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LEO BENESA

       What makes Philippine Art Filipino? To what extent is Philippine art derivative of Western art? Is there anything “Filipino” about, for example, the Manila Wyeth school, the so-called magic realists? How about the paintings of Fernando Amorsolo, Carlos Francisco and Hemando R. Ocampo, all of whom have been identified in a big way with the native sensibility?

The questions above are merely a rephrasing of the old problem of national identity in the visual or plastic arts. Admittedly, the issue is not as hot as it used to be, say, in the 1950s and 1960s. But it is a question that will always haunt art watchers hereabouts, and which usually surfaces in art forums.

Genre used to be a major consideration in determining the “Filipino-ness” of a work of art at least in painting. The idea was that the depiction of scenes of everyday life and the surroundings without idealizing them was closest in spirit to the Filipino soul and native soil. (What saves the local magic realists from being completely derivative is their sense of genre.)

Thus, the pastoral or rural paintings of Amorsolo for a long time were considered to be most expressive of the ethos of the race and the predominantly agricultural countryside. On the other hand, the Filipino-ness of Francisco’s paintings inheres in his heroic-epic feeling for history and myth.

It is true that the Angono painter also did genre subjects, as in his paintings of festivals and other town or poblacion happenings. But he was most at home doing subjects dealing with the history of the race, as well as its prehistory redolent with the musk of myth and legend.

Because of the abstract language or imagery used, it is not as easy pinpointing the reason why some critics have described Ocampo as “the most Filipino” painter ever. We have to shift from content to style here, to Ocampo’s unique painterly approach which is the most original hereabouts in spite of its surrealistic and cubistic beginnings and underpinnings.
We know for a fact that Ocampo was no espouser of “nationalistic” causes insofar as art was concerned. As the lately departed painter from Maypajo used to tell us, whatever you are painting or sculpting, if you are a good artist, your work will automatically be Filipino.

Indeed Amorsolo, Francisco and Ocampo were very Filipino in their art because they felt strongly about what they were doing and painted well and memorably. In other words, insofar as the critics and historians are concerned, the three were painters first and bearers of messages second, or painters and message-bearers in equal measure.

A great deal of the confusion in cultural identity stems from the fact that Philippine art belongs to the western tradition in its use of paint and canvas and other materials, as well as in such influences as impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, cubism, pop, minimalism and so on.

The fact is that all the modern art movements in the ASEAN region were inspired by Western models. Indonesia’s pioneering contemporary painters, Sudjojono and Affandi (the equivalents of our Edades and Ocampo), used easel and canvas and are no less Indonesian thereby. Malaysia’s Mohidin and Thailand’s Srisouta are also west-oriented, but they have not lost their Asian, and national identities because of it.

How about our expatriates? Can the Spoliarium, executed by Juan Luna while in Europe, be considered a Filipino painting? Is Macario Vitalis less, or no longer, Filipino, living and painting in a village by the Breton sea for the last 40 to 50 years? Hasn’t Bencab become more “Filipino” living and painting in London? Is Tabuena in San Miguel de Allende now to be considered a Mexican painter? Choose your wild.

Reference/s:
From the NCCA-published book by Benesa – What is Philippine about Philippine Art? and Other Essays (originally from Philippine Daily Express, January 12, 1979, p. 17-18). 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).