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LEO BENESA

At a forum on the art (1975 – ed.) of Fernando Amorsolo which was held at the Ayala Museum as part of a series, two of the panelists brought up the question of whether the artist is to be considered a major painter, and not just a transitional if large-looming and honored figure in the history of Philippine contemporary art. The question is particularly relevant in the light of what seems to be an Amorsolo revival in recent years.

Two developments, actually inter-related, are behind this new interest in the artist who stood practically alone and unchallenged in his field for almost two and a half decades before the war.

The first development has to do with an art market that has been growing by leaps and bounds, phenomenally, suddenly making painting the most lucrative and glamorous among the arts in this country. The second has to do with the publishing of art books, an area where local publishers feared to tread except for prestige reasons, which was rarely.

One of these new art books is Alfredo Roces Amorsolo, published by the Filipinas Foundation this year. The author was in fact the moderator for the aforementioned forum, and the main ideas he presented in the book were basic to the discussion. Roces, however, was more interested in presenting the artist in the changing contexts of his social environment (from Spanish and American, through Japanese, to Independent Filipino), so that he skirts the issue of the stature of the artist, or at least is ambivalent about it.

The presence of a dynamic art market for painting is in a large measure attributable to the encouragement of the arts by Mrs. Imelda Marcos, whose personal interest in them goes beyond her merely official functions as First lady. Mrs. Marcos has long been a collector of Philippine contemporary art works, and the first beneficiaries of her patronage were established painters in the modern tradition.

Another factor is the encouragement given to painters by corporate buyers and interior decorators, aside from new private collectors. And the numerous multi-level buildings now rising, especially in Makati commercial district, assure not only a continuing but also an expanding market for the artists, both established and in the process of making names for themselves.
An index to this growth in marketing is the emergence of new exhibiting galleries in recent years: Gallery One, Galerie Bleue, Miladay, Sining Kamalig, Quad, Impressions, The Gallery, Philippine Village, Kilusang Sining, Rear Room, and Metro Gallery in addition to the Luz Gallery, the Solidaridad and a New Hidalgo in place of the one that burned down.

It was not long before some of these galleries started resurrecting the ‘old masters’ from this or that private collection, and other sources. Amorsolo then started to appear, mostly sketches and studies, at prices that reflected the speculative trends of the business. For obvious reasons, an Amorsolo work, even if it was merely a sketch or a study, could not possibly be priced less than the work of a contemporary artist who is still living.

Thus was a revival born, as other “masters” were exhumed from their musty repositories, or brought down from the walls, reframed or refurbished

in some cases restored in places where time and termite had tampered with the work, and exhibited. In this way were Juan Arellano’s quasi-impressionist paintings, largely unknown to an art public which knew the artist like the Post Office, introduced to art collectors and connoisseurs at galleries like the Solidaridad, Galerie Bleue and Impressions.

But, among the painters of the pre-war period, it was Amorsolo who has stood out, reflecting the stature that he enjoyed both as a painter and as the director of the art school of the University of the Philippines, a position which he held up to the time of his retirement in 1952. Also, because of adulation and popularity, he was the most prolific of them all, his genre and anecdotal paintings being considered by his admirers as the true reflections of the Filipino Soul, not to mention the portraits for which lie was very much in demand.

Much of the popularity of Amorsolo was due to the fact that he had taken up the theme of one of the immemorial activities of Asian life and culture, the planting and harvesting of rice, and made it the burning point of his world vision which was therefore agricultural or pastoral, the rural countryside as contrasted to the city or the urban community, with all the romantic implications of such a choice.

In the center of all this was the Filipina dalaga, presented as the ever-smiling picture of innocence and sweetness symbolic of the unspoiled life in the rural areas, and at her most heroic as the regal and lovely Muslim bai of pre-hispanic times, the daughter of the chief of the sultanate or the barangay.

It was to these Filipina female prototypes that Amorsolo paid homage with his brush, endearing him to Filipinos in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly through magazine and book illustrations. Being schooled in the classical tradition – as a panelist pointed out during the forum in response to a fellow panelist’s observation that the figures of Amorsolo tended to be still or at rest rather than dynamic – Amorsolo sought to achieve his Philippine version of the Greek ideal for the human form; whenever action is presented in this aesthetic it is at the point of arrested motion, like an athlete about to throw the discus, or an arrow at the apogee of its flight.

It was indeed this lack of movement or elan in the figures of Amorsolo that another panelist, Leonor Orosa Goquingco, specifically missed in the tableaux of the artist. Choreography is her special field, so that this reaction was understandable. And for the same reason we should applaud the historical murals of Carlos V. Francisco who strove for the opposite Romantic ideal of movement and action, a la Luna.

In fact it was the “triumvirate” as they called themselves of Francisco Victrio Edades and Galo B. Ocampo who first posed the most serious challenge to the leadership of the “maestro” in the field of painting, following upon Edades’ homecoming exhibition at the Philippine Columbian in 1928, which sought to introduce a new aesthetic, the “modernist” approach to art. The piece de resistance in the Edades show was the mural-size Builders; which itself became the object of controversy because of its use of distortion, in violation of proportion as classically understood.

Edades and Ocampo engaged in polemics with Amorsolo’s defenders, notably the sculptor Guillermo Tolentino. Francisco did not take to the word but to the brush, painting some of the rural and historical themes that Amorsolo loved, and likewise engaging in anecdotal paintings but with a great deal of movement and flair, at the same time grappling with the problem of the harsh Philippine sunlight in his own fashion.

