Brief Survey of Philippine Art by Alice G. Guillermo

by Lynda Lorraine

“THE EARLIEST ARTS in the Philippines had their origins in indigenous myths and rituals invoking the favour of the gods on the human project of survival and continuance. Pottery, textile weaving, woodcarving and metalwork, with their own aesthetic norms and conventions, count among the earliest artistic expressions, along with the more integral forms of domestic architecture and shipbuilding. These belong to the cultural traditions that the Philippines shares with other South-East Asian countries that long practised rice agriculture and maritime commerce. Indigenous woodcarving includes freestanding ancestral figures and rice deities that are endemic to the islands of the region. It was also applied to the ornamentation of houses, boats and various agricultural and domestic tools. The earliest example of ikat weave was excavated in Romblon in the central Philippines. Many of these traditions survive to the present despite centuries of colonial suppression and neglect. These indigenous arts constitute an important part of the country’s cultural heritage and attest to the artistic vitality of the people.

In the 16th century, Spanish colonisation sought to replace the indigenous culture with one in the image and likeness of the West. In art, this was marked by the introduction of the classical paradigm in figuration with the schema of linear perspective on a two dimensional surface. Since the Church/State became the sole patrons of the arts, the practice of art, exclusively religious in the form of altarpieces and prayer book engravings, came under the strict supervision of the friars who ensured correct iconography and provided European models. But, in time, what resulted was not a unitary colonial culture, but one that operated on several levels: on the first level, the dominant colonial culture of the Church and State, marked by formality and orthodoxy as in ecclesiastical art; second, a unique cultural fusion of folk indigenous and Christian elements, as in public fiesta art produced by Christianised lowland groups; and third, the suppressed indigenous culture continued by groups which resisted assimilation into the colonial system.

With the opening of Philippine ports to world trade in the mid-19th century and the inauguration of the Suez Canal, economic change came with cash-crop agriculture. These economic events had a momentous impact on art and culture. By royal fiat, art was secularised, released from its ecclesiastical moorings in the light of new social demands. A new elite class, the ilustrados, emerged and assumed the role of art patrons, opening secular perspectives in art. For their elegantly furnished mansions of wood and stone, they commissioned portraits that celebrated their social ascendance. These portraits, mostly of women, were executed in a style called ‘miniaturismo’, derived from the limner’s art which paid meticulous attention to details of costume and accessories indicative of their wealth and status.

In the first quarter of the 19th century, Damian Domingo — well known for his watercolour albums of tipos del pais, country types representing the entire range of the social hierarchy dressed in the typical costumes of their occupation and social class — opened his Binondo studio as the first art school, the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura. After Domingo’s death, the school was resumed under the supervision of the Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais, which brought in art professors from Spain. It was through this venue that the European classical academy formally exercised its influence.

The Madrid Exposition of 1884 was a significant event for two Filipino expatriate artists, Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo. Luna won the first gold medal for Spoliarium, a large-scale work in the style of 19th-century salon painting, its subject drawn from classical antiquity, particularly Imperial Rome and its persecution of colonised peoples. The Filipino group of Propagandists in Spain, who campaigned for reforms within the colonial system, fully exploited this event to point out that Filipinos could be integrated into the ‘mainstream’ Western culture and that the inferior status of ‘colony’ could be upgraded to ‘province’.

The clamour for reform fell on deaf ears and the revolutionary mass organisation, the Katipunan, under the leadership of Bonifacio, launched an armed struggle for independence. But the Philippine Revolution was foiled by the United States in the 1898 Treaty of Paris, in which Spain unilaterally ceded the Philippines to the new colonial power. After the brutal suppression of armed resistance in the Philippine–American War, an American colonial government was imposed on the indigenous population. The new colonial order defined its priorities in education and value formation according to the ‘American way of life’. It set up a public school system and created a demand for illustrations for textbooks and other publications. Likewise, with the new corporations set up in the Philippines, a need for advertising and commercial design arose, to which the School of Fine Arts responded by integrating commercial art courses into the curriculum. As with all historical conjunctures, a shift in art patronage again took place, this time with American officials, merchants and tourists as the patrons. With the stimulating commercial atmosphere, it was during this period that the art market began to take shape.

