When Anita Magsaysay Ho became the first woman to ever win the grand prize in the prestigious Art Association of the Philippines competition in 1952, she may or may not have known how important that moment was.
But her adoring public certainly knew. Her winning entry The Cooks quickly set off a publicized contest to own it as both influential newspaper columnists and rich collectors vied for this treasure, even resorting to attacking each other in the press to gain that privilege. It would be the first of her iconic women making the most ordinary of tasks extraordinary.
Her success put her in the limelight and as an equal to the troupe of Neo-Realists and Modernists, almost all male except for Nena Saguil and Lyd Arguilla who had the advantage of also being the founder of the Philippine Art Gallery (PAG.)
A few years later, she would be even more firmly established. In May 1956, The Sunday Times Magazine—of the most widely read paper in the Philippines with a circulation of 1 Million copies a day—would call her the “the foremost woman painter in the country today” in a feature entitled “Mrs. Ho’s Women.”
Anita’s marketplace paintings by then would be rightly famous. The Sunday Times went on to wax eloquent about the artist, quoting the celebrated American writer, Agnes Newton Keith, in her book “Barefoot in the Palace” on post-war Philippine life, as saying, “(Her) marketplace women are thin, sharp, wiry, loquacious. They are both cunning and generous, both skeptics and believers. (Anita is) sorry for them because she knows she doesn’t have to be. If her gods were wealth and soft living, she’d paint pathos and weakness into those faces. Instead, (she) put mysticism, strength, and love, and joy of life.”
Indeed, in this magnificent Anita marketplace, the vendors caress this noble fish as if they were fine silks or jewels. This bounty, after all, is not just a way of life but a means to make a living. The central figure holds up a slim fish to her nose, delicately sniffing it as expertly as a French perfumer to divine its properties. The other women have various reverent expressions as they tend to the flat baskets filled to the brim with the fish, an auspicious symbolism of the plentifulness that can be found even in the simplest of lives.
The Sunday Times Magazine next quoted “in a more technical vein”, Mrs. Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, doyenne of the Art Association of The Philippines: “Anita Magsaysay-Ho believes that the Filipino face is top-heavy… for this reason, she generally paints her women wearing a kerchief to minimize the dark area of the head… To give dramatic effect, she paints her figures as if a strong light were focused from beneath.”
And finally, it quoted Anita Magsaysay Ho herself. “Tinapa Vendors, which Mrs. Ho considers her favorite among the market scenes she has done, is in her favorite medium, egg tempera.”
Anita had, incidentally, also made the Renaissance medium of egg tempera so famous that the Philippine Association of Poultry Growers had offered to make her its ambassadress. Anita, according to one other newspaper account, is said to have laughed, saying she used only a single egg a year—using the method she said used by Fra Angelico. The subtle shadings and durable condition that egg tempera gives to a painting is certainly very much evident in this masterpiece. (Lisa Guerrero Nakpil)