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LEO BENESA

He was the second painter to be named National Artist, posthumously like his predecessor, Fernando Amorsolo. But where one could go to the Ayala Museum and see a number of Amorsolo, there is no such place where one could go and see Carlos “Botong” Francisco’s paintings in some depth, except at the City Hall of Manila in the anteroom of the Mayor’s Office.

This mural of many parts is considered by many as his obra maestra. Commissioned by and painted for City Hall, the work is a visual history of the City of Manila and the country, executed in the lyrical and heroic style that was to start a “school” later after his death in 1969.

He has other works of several parts elsewhere, like the Stations of the Cross in a couple of school chapels. But the City Hall is the most public place where one could take in a work of such dimensions both in size and in subject.

Those who saw the International Fair at the Luneta in the 1950s will remember the huge paintings in plywood he did for the entrance to the fair. For a long time people didn’t know what happened to these paintings after the fair was dismantled. And up to now I haven’t seen any of the sections anywhere.

There was a story circulating for some time that some sections were found cut up and used for the sides of a broken-down elevator of the National Library. But not even a fragment has shown up in any of the galleries for sale to the insatiable Filipino collector, to my knowledge.

I am mentioning this because, since the art market emerged as an entity to reckon with in the mid 1970s, you’d be lucky to get a Francisco easel painting – a rarity actually as he preferred to do murals – for five figure.

Just a few weeks ago, I saw one of his small watercolors, a sketch of a well-known Filipino legend which he did during early years as a magazine illustrator, going for P12,000 net. It was brought for authentication to Vicente Manansala, a colleague of Botong in the old starving days of the Filipino painter, and immediately he said, “Where did you get that Botong?”

Mang Enteng was not only too happy to authenticate the work on the back, but went on to expound on the meaning of the work itself showing a boy in the rniddle of a bunch of ripening bananas over his head, all this against a tropical landscape and sky and those swirling S-shaped clouds or mists that are a feature of Francisco’s style.

The authentication trip was necessary because quite a number of sketches and drawings are being passed around as genuine Franciscos; there seems to be some kind of racket going on right now, and even the living are not spared, Manansala included.
Botong would probably be the most difficult to fake or to mimic in paint. Beside the works of the Angono master, those of his followers look awkward in figuration, or garish in coloration. His watercolors were done spontaneously, and where the brush hesitates, or stops in places, resumes, stops again, etc., you have some reason to wonder whether or not the work is authentic.

It wasn’t just a matter of skill, but rather a matter of full sensibility and a very creative imagination, an inner eye that was able to take in a municipality of things and still be able to maintain the over-all vision thematically or episodically.
Because Francisco preferred to live and paint in his hometown by the Laguna de Bay, his artistic commitment has been cited as an example of patriotism. Indeed he was most at home with the history, myth, and legend of the race. But he was equally inventive and resourceftil visualizing sets and costumes for local movie versions of Genghis Khan and the Niebelungenlied hero, Siegfried.

Art historians usually link Botong with the beginnings of Philippine modern art because of his close association in mural work with Victorio Edades before the war.

But a little known fact is that he discovered rock drawings in a cave in the hills of Angono. Lately, anthropologist Jesus Peralta has linked Botong’s cave drawings to those of the Tau’t Batu in Palawan. There is one other place in Asia where the rock figures or petroglyphs are the same, and that is in Sarawak.

Aside from the City Hall, there are two other places where you could see major works by Francisco readily. These are the lobbies of the Philippine General Hospital on Taft, and the St. Paul College auditorium on Pedro Gil.

The couple of mural-size paintings that used to land over the lobby of the old Manila Hotel are now in Malacañang. There are of course private collectors. Until some kind of a retrospective is mounted, we won’t know how many works this great Filipino artist who has been compared with the Mexican muralists – did in his lifetime.

Reference/s:
From the NCCA-published book by Benesa – What is Philippine about Philippine Art? and Other Essays (originally from Weekend, June 22, 1979, p. 7). For inquiries on the book, contact 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).