Landscapes, genre and still lifes were greatly favoured by the American patrons, who sought ‘exotic’, tropical scenes of their new colony. In portraiture, often commissioned by public officials, the detailed miniaturist style gave way to academic portraiture that strove to endow the subject with the appearance of benevolent authority. Fernando Amorsolo and his colleagues in the School of Fine Arts, a unit of the University of the Philippines, catered to the new patronage. Instituting an orientalist paradigm, Fernando Amorsolo enhanced the rural scenery with the golden tones of harvest and idealised the peasant folk into stalwart youths and eversmiling maidens bearing overflowing baskets of fruits and flowers, a cornucopia of tropical abundance. Working in the same vein, but maintaining their distinct artistic personalities, were Irineo Miranda and Jorge Pineda. The Amorsolo School based in the School of Fine Arts assumed the role of local academy, dominating the art scene for decades. In sculpture, Amorsolo’s counterpart was Guillermo Tolentino, trained in the classical academy in Rome, whose major work was the Bonifacio Monument with its tableau of figures depicting revolutionary struggle against colonial rule.

The Amorsolo School showed its excellent draftsmanship skills in numerous illustrations, so much so that the 1930s were known as the Golden Age of Illustration. Editorial cartoons drawn by Jorge Pineda and Jose V. Pereira made their mark with their witty, trenchant tirades in political commentary. Doubtless, their works in the graphic arts, close to the pulse of economic and political life, were no less significant artistically than the rural idylls untouched by the slightest shadow of the agrarian unrest of the 1930s.

The academic complacency of the Amorsolo School was jolted by the challenge of modernism raised by Victorio Edades’ exhibit at the Philippine Columbian Club in 1928 on his return from a scholarship in the United States. To the images of Amorsolo, steeped in the classical values of ideal beauty and harmony, Edades counterpoised the modernist value of expressiveness, which made room for the terrible and disquieting. As a modernist, he also stressed the importance of a heightened sense of formal design. Discarding the traditional notion of art as mimesis, modernism brought to the fore the concept of painting as an artistic and ideological construct. It was also Edades who took up the theme of national identity in art.

Edades’ lessons in modernism did not fall on barren ground. He soon formed a nucleus with Carlos Francisco and Galo B. Ocampo, the pioneering triumvirate of modern art in the country. In time, they expanded into the Thirteen Moderns, which included Diosdado Lorenzo, Vicente Manansala, Cesar Legaspi, Anita Magsaysay-Ho and Hernando R. Ocampo, among others. A later group, the neorealists, whose members included Manansala, Legaspi and Tabuena, developed the style of transparent cubism. With the new modernist idioms, a corresponding development was the shift from rural to urban subjects with the expansion of genre themes.

These changes, however, were interrupted by World War II and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in 1941. The war slowed the movement of change in the arts, but, in the early post-war years, the first art institutions that paved the way to a broad support system for the arts were founded. These were the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP), founded by Purita KalawLedesma, and the Philippine Art Gallery (PAG), founded by Lydia Villanueva Arguilla in 1951.

Five years after the granting of formal independence from the United States in 1946, the shadow of the war still fell on the paintings of the 1950s with their images of a country in ruin. Meanwhile, the debate between ‘proletarian art’ and ‘art for art’s sake’ in literature and the visual arts, which had earlier been triggered by the Depression in the United States, also had its counterpart in the Philippines. Indeed, the dire post-war social and economic conditions were in themselves a potent argument for an art of social consciousness.

In 1955, the decades-long struggle between the conservatives and the modernists was resolved in the latter’s favour at the AAP Annual Painting Competition. The conservatives of the Amorsolo School withdrew their works in protest when the modernists won all the major awards. From then on, with the help of writers, collectors and gallery owners sympathetic to their cause, the modernists enjoyed the wide support and recognition of the art public.

But even in the early 1950s, when the conservatives were the dominant force and the modernists were still busy laying the ground, the avantgarde had already announced its appearance. This was in the startling oeuvre of a precocious young man, David Cortez Medalla, poet turned kinetic and performance artist. Among his highly original productions that caused a stir in art circles was the Bubble Machine, a work of kinetic sculpture that emitted froth when activated. His other works showed affinities with art brut in its radical anti-classicism, its uninhibited figurative style and aggressive textures.

