Excellence and erudition: Salvador “Badong” F. Bernal, 1945 – 2011

26 October 2011, Wednesday, was a sad day for Filipino arts and culture.  Production designer par excellence, design doyen, scholar and researcher, cinephile, poet, ADMU Ateneo de Manila University professor, CCP Cultural Center of the Philippines stalwart, “Father of Philippine Stage Design,” and National Artist for Theater and Design Salvador Floro Bernal “left the scene,” so to speak.

That midmorning [ at 9:00 a.m. ], he had gone downstairs to give instructions to the staff for the day, including what he had decided for lunch, and returned to his bedroom.  There, he rested on his couch.

He did not wake up for lunch.

Salvador Bernal, “Sir Badong” to his talented proteges and students, finally saw “the greatest production” he had always wanted to see…

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His unexpected passing caused much grief among his professional family, specially his proteges and students.

Badong used to tell his close circle that the men in his family passed away of heart problems in their 50s.  “He thought he was ‘overstaying’…” recalled Rafael del Casal.

“If you had the chance to know him, if you became close to him, you would have known that, despite that cantankerous temperament, he had a heart of gold…  He was a pure soul.”  reminisced artist Rafael del Casal.

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From the Malacanang palace:  “We are saddened by news that National Artist for Theater and Design Salvador Bernal passed away in the afternoon of Oct. 26, 2011. We join our countrymen in mourning the death of one of our cultural pillars, and extend our deepest sympathies to his family and the entire artistic community.”

“Beyond his impressive career as an artist, he made it his mission, as a teacher, to pass on his knowledge to those who will have to stand in his place in the coming generations. He did his part to ensure that Philippine Art will continue to be dynamic and relevant, even as the torch is passed from old masters like him to emerging talents in the nation’s artistic landscape.”

From the NCCA National Commission for Culture and the Arts:  “[The death of] Salvador Bernal is a great loss to Philippine Arts as he has contributed greatly to the growth of theater design in the country.”

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His bier was most elegant, even more than the ones I had seen at the chichi “Capilla del Senor” and the “Capilla de la Virgen” mortuary chapels of the Santuario de San Antonio in Forbes Park and at the Heritage Memorial Park in recent memory.  After all, it was the collaboration of several leading artists known for the excellence of their tastes:  artist Rafael del Casal, production designer Gino Gonzales, floral designer Tony Padilla, and lighting designer Shoko Matsumoto.  It was all green and white:  sprays of various white flowers [ the largest lilies from Holland I had seen to date, among others ] set on beds of deep green tropical plants and topiaries accented by a few thick candles on verdigris bronze stands and carefully lit by a few halogen spotlights set the stage for an impeccable elegance.  There was not a single wrong note.  And because Salvador Bernal was a National Artist of the Philippines, a pair of uniformed guards, standing at attention, flanked his bier.  It would have been pretentious anywhere else but it looked completely appropriate there.

The leading lights of Manila’s artistic world and its concentric circles filed past his bier…  arts patroness Irene Marcos-Araneta, women’s issues advocate and onetime thespian Sonia Malasarte-Roco [ widow of former senator Raul Roco ], top singer and composer Jim Paredes and his sister Lory, thespian Noni Buencamino, director Laurice Guillen, director Alexander “Alex” Cortez, ballet doyenne Alice Reyes, dance doyenne Denisa Reyes, ballerina Edna Vida, soprano Fides Cuyugan-Asensio, artist Ed Alegre, painter Lao Lianben and his wife Lilia, top art dealer Vita Sarenas, theater benefactor and onetime thespian Atty. Jose “Tito” C. Tesoro, doyenne of the Manila museum world and longtime Ayala Museum curator Sonia P. Ner, esteemed Filipiniana scholar Dr. Nicanor “Nic” Tiongson, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido “Bien” Lumbera, doyenne and muse of the Manila literati/culturati Gilda Cordero-Fernando, the Prior of the Santo Domingo church Rev. Fr. Giuseppe Pietro Arsciwals, O.P., the longtime ADMU president Rev. Fr. Bienvenido F. Nebres. S.J., the Bishop of Cubao Honesto D. Ongtioco, D.D., et. al..

Former First Lady Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, who began the CCP Cultural Center of the Philippines from 1966-69 [ the institution which Badong gave most of his professional life ], could not attend the wake but she mourned his passing and sent beautiful flowers.  President Benigno Aquino III also sent a wreath from Malacanang palace, as Salvador Bernal was a National Artist of the Philippines.

