MANILA, Philippines - For the past 30 years, printmaker and painter Fil Delacruz has been making portraits of muses - giving his audience a variety of ethnic-looking and ''universal-looking'' women on canvas. He has also morphed his muses into three models: She is the ultimate muse, distant from the artist, but a deep source of his inspiration. ''She is my sole creation, too,'' claims Delacruz, who hints of a Galatea- type of creation who is not a muse, but the one created, controlled and owned by a Pygmalion-type of creator. ''She is my other self, a reflection of myself. I am her. Kabuuan siya ng aking subconscious (even if I haven't changed her face on my canvas),'' insists Delacruz. No other Filipino artist has gone this far in demonstrating, even if just verbally, the invasive psychology or the consuming philosophical appropriation of a male artist who has been making portraits of women since he came into the art scene in the '80s.
A woman represents many things in his art. She is his (philosophical) other, his inspirer, like the ethnic woman he depicted in many award-winning etching and calligraphic works in the '80s; she is the ethnic muse turned goddess in a show entitled ''Bulawan'' (Gold) at Galerie Y at SM Megamall in 1996; she is the beautiful and sepulchral Madonna, less ethnic-looking but adorned with symbols of death and temptations, in a show of lithographs entitled ''Dilim at Liwanag'' at the Drawing Room in Makati in 2000; she is mother earth, like his color-wrapped nymphs hiding like dreams of forms behind lush landscapes, in a show entitled ''Samba'' at the Crucible Gallery in SM in 2006; she is a mask, beautiful and graceful, but her face effaced, her body disintegrated in a show entitled ''Suyo'' (Courtship) at Ayala's Art Space in Makati in 2008; she is absence itself, full of meaning, like his untitled oil painting done in early 2012, which depicts a woman with many masks facing a man, also with several masks. ''The faces assume different identities. Dapat magpakatotooo, dapat isang mukha lang ang totoo,'' he lectures about un-masking.
Citing reasons for choosing to transcend the ethnic woman into a ''more universally appealing woman,'' he says, ''If the exhibit is done in another place (outside of the Philippines), I will no longer have to explain the race (or the ethnic origin) of the woman I am portraying on canvas. For me, that (origin and race) is no longer important.'' He adds, ''I want to bridge the gap - between the world and the Philippines, not to escape being a Filipino, but to situate the Filipino in the world (in my art). It is a glo-cal approach of a Filipino artist who wants to bring his art to other countries.''
But the real reason is deeper. ''The ethnic identity found in my earlier works points to a place, an origin and a story peculiar to that place. My works with universal-looking women are liberated from that issue. They amplify far wider issues such as the meaning of creation and the essence of a woman,'' he explains.
Through the years, Delacruz has called the women in his art several names: diwata (goddess), mother earth, nature, universal woman, maskara (mask), the created woman and ''my subconscious other''.
Do the muses still play a role in his art after he has appropriated them, in the end, as his own persona, making him, in effect, a self-reliant artist without a need for muses? This creative process (appropriation) speaks of a deeper life no longer controlled by the artist, he says, adding, ''Even if they are no longer muses, even if they are already me, my alter ego, my other side, the one I control while I, the creator, remain whole, I believe they assume a more powerful life of their own (on my canvas).'' Is he talking about himself?
His desire to erase the image of the artist as a silent creator essaying quietly, behind the canvas, the objective image of the other - his muse, or, his desire to attain an alter-ego in art, to assume the life he has created on canvas, in the form of a woman reveals his predilection for self-absorption, which can have two disparate ends (destructive and constructive): self-analysis and narcissism. Time can tell which route his art will follow.
How did he start? In 1977, when he was 27, Delacruz became known for his evocative works on ethnic women, done in etching and lithography.
''My works then were done with a passion, after a visit among the Bilaans in Kalamansig, Sultan Kudarat, the hometown of my (ex) wife Marlou (Maria Luz Buenaflor), in 1977. It was the beginning of my romantic journey with the ethnic in art,'' recalls Delacruz. The couple stayed there until 1980.
While there as a visitor, a young Bilaan named Gunsal Malayo captured his eyes and inspired him to plumb the ancient spirit of the ethnic. Distilling their energy and soul soon gave his art works a life of their own. His most powerful works were done during this time. Although they were symbolic of his alienation from his subject matter, this was mitigated by his curiosity for the mysterious and the unknown and compassion for their fate.
The great divide between the ethnic and Delacruz, a lowlander and art graduate of Manila's University of Santo Tomas in 1974, was cited by art critic Cid Reyes, who claimed that Malayo's ''countenance would not answer to the artist's conventional (and classical) standard of beauty''.