The early modernists continued to firm up their position as the ascendant artists. In the 1960s, Carlos Francisco, one of the pioneering modernists, produced paintings and murals inspired by indigenous aesthetics of line, form and colour. Eschewing linear perspective, he asserted an overall pictorial design, covering the entire field with dynamic figures and motifs. His mural of the History of the Struggles of the Filipino People for the Manila City Hall is the magnificent culmination of his art. The same period also saw the maturation of Legaspi’s neo-realist style in paintings inspired by rock formations in the theme of the interplay of nature and organic form, although this would be brought to fullest expression in his Jeepney Series two decades later. Manansala’s style did not remain within classical cubism, but he instead used it as a structuring rather than fragmenting device and brought out effects of transparency in his genres and still lifes.

In the late 1950s, abstract art came out strongly in the works of Jose Joya and Constancio Bernardo. Joya, fresh from studies in the United States, caused a stir with his large abstract expressionist works impelled by a strong kinetic energy. Later, he moved to a more harmonious idiom in acrylic collages with rice paper that played on transparent and overlapping forms in space. Bernardo belonged to another school in his geometric abstraction, reflecting the influence of Albers and Mondrian. Also at this time, Hernando R. Ocampo, who began as a figurative painter, was developing his own personal style of abstraction based on interlocking shapes of varied colours and textures.

In sculpture, the modernist challenge was posed by Napoleon Abueva, a former student of Guillermo Tolentino. Except for a few conservative sculptors, Abueva was alone in the field for about a decade. Highly versatile, he has worked in a wide range of sculptural media and techniques and in a variety of approaches, often in a witty and playful vein. Abueva was eventually joined by younger modernists. Lamberto Hechanova combined metal, plastics and found objects while playing on their varying mediumistic qualities. Abdulmari Imao was inspired by indigenous designs and moved towards an idiom based on Islamic calligraphy. Virginia Ty-Navarro did works in brass, wood and jade using various approaches. Eduardo Castrillo expressed his manysided artistic personality in large outdoor abstracts of welded metal, in mobiles and modular pieces in chrome and plexiglass, and metal relief sculptures of social themes. Solomon Saprid first won attention with his expressionistic works on native mythological creatures. Sculptor and architect Ramon Orlina developed the medium of studio glass in freestanding works or as elements of architectural design. Another glass artist is Imelda Pilapil, who contrasts engraved sheet glass with the rugged textures of stone.

The 1960s were halcyon years for modern art in the Philippines. A number of dynamic and vital artistic personalities experimented in all aspects of art in order to enrich the visual language. These were also years of social and political ferment. For one, the period saw a rise in nationalist consciousness which reassessed the relationship of the Philippines with the United States. At the same time, there was a movement towards democratisation in art, marked by greater freedom of popular expression and a sensitivity to the interests of the people.

At the heels of the first generation of pioneers, there eagerly followed a younger and more audacious breed. Ang Kiukok, Jaime de Guzman, Onib Olmedo and Danilo Dalena painted in expressionist styles of high visual impact. Benedicto Cabrera, printmaker and painter, drew from antique photographs, which he combined with experimental devices for expanding the semantic potential of the work. Ang Kiukok crystallised in vivid, cubistic images the terror and desperation of the times. De Guzman painted powerful historical and expressionist murals, but later sought the mystery and spiritual power of indigenous faiths. Olmedo drew from the nightmarish figures of the lower depths. Danilo Dalena, acclaimed for his political cartoons, painted large bustling crowds of people in quest of instant luck or miracles.

Of the abstractionists, between Joya and Bernardo’s generation and the younger painters were Roberto Chabet, Lee Aguinaldo and J. Elizalde Navarro. Chabet’s contribution lay in initiating and maintaining an experimental and conceptual approach to art, with an emphasis on the semiotic potential of materials. Lee Aguinaldo showed varied influences, including Asian minimalist aesthetics. J. Elizalde Navarro, painter and sculptor, worked in a colourful abstract expressionist style with a strong sense of design. Meanwhile, younger artists such as Augusto Albor, Justin Nuyda, Lao Lianben, Glenn Bautista and Philip Victor developed their own idioms. Notable in many of their works is the collage of found objects and an enthusiastic experimentation in different media. Abstract art was also given a boost by Romulo Olazo, who created an art of subtlety in his works featuring diaphanous overlapping planes.

The decade of the 1970s was characterised by a diversity of styles and themes. The social realists made their appearance in response to martial law in 1972. Art of socio-political significance, as in the work of the first-generation social realists Baens Santos, Edgar Fernandez, Antipas Delotavo and Renato Habulan, remains an important trend among younger groups. It was also they who initiated art work in popular forms, such as comics, posters, street murals and editorial cartoons. Related to social realism was the historical theme mingled with folk imagery, strikingly reconfigured in the work of Brenda Fajardo and Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi. Younger artists have searched for innovative approaches in experimental media to social themes, such as poverty and militarisation.

