sea. There is no movement in the water. It is like a mirror,” the artist once remarked.

Some of Ms. Westendorp’s paintings are reminiscent of 19th century British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner who painted dramatic stormy seascapes with rain and wind.

“She crosses the line seamlessly traversing from one to the other … never disconcerted by the pleasurable spontaneity that moves her to navigate the regions of what the artist calls ‘unplanned’ art-making.”

Architect Manny Minana commented, “Our retrospective committee, made up of Dannie Alvarez, our exhibition curator; Cid Reyes, our catalog writer/editor; our members Silvana Ancellotti-Diaz, Denise Weldon- Minana and myself, worked very closely with Met President Tina Colayco and the Met team to bring Passages to life, despite the challenges of a pandemic. It was unprecedented and frankly, remarkable how we received enthusiastic firm support from our sponsors and lenders especially in the time of COVID, culling over 100 paintings chronicling the life work of the dearly-loved artist Betsy Westendorp. We are grateful for being able to share their retrospective with our countrymen.”

Allow me to share a brief history of last year’s events.

To celebrate International Women’s month in March 2020, Instituto Cervantes de Manila (ICM) director Javier Galvan organized Creadoras: A Tribute to Betsy Westendorp with women artist-friends — Ivy Avellena-Cosio, Phyllis Zaballero, Victoria Zubiri, Eva Baro Giuliana Van Gall, Inma Ortoll, her daughter Carmen Brias, granddaughter Cristina Grisar Brias, and this writer.

The centerpiece of the exhibit was Transito (Passage), Ms. Westendorp’s large-scale painting of red clouds that was created during the tragedy of her daughter’s sudden passing a few years ago. She donated this stunning artwork to ICM.

Passage was also a centerpiece of the Met’s retrospective.

The ECQ lockdown started the day before the planned opening. The mounted paintings remained at ICM in Intramuros for eight months. A webinar with an online exhibit was hosted by the Intramuros Administration last July. In November, ICM launched the formal virtual exhibition with a documentary and the haunting music “La Belleza” by Spanish artist-musician-composer Luis Eduardo Aute who was born in the Philippines.

As an admirer and artist-friend of Betsy, I can only dream of being able to paint with a fraction of her vision, talent, skill, style, and eloquent sensitivity in various media. She is a master of various media — oil, gouache, pastel, mixed media oil and acrylic. Her delicate strokes and powerful paintings touch the heart and inspire the spirit to soar to the sky and to be among the towering clouds at sunset.

Ms. Westendorp inspires all artists. She has achieved what we all want to achieve.

Enhorabuena, Betsy! We wish you love, a long life, more art and happiness with your family and friends in both countries.

The retrospective catalogue was published by DLSU Publishing. Special thanks to DLSU President Br. Ray Suplido FSC and publisher David Jonathan Bayot.

The successful Passages retrospective was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila from Jan. 29, 2020 to March 15, 2021. The virtual exhibit/documentary can be viewed on FaceBook and YouTube.

Maria Victoria Rufino is an artist, writer and businesswoman. She is president and executive producer of Maverick Productions.

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