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[ Two of my dear friends, Rafael del Casal and Gino Gonzales, were proteges of Salvador Bernal.  Artist Rafael del Casal has become the favorite portraitist of long-established Manila society and has also become the much sought after consultant on church renovations in the country, following his spectacularly beautiful and successful redesign of the Immaculate Conception cathedral in Quezon City.  ADMU-educated Gino Gonzales, acknowledged as Badong’s “nino bonito,” took postgraduate studies at NYU New York University and through the years has become the top production designer in the Philippines. ]

[ Another dear friend, Eric Pineda, was a student of Salvador Bernal and followed his professor’s career into costume design.  As Badong occasionally said, costume design segued naturally into fashion design.  Aside from costume designs for television and theater productions, Eric Pineda has become a sought after designer of evening gowns for famous actresses and of wedding gowns and entourages, following the elegant wedding dress he created for actress Sunshine Cruz on her wedding to character actor Cesar Montano in 2000. ]

[ Another friend, Atty. Teresa “Tessa” / “Tabs” Bernal Tabora-Ledesma is a niece of Salvador Bernal, her mother being his sister Teresita Bernal-Tabora.  She and my younger brother Atty. Adolfo Reyes Gonzalez were contemporaries and good friends from their ADMU Ateneo de Manila University Law School days. ]

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Addenda:

A personal reminiscence:

It was May 1999, and it was 6 months before my gemologist sister Rosario Clemencia “Rocelle” Reyes Gonzalez would marry the banker Nicanor Narciso Damaso “Danny” Padilla Lizares on 05 December 1999 at the Santuario de San Antonio.  She had always liked wearing late 1800s style “traje de mestiza” [ wrongly called a “Maria Clara” according to Filipiniana historian and scholar Martin “Sonny” Imperial Tinio Jr. “It’s called a ‘traje de mestiza’ .”  he stated definitively. ] and she had decided that such an elaborate “period” dress, executed to the last authentic detail, would be her wedding gown.  The dress would be a copy of one worn by our paternal great grandmother Florencia Rodriguez Sioco when she married Dr. Joaquin Lopez Gonzalez in July 1883.  Since the embroidery details were not visible in the antique photograph, collector Joey Panlilio suggested that the embroidery designs be derived from Filipino maestro Justiniano Asuncion’s famous 1870s portrait of the pretty Agueda Paterno [ Jaime C. Laya collection ].

Because Rocelle was the only daughter and the youngest to boot, our businesswoman mother Pilar Quiason Reyes-Gonzalez sent word through me to her future “consuegra” / “comadre” / “balae ” the affluent and patrician Maria “Mary” de los Reyes Padilla-Lizares that she would take care of her daughter’s wedding gown — certainly no expense would be spared — as well as those of the entourage as part of her contributions to the wedding expenses.  Mary Padilla-Lizares graciously agreed to my mother’s handling the wedding gown but generously stated that she would take care of all the entourage gowns, which were to be designed and executed by her de los Reyes relative Paching Valera-de la Fuente, niece of the late, great Ramon Valera [ daughter of Jaime Valera and Trinidad “Neneching” de los Reyes Reyes-Valera ].

Joey Panlilio insisted that only THE Salvador Bernal, and not any other couturier in Manila however favored by society, could recreate a genuine, late 1800s “traje de mestiza,”  So off to Badong the three of us went…

It was an altogether pleasant appointment.  Badong received us with his peculiar mix of dryness and cordiality.  He recalled that he had created the gown of another socially prominent Padilla wedding some years back, who expectedly enough, was a relative of Danny’s.  We showed him the 1883 photo of Lola Florencia Sioco-Gonzalez as well as an enlarged xerox copy of Justiniano Asuncion’s 1870s portrait of Agueda Paterno.  Studying the photos, he explained that the “traje de mestiza” underwent several adaptations through the decades, and that the silhouette, “the line,” of the 1870s was slightly different from the 1880s, although we could adapt the embroidery designs from the 1870s to the 1880s.  He suggested that we go to Lumban, Laguna and look for a competent embroiderer who could execute the designs on “pina liniwan” [ plain pina fabric ].  He inquired as to what the fabric of the skirt would be, as the 1800s originals were usually either of Chinese silk or European silk velvet/brocade/damask, and Joey Panlilio suggested “Chinese silk, thick Chinese silk.”  So off to Hong Kong it would be for the fabric…  Badong would take care of the “tapis” overskirt, since a married woman, by tradition then, already wore a “tapis.”

What I remember vividly was that, unlike other couturiers, Badong was completely disinterested in the monetary aspect of the contract;  he was not interested in the charges.  “It won’t be much, just the work.  Most of the materials are coming from you.”  he assured.

…………

Three months before the wedding in August 1999, with all the materials already in Badong’s atelier, we three made a visit to discuss the final design and details of the “traje de mestiza” wedding gown.  Joey Panlilio had brought a xerox photo of Princess Margaret’s 1960 wedding gown of white silk organza by Norman Hartnell because he thought that the skirt, made of 30 meters of fabric, should turn out like that, with a great train.  Badong studied the photo, unfazed.