In retrospect, Galo Ocampo, who was also a panelist at the forum, pointed out to his listeners that he was in fact a great admirer of Amorsolo and that the arguments were conducted on a high plane. And Roces indeed documents this attitude in his book, quoting Edades through secondary sources that it was the commercialism the maestro allowed himself to fall into that he was against, especially after the war with the presence of victorious American soldiers who wanted paintings of the gorgeous sunset in Manila to bring home as souvenirs, or calendar art as Edades called these works.

“But the thing I really attacked was the academism of the Filipino painters under the influence of Amorsolo,” Edades continued, claiming that Amorsolo was flattered by it all and encouraged it. On this point, Roces disagrees with Edades in his book, and decries the fact that the attacks against Amorsolo’s works at that time were aimed at his “weakest points and poorest pieces”.
The old controversy actually raged on and simmered for two decades from 1928 onwards, interrupted by the war. It was resumed in 1948, the year the Art Association of the Philippines was formally established. The occasion was the Association’s retrospective homage of 51 works, including some 1919 Madrid pieces, in honor of the painter. This time the fictionist and critic Francisco Arcellana went beyond Edades and G. Ocampo with the statement that the “pictures” (sic) of Amorsolo “have nothing to say,” that they were not hard to understand because “there is nothing to understand.”

Roces’ book on Amorsolo has served to read just critical perspectives on his art, so that Arcellana’s remarks now sound a bit too harsh. Just the same Roces does think that the vast majority of the artist’s works (they number in the thousands, according to the author) was indeed unworthy of the painter’s talent, but he insists that Amorsolo’s art should be evaluated in the light of his best works and not of the opposite.

Edades thinks that Amorsolo at his best, the one that he admires, is the very early Amorsolo. Roces is of the opinion that his large anecdotal works painted in the middle part of his career, in the 30s, are not representative of his best, so that one has to look elsewhere. Furthermore, in Roces’ estimation, the portraits of Philippine Commonwealth personalities and other members of the elite are not particularly impressive, although he considers the artist’s portrait of his first wife Salud (1920) definitely one of his masterpieces.

Nor is there anything aesthetically extraordinary about the nudes he love to paint, which have not much in common with the Naked Maja by Goya, whom Amorsolo idolized next to Velasquez. On this point we think that this major Spanish painter’s influence on Amorsolo has been overblown, not to mention that of lesser Spanish painters like Sorolla and Zuloaga who Amorsolo thought belonged to the ‘modern’ school.

Amorsolo did place great store in his large historical paintings, but the “grand manner” in which he had chosen to depict his theme was not convincing; his artistic temperament was simply not suited to generating the sense of dramatic tension necessary for such works. As Roces has pointed out, he was basically a gentle and genteel person, and this sensibility showed in his works, not excluding his paintings of the scenes of war which he had witnessed and which should have been, with just a little bit of Goya in him, a horrifying and surreal experience.

That would leave for our consideration the small non-genre landscapes of the 1920s. We are thinking in particular of those pieces from the Luis Araneta collection, at this writing on display at the Ayala Museum. Spontaneously painted on the spot in pleasing chromatic orchestrations, they are supposed to be preparatory studies or bosetos. Whether they actually performed that function for bigger works on the same subjects is not certain from the evidence available. They are instead complete in themselves as works of art, with attesting signatures and years affixed to them.

It is always tempting while looking at big paintings, particularly those that do not quite hold together, to zoom in on details and blow them up as examples of the spontaneous “painterly” brushwork of the artists, with emphasis on the abstract qualities. The temptation is very strong with Amorsolo, as he did a number of large canvases. But eventually we go back to the work as a whole, for it is the totality, and not a detail, that contains the intention of the artist.

The aforementioned small landscapes are complete in themselves and hold well together plastically. That Amorsolo did not explore and exploit his gift for landscape and effect an aesthetic “breakthrough” (one of the criteria proposed at the forum by a panelist for significant art in this area, as Cezanne did, was more a fault of history or circumstance than the man’s.
For one, he was all alone in the 20s and 30s, and therefore lacked the necessary competition of real peers to bring out the best in himself. And success without competition can be a 1iability. This is true in art as well as in sports. There were also other reasons of a socio-economic character, amply documented by Roces in his book, that prevented hi from becoming a dynamic figure in contemporary painting, as Edades and others who followed him would have wished.

And yet, in spite of all these, in the area of landscape, Amorsolo did influence more artists than just those belonging to the ‘Amorsolo school’ on Mabini Row. The abstract painter F. Aguilar Alcuaz painted landscapes under the spell of Amorsolo at least in his early years. And many a landscape artist uses the old maestro as the frame of reference when the subject is the Philippine countryside.

Fernando Amorsolo may therefore be considered a master of the Philippine landscape as landscape, even outranking Luna and Hidalgo who also did some Philippine landscapes of the same measurements. That the landscapes are small rather than large is immaterial. Whether lie also succeeded in displaying his painterly genius in works other than these small pieces, given his prodigous output, is a question we shall leave open ended.

Reference/s:
From the NCCA-published book by Benesa – What is Philippine about Philippine Art? and Other Essays (originally from Philippine Sunday Express, November 16, 1975, p. 24-27). For inquiries on the book, contact Glenn Maboloc of Public Affairs at 527-2192 local 614 or email address paid@ncca.gov.ph. Available also at all National Bookstores.
About the Author:
Leo Benesa is a poet, essayist, and above all, a professional art critic. His works in art criticism include his column for the Weekend of Daily Express. He was one of the founders of the International Association of Art Critics. Among his books are Joya Drawings (1975), Galo B. Ocampo: 50 Years of Art, The Printmakers (1975), The Art of Fine Prints: A View of 25 Years (1980), and Okir: The Epiphany of Philippine Graphic Art (1981).