Fernando Zóbel de Ayala y Montojo was fortunate on August 27, 1924, to be born into a distinguished family of Manila in the Philippines. His father, Enrique Zóbel de Ayala, having been a supporting patron of famed artist Fernando Amorsolo, was able to recruit Amorsolo to instruct his young son on art fundamentals.
As a teenager, Fernando Zóbel was enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas to study medicine when he developed a serious medical issue of his own. Bedridden from a spinal defect, he spent many hours sketching landscapes and caricatures to keep his mind occupied. When he was able to return to school, he continued at Santo Tomas and then moved over to Harvard University in 1946, shifting his focus to history and literature. While in Boston, he began painting as a hobby and would soon find a mentor in Boston School associate Reed Champion Pfeufer. Fernando also found artistic encouragement from Reed’s husband, James Pfeufer, as well as their companion Hyman Bloom. With these friends as influences, Fernando allowed himself to experiment with a variety of techniques including aquatints, etchings and serigraphs. He would graduate magna cum laude from Harvard in 1949, and then continue studies there in law and eventually work as curator for the Houghton Library, all the while honing his craft as an artist.
When Fernando returned home to the Philippines, he quickly befriended several local contemporary modernists there as well. Following in his father’s footsteps, he would collect works from these artists and even use his charm and family name to help set up shows for budding artists in a time when the modern art movement was not easily accepted in local galleries. His efforts during this time played a significant role in pushing forward the modernist movement in the Philippines. Then in 1953, he presented his own one-man exhibition in the Philippine Art Gallery. The following year, he showed work at the Swetzoff Gallery in Boston while he arranged to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. While studying there for six months, he happened to attend an art exhibition by Mark Rothko which would be a catalyst in his own art. Whereas before this exposure, Fernando’s work was mostly realistic with a bend toward some exaggerations, after seeing Rothko’s work he moved into experimenting more with abstraction. Not long after, he would also find influence in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, taking classes in the artform over the next five years under Chinese master Ch’en Bing Sun.
Back home in Manila, Fernando took a faculty position at the Ateneo de Manila University, contributing largely to the school’s fine arts program; he would even be awarded later with an honorary doctorate from the school, and given honorary directorship of the Ateneo Art Gallery. After many happy years there, he would eventually move to Spain to focus on his painting full-time. In Spain, he would create his best known series, “Saetas”, utilizing a surgical syringe to apply superbly fine lines of paint. This series would be followed by “Serie Negra”, obviously influenced by calligraphy and taking four years to complete. By the early 1970’s, Fernando was completing another series of paintings called “Dialogos”, which were his own abstract reconstructions of museum paintings he’d been drawn to. He did a similar series influenced solely by Cuenca’s River Jucar, and later a series titled “Las Orillas” that continued to deal with the river theme. By this time, his reputation as a powerful figure in art had spread, and he was holding one-man shows in Madrid, New York and Paris.
In 1963, Fernando founded the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca, Spain. As he’d continued serving as a patron of the arts over many years, he was excited to hold a show at the new museum in 1966 featuring his impressive personal collection which included work from Saura, Rivera, Tapies, Chillida and several others. Shortly after this successful exhibition, the family business which he’d helped to manage for several years, Ayala y Companñía, agreed to open the Ayala Museum in Makati City to promote both Fernando’s work and that of emerging Filipino artists.
Fernando was honored in 1983 by King Juan Carlos of Spain when he was granted the Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bella Artes. That same year, the Caja de Ahorros y Monte de Piedad de Sevilla was organizing a huge retrospective of Fernando’s life’s works. Sadly, the following year on June 2, four years after a damaging stroke, the generous and passionate artist would be fatally struck by a heart attack in Rome, Italy. After his passing, Fernando was awarded a Gold Medal from the city of Cuenca, and years later he also received posthumously the Presidential Medal of Merit. A traveling retrospective of his work would be held in Cuenca and Seville in 2003. The artist left behind a prolific collection of diverse abstract and non-objective modern art that is most often described as sophisticated, sensitive and joyous. His love for making art rang out from every piece he made, and could only be matched by his deep appreciation for the art of others; and countless artists have benefited from his enthusiasm and support, specifically in the Philippines but also across the globe. Known in his personal life as an uncommonly friendly, kind and giving man, his spirit also lives on in the many lives he touched by sharing his connection to art and the art of human connection.
Some Associated Galleries, Schools and Organizations Luz Gallery Harvard University University of Santo Tomas Houghton Library Philippine Art Gallery Rhode Island School of Design Ateneo de Manila University Ateneo Art Gallery Museum of Abstract Spanish Art Ayala Foundation
Some Notable Works Noche Clara Alcala La Hoz en Invierno Sin Titulo Cuena Portrait of Eric Pfeufer with Sword and Helmet Saeta Seated Man (Nothing III), 1953