The multi-talented and multi-awarded painter Hugo Yonzon, Jr. would have been 99 years old this May 24. Except that he left the world still brimming with potentials at a relatively young age of 70 due to emphysema - probably because of his heavy smoking or having inhaled too much turpentine or linseed oil, or both.
Hugo entered the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts in 1947, chosen as one of the 10 young scholars of Ramon Roces, patriarch of the original and highly-regarded Manila Times. He only submitted a portrait – made with stubs of grade school pencils - of American movie star Humphrey Bogart as a sample of work, and he was in. He had to quit college after a semester, however, and start working in an ad agency. He immediately became an art director and, in a twist of fate, he began mentoring artists who mostly came from UP.
Yonzon was one of the original contributors of the post-war humor magazine Halakhak and the creator of the comic strip “”Sakay and Moy" that ran in the Times for almost 20 years and was made into a movie. He was also the illustrator of the komiks series “Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo” that was meg by National Artist Gerry de Leon into an award-winning film.
This artist would establish his reputation as a painter among peers and art lovers early in his career. In the 50s and 60s, Hugo romped off with top medals both for modern and realistic categories as delineated by then prestigious Art Association of the Philippines (AAP). He also won awards in caricature and photography. Keen observers said that he was expected to follow the footsteps either of Vicente Manansala, Cesar Legaspi, or Botong Francisco, all of whom became National Artists.
Painter and leader Mauro “Malang” Santos, in an interview for the book on Yonzon, said of his contemporary: “As a photographer, napakagaling; as a cartoonist, napakagaling; as a caricaturist, napakagaling; as an illustrator, napakagaling; as a painter, napakagaling din.” But he rued that this virtuosity became a setback that prevented Yonzon from achieving greatness as a painter, at par with Manansala.
Painter Slim Torres insisted that although Yonzon was younger, he was not just a follower of Manansala, but a peer. Yonzon, he said, was part of the Neo-Realist group, so much so that Hugo’s name is included in the shrine for Manansala in Binalonan. Other names include Ramon Estela, Victor Oteyza, and Legaspi. “Hugo was really ahead of the others,” Torres recalled.
Writer Neal Cruz (editor of the defunct Philippines Daily Express) and co-author of the book on Yonzon has this to say: “What made Hugo stand above the rest was his sense of humility. While painters of lesser caliber are busy selling themselves, Hugo never approached us editors for press releases although he had many friends in the media.”
“Some parked themselves in newspaper offices and cultivate culture editors to have their press releases published. Others are busy gathering signatures and endorsements to be acclaimed National Artists. Hugo never entertained such ambitions. He did not need the publicity; his paintings were bought as fast as he could finish them. But Yonzon deserves to be a National Artist.”
I can only say one thing: Happy Birthday, Dad! You are a paragon.