Doubtless, genre painting will always be a mainstay in Philippine art. Traditional art communities thrive in a number of towns of the Rizal and Laguna provinces around Laguna de Bay. Regional genre painters such as Jose Blanco, Manuel Baldemor and Tam Austria dwell on rural life, folk legends and traditions. The genre tradition, folk urban, continuing from the post-war paintings of Manansala, is furthered in their own styles by artists such as Mario Parial, Angelito Antonio and Antonio Austria. But it is also notable that a number of fine-arts trained young artists from the town of Angono — known for its genre tradition — have signalled the desire to break away from the earlier mould and explore new subjects and approaches.

In the 1980s, a growing interest in the artistic expressions of the different cultural communities, as well as greater awareness of environmental issues, were factors in the strong trend in the use of indigenous or vernacular materials. The trend first appeared with the discovery of the virtues of handmade paper for printmaking, and has since resulted in a keener sensitivity to the semantic properties of the indigenous media. Much recent art, both two- and three-dimensional, has made use of materials such as bamboo, plaited rattan panels, hardwoods, coconut bark and husk, burlap, shells, forest vines, driftwood and seeds. With artistic insight, these materials have been integrated into paintings or fashioned into tapestries and installations.

Foremost among artists using indigenous materials are Junyee, Santiago Bose, Roberto Villanueva, Roberto Feleo and Imelda Cajipe-Endaya. Paz Abad Santos has fashioned large-scale tapestries of burlap richly encrusted with coconut bark, husks, seeds and various found objects. Junyee uses a wide array of organic materials in installations commenting on the state of the ecosystem, with recent works evoking a mystical air. Santiago Bose created makeshift structures of thatch and bamboo such as native altars with millenarist symbols of revolution or open-air market stalls that refer to regional cultural exchange. Roberto Villanueva has done large mandala-based installations using bamboo sidings to evoke holy grounds inhabited by nature and guardian deities. Roberto Feleo has put together a wide variety of folk artefacts in bricolage to evoke an indigenous cosmology. Imelda Cajipe- Endaya has used panels of thatch and bamboo with collages of domestic objects to evoke an entire folk culture. She has recently stitched and collaged mementos of travel on fabric and handmade paper.

Sculpture has also shown significant advances in the past decade. Agnes Arellano has done large plaster-of-Paris figures influenced by Indian mythology, while Julie Lluch has done a series of terracotta life-size images of women devotees. Likewise, Florence-based Duddley Diaz has made important innovations in religious imagery in wood reliefs. Gabriel Barredo creates kinetic assemblages out of found objects in innovative constructions that evoke a mystical air. Arnel Borja’s mobiles based on the principle of fulcrum balance in physics bring out a fascinating interplay of various materials and shapes. Lirio Salvador produces fantasy musical instruments in stainless steel, which are actually played in experimental rock bands.

Meanwhile, painting in the hands of young artists crosses over to the larger category of two-dimensional form. As such, the works open out to a whole range of modifications, experimentations, even subversions of the original oil-on-canvas painting tradition, with much present work done in mixed media. Among the interventionist strategies are the incorporation of various materials, panelled sections, appropriation and modification of photographs, frottages, textural devices, computer-generated images and elements, as well as the innovative management of pictorial space. The geometric mandala paintings of John Frank Sabado, for instance, have a fine network of threads alluding to the Cordillera textile culture superimposed on the painting surface marked by precisionist op art effects. Leonardo Aguinaldo has developed an original technique of colour engraving on rubber sheets with which he sometimes incorporates mirrors to suggest the theme of identity. Another notable strategy in two-dimensional form can also be found in the paintings of Wire Tuazon, who superimposes a line of text on the image itself in the manner of a conundrum. Nona Garcia, whose works combine painting and installation, plays on the notions of inside and outside in her device of wrapping objects and subjecting them to x-ray, thus creating a dual view. Artists who continue to work in oil on canvas in their own distinctive styles are Emmanuel Garibay, Elmer Borlongan, Federico and Grace Sievert, Ronald Ventura and the Bacolod artists, Nunelucio Alvarado and Charlie Co, among others.