As Delacruz romanced the images of the ethnic and their paradise in his art, soon, he learned about their tragic banishment by illegal logging, bad government services and greedy multinationals.
His powerful artworks, fueled by the spirit of the ethnic and his compassion for the vanishing world of the pure and the strong, the savage and the spiritual, the virginal and the carnal - gripped Delacruz and mesmerized his viewers.
He aptly reproduced images of the ethnic world in mezzotint, a reversed printing process of graphic art, a medium used in Europe in the 19th century to democratize the dissemination of art works, and to stop artworks from becoming commodities of the rich and famous.
Delacruz' passionate ethnic pieces in mezzotint won over oil paintings and sculptures in three competitions of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) in the '80s. By this time, he and his wife were back in Manila; Gunsal Malayo, the Bilaan muse, died of miscarriage in 1983.
A mezzotint entitled ''Thanatopsis,'' which depicted denuded forests, illegal logging and industrial pollution won first prize at the AAP contest in 1981; ''Transmogrification'' which depicted a dying landscape (underlined by one of the horsemen of Apocalyse) and the fertility of the ethnic (symbolized by a lizard and a leaf) was APP's first prize in 1982; a mezzotint entitled ''Goddess of the South,'' which depicted an ethnic woman's torso with a red nipple was AAP's grand prize in 1983.
Despite his return to the city, Delacruz sustained intermittently his passion for the pristine beauty of the ethnic - a world that represents vestiges of the pre-colonial Philippines, before the arrival of the Spanish and American colonials in the 16th and the 19th century, respectively.
Sixteen years after his sojourn in Sultan Kudarat, his passion for the ethnic world was revived in a show entitled ''Bulawan'' (Gold), at Galerie Y at SM Megamall in Mandaluyong in 1996. He used gold instead of green in depicting memories of the lush landscape in the southern Philippines; Gunsal Malayo, the brown muse was part of the landscape. It could be seen that the show's pomp and pageantry was his grand way of saying good-bye to her.
However, Delacruz says, ''It was not really saying goodbye to Gunsal Malayo. I elevated her as a goddess. I used gold in depicting nature intertwined with ethnic graphic forms, because gold is symbolic of royalty, the best offering for a goddess. Para sa akin nuon, hindi na tao si Gunsal Malayo.''
Four years later, in 2000, in a show of lithographs entitled ''Dilim at Liwanag'' at the Drawing Room in Makati, Delacruz presented women who no longer looked like Gunsal Malayo, but ''more universal'' and also too human: skeletons are depicted under their clothes; fish-bones, animal paws and deadly creatures leap behind their backs, sometimes across the canvas. ''At the time, I had fear of death; I was in pain. I could not move because of cervical spondylosis. The doctors said it developed because of a trauma suffered in my childhood. I think it was a professional hazard. I used to carry heavy lithographic stone. After two years of ultrasound and physical therapy I got healed,'' he explains. He also did not find it necessary then to paint his own suffering on canvas.
In a show entitled ''Samba'' (Worship), at the Crucible Gallery in SM in 2006, Delacruz painted colorful landscapes interspersed with human forms on thick blocks of wood.
''I also embedded mirrors on the crevices of the carvings that I made on the wooden blocks. They were interactive pieces. The viewers could see themselves while viewing the art works,'' he says, adding, ''The women in this exhibit are no longer muses but symbols of nature.''
Explaining why the faces of his women have been increasingly assuming the form of masks, he says, ''I am talking about life now, gaya nung maskara sa teatro, nakangiti at umiiyak.''
Looking forward, he says, ''I want my works to have the vision of a philosopher, the images done with the virtuosity of a craftsman. I want to be great in my field.'' Half of his creation is already near that goal.
Delacruz is one of the Philippines' foremost graphic artists. He learned the art of making mezzotint, lithography, woodcut and silk screen while a student at UST. ''I did not develop a passion for serigraph (silk screen) and woodcut. I liked mezzotint even then because it gives an artwork wide range of tonal values, texture, depth and volume; lithography because it allows painterly forms.''
As president of the Print Association of the Philippines from 1990 to 2000, Delacruz launched print workshops nationwide. In 1992, with the help of a machinist, he fabricated five (antique-looking) etching machines and 18 lithographic presses. He also distributed 50 lithographic stones to artists and art institutions.
His two children by his estranged wife Marlou are Modesto Dax Bernini, a student of industrial design and fisheries, who is now with the outsourcing industry; and Jan Olympus Salvador ''Janos'' Delacruz, also an artist.