Like thieves in the dark, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled Malacanang Palace on the evening of February 25, 1986. They escaped in a hurry, leaving behind thousands of shoes, hundreds of strewn papers, dozens of unfinished suppers, and one dazed 93-year old lady, Dona Josefa Marcos, the mother of Ferdinand.
That night, masses of people stormed the grounds, seizing the Palace for the people. The next day, the new government arrived and started to take stock. The first noticeable pieces of art they would see were the vulgar iconographs. The framed official portraits, stomped and scratched during the liberation. Most striking of all — Ferdinand as Malakas, Imelda as Maganda – perhaps the most honest expression of what these self-professed art patrons really thought of art. A vanity mirror.
The so-called Goldenberg Mansion, just one block away from the Palace, was spared from the wrath of the people. Once the headquarters of the American military governor-general Arthur MacArthur and the home of industrialist Michael Goldenberg, it had since been refursished as a guesthouse for favored guests of the Marcoses such as George “Zorro” Hamilton. The Goldenberg Mansion, as the new government soon discovered, also hosted the works of one of the most unique, most unlikely, and most celebrated artists of the 20th century – Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses.
Grandma Moses was born in rural New York in 1860, one of ten children of a farmer. After a short period of schooling, she started to work as a domestic servant at age 12. She married another domestic servant, and they worked on other people’s farms for the next two decades before buying their own farm. She had ten children, but five of them died as infants. Even after her husband died in 1927, she continued to toil on the farm with the help of her son. For the first 78 years of her life, Grandma Moses soldiered on as one of the unsung masses.
Even as a child, Anna was interested in painting. She called these first works “lambscapes”, created out of grape juice or lemon juice. As an adult, she would take up embroidery. But in her seventies, Grandma Moses had to give up the quilting needle after developing arthritis. At the suggestion of her sister, she took up painting again at age 78. She may have thought of painting then as a hobby in transition while waiting for that final slumber after a life of toil. She likely did not expect that she would end up creating over 1,500 paintings, the last ones finished after she turned 100. She could not have expected that upon her death, the President of the United States would issue a statement mourning her loss in behalf of the country, calling her “a beloved figure from American life”. She would have blanched at the notion that one day, 13 of her paintings would be showcased as part of the loot of a dictator and his wife, along with 3,000 pairs of shoes.
In 1987, Eva Tolentino, the curator of the Malacanang Foundation, told the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation that several paintings of Grandma Moses were discovered inside the Malacanang complex after the Marcoses had fled. Thirteen of them were found at the Goldenberg Mansion, and another three were seen in the Palace itself, hanging inside the room of Imee Marcos.
It is a mystery why the Marcos family were so taken by the paintings of Grandma Moses, assuming there was any other motive than their ever-appreciating value in money (in November 2006, one of her paintings reportedly sold at auction for US $ 1.2 Million). Evening 1943 and Winter 1941 are typical of her genre, which had been described as “primitive”. There is an outright rejection of linear perspective – her subjects and sceneries have been seemingly flattened with a rolling pin. Grandma Moses never painted outside her rural pastoral American milieu – the variety depends on the seasons, such as verdant spring in Fourth of July (which now hangs inside the White House) or the winter and its snowed-in fields.
The scenes from a Grandma Moses painting are so distinctly American, and so far removed from the Philippine experience. Yet the Marcoses ironically had a fondness of the collection. They are also emblems of the simpler bygone eras – anyone in the world could relate to that. And perhaps one who buys a Grandma Moses painting is reminded of innocence lost, Eden before the seductions of power and money transformed the soul.