While much important painting and sculpture continues to be done in the country, installation art is shaping itself into a potent form, developing from earlier hermetic constructs to striking multimedia expressions. Installation art, which is premised on the interplay of signifying elements and structures within a defined space, has recently examined the concepts of space, time and process, breaking down the parameters of the pictorial field and the sculptural mass to open up new semantic possibilities. These often include performative interactivity between the artist, viewer and public and the work itself. From ecological themes, recent installations have shifted to themes of identity and human interaction. Many installations and mixed-media works have a central aspect of discursiveness in which words are called into play to foreground the conceptual values of the work. Lani Maestro, as in the installation I am you, first printed the texts on billboards in Canada then transposed them to a small-scale venue in the Philippines. Claro Ramirez transformed a small room into a dark box of mirrors that bounced off the viewer’s multiple reflections, while electrical units of light and sound were triggered into activity by the movements of the viewer. A string of text of Filipino and English words along the walls had to do with different forms of active relationship. Mideo Cruz created a pantheon-assemblage of gods, sacred and secular, before which he posed as a patient imploring for mercy.

The movements of migration that are so much a part of our time have resulted in an art of social and cultural exchange with the interaction of different communities in the region and in the world as a whole. Imelda Cajipe-Endaya was one of the first to do installations of this theme in works that bring together the cultural artefacts that are part of the life of the overseas contract worker. Alwin Reamillo traced the routes of colonial incursions in the region and displayed a Last Supper image overlaid by cultural icons through time and social change. An installation by the artist-couple Juan and Isabel Aquilizan, from Los Banos in Laguna, consists of a temporal process which they initiated in the Filipino community in Queensland. This involved the gathering and exchanging of Filipino cultural artefacts followed by interviews which evoked associations and memories of their home country. In this case, the installation goes beyond a specific site to involve a process of group interaction over a period of time. Another area of development comes from digital imaging with the use of computer technology, exploiting the interface between painting/sculpture and computer-generated images and drawing out all possibilities, as in the recent work of Jose Tence Ruiz. Likewise, current is the strong trend in video art which seeks enhanced levels of audiovisual experience in a vital interplay with installations and literary-discursive forms.

Providing the infrastructure of art, galleries and museums have, on the whole, welcomed the new developments apart from space constraints and have mounted installation shows that depart from the conventional formats. The Cultural Center of the Philippines, with its big and small galleries, has always been hospitable to innovative work. This is also true for commercial venues inside large malls which may have an artwalk. The Finale Art File and the West Gallery have held joint shows of Roberto Chabet’s installations, as well as shows under his curatorship in the Art Center. The Ayala Museum has also hosted installation shows. Also promising in this respect are the Pinto Gallery in the outlying city of Antipolo and the Kulay Diwa in Paranaque. Other galleries which feature installations and other innovative work are the Green Papaya and the Hiraya Gallery. The Ateneo Art Gallery has also shown an increasing penchant for more experimental work. The Lopez Museum likewise has a dynamic approach to curatorship. A more recent development is in alternative exhibition spaces such as Surrounded by Water and Big Sky Mind, which have hosted conceptual art, installations, performance art and rock concerts. The big museums, such as the National Museum, the Museum of the Filipino People, the Metropolitan Museum of Manila and the GSIS Museum, have been venues for exhibiting large private collections, local and regional competitions such as the Art Association of the Philippines Annual Art Competition and the Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards. At the same time, they have included exhibits of textiles and brassware using state-of-the-art exhibition technologies.

From the initial flourishing of modernism in the post-war years, Philippine art from the 1990s to the present has shown an increasing momentum in creative activity and production. In fact, it is possible to say that the last decade of the 20th century and the transition to the present has been particularly dynamic in terms of new concepts and values. These years have manifested a renewed energy in art-making with the vast new resources that the artists have accessed and explored. This, for one, proceeds from the internal dynamics of the art scene today, with a sustained, lively interaction between artists and public, and between Manila and the regions. Art competitions have provided encouragement and raised artistic standards. Likewise, the opening of regional and international fora such as biennials and triennials hosted by large cities, and the productive exchange generated by symposia bringing together artists and writers from all parts of the world, have contributed to the rich art production that we enjoy today.”

Brief Survey of Philippine Art
Alice G. Guillermo

Edited by Caroline Turner
ART AND SOCIAL CHANGE, Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific
University of Queensland Press

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