A full mock-up of the “traje de mestiza” wedding gown in muslin already stood in the center of Badong’s atelier.  Rocelle was made to fit it and was asked to move in all directions, with Badong casting a critical eye, detailing further instructions to his head seamstress and the team as they nipped and tucked in certain sections, with the faithful assistant Maria “Marietta” Arcega making her own observations.  The results of the fitting were very satisfactory and Badong was all set.  Comically enough, Joey Panlilio, wanting to get the feel of the recreated “traje de mestiza,” insisted on fitting the muslin components himself, to the bemusement of Badong.

Amidst the spirited discussions, a puzzled and irritated Badong turned to Rocelle, the bride-to-be, and asked:  “Wait a minute… just WHO is getting married here???  Isn’t it you, hija?”

Embarrassed, Joey and I kept quiet instantly, and merely looked at Rocelle and Badong…

“What do you want, hija?  What do you really want?  This is all about you, not any of us…”  he asked her earnestly, wanting to accommodate her requests, if any.

“It’s OK, it’s OK…”  she answered sweetly.

“Very well then, we’ll see what we can do.  Everything’s here:  materials, references…  Three months to go, right?  That’s enough time.”

…………

Characteristically professional as ever, the “traje de mestiza” wedding gown of Rosario Clemencia “Rocelle” Reyes Gonzalez from the atelier of Salvador Bernal arrived in big boxes with his expert and faithful assistant Maria “Marietta” Arcega, irons, ironing boards, floor mats, special hangers, and all kinds of equipment in tow on the morning of 05 December 1999.  After lunch, the make-up artists and the hairdressers did their parts, then Rocelle was dressed by our mother, Pilar Reyes-Gonzalez, Marietta of Badong, and Joey Panlilio [ who was an expert in the correct installation of “panuelos,” as taught to him by his grandmother, the leonine and elegant Luz Sarmiento-Panlilio ], assisted by a battalion of househelp.  The Santuario de San Antonio wedding was set for 6:00 p.m.

The embroidered pina “camisa” blouse and “panuelo” fichu collar had been embellished with hundreds of tiny pearls.  The “camisa” was expertly and faultlessly cut and constructed in the style of the 1880s, with billowing sleeves that were gathered just below the shoulder.  The “panuelo” had been lined with a sheer stiff fabric to enhance its line when worn.  Badong had created a lovely “tapis” overskirt  also of embroidered pina fabric [ which covered 3/4 of the “saya” of peach-colored Chinese silk ], embellished with thousands of tiny pearls, edged by handknotted silk tassels.  The “saya” skirt was a tour de force of sheer theater with yards and yards of thick, peach-colored Chinese silk [ 20 yards had been purchased in Hong Kong ].  It was where Badong’s superb costume design skills entered:  realizing that the fuller-than-full skirt, cut in the bias, along with its petticoat, would be heavy and hang awkwardly from the waist, he constructed an entire dress, sleeveless at the top [ over which would be worn the “camisa” and the “panuelo” ], so that the weight would be shared by the waist and the shoulders, therefore enhancing the fall of the skirt.  Despite all of that, Rocelle recalled:  “My ‘traje de mestiza’ wedding dress was surprisingly light, and it was easy to move around in it, it was not heavy at all.  It was cool and not warm to the body.”  Therein lay the genius of Salvador Bernal in the tradition of the great couturiers like Cristobal Balenciaga:  despite a dress being a glamorous piece-de-resistance, it was always light and comfortable for the wearer.

Thus, it came to pass that Rosario Clemencia Reyes Gonzalez, Mrs. Nicanor Narciso Damaso Padilla Lizares, in her 1880s-style “traje de mestiza” wedding gown, became one of the most memorable, one of the most elegant, needless to say one of the most beautiful of brides ever to walk down the aisle of the Santuario de San Antonio church in Forbes Park.

Thanks to the erudite genius of Salvador Bernal.

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*unfinished*

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4 Comments

  1. P Dunbar said,

    January 21, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    I was a student of Badong’s at Northwestern University in the states. A confluence of circumstances made me try to find him. The wonders of the internet I have, but I am so sorry I am too late. His heart was filled with golden tenderness and his sense of style was impeccable. These are values I treasure to this day.

  2. Myles Garcia said,

    December 19, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Will Filipinos cry like this over the future passing of DaPinoy?

    [media]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSWN6Qj98Iw[/media]

    Terribly exhausting…and NOT ONE single tear!!

  3. Larry Leviste said,

    November 10, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    He made me a barong with the stiff suk suk fiber weave, it had round but flat sleeves, I left for the States to live there for almost a decade and whenever it was needed, the wonderful magic barong would be worn and admired.

    I interviewed Badong for the Inquirer, I loved his story of making his custureras wedding gowns. Genius, soft spoken and erudite, I will miss this maestro. His legacy will live on.

  4. Gino Gonzales said,

    November 1, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    It’s so Badong to tell people like us to leave these decisions to the proper authorities.

    He definitely had no fear in telling people how mistaken they are. (Whether they were divas, directors, students, clients, relatives, etc.) But we learned much from him that way. And we appreciate his TRUTH.


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