MAKING HEAVEN, HELL, AND WHAT’S-IN-BETWEEN A MOMENT: An Analysis of Filipino Art

Victorio Edades, "The Builders"

“The death of an artist is too high a price to pay for the birth of a revolutionary, even when the revolution seems to make more sense than ever before.”

 –     Andrew Sarris

Art is commonly known as the depiction of human expressions – of making metaphysical qualities of the beautiful and the ugly, tangible to the senses. A painting, for instance, is like a frozen picture that allows its viewers to peek into its painter’s soul – to celebrate with his happiness or feel the depths of his anguish. Nonetheless, an artwork is also its creator’s mask – an intricate façade of the feelings that he want to convey, of expressions and messages that he wants his viewing public to learn and accept, of emotions that he does not necessarily own.

The evolution of visual arts in the Philippines– as presented in the text has been deeply influenced by the era that the country has gone through. The Spaniards era had alienated the struggles of the poor Katipuneros such as Ka Andres from the battles of the rich illustrados such as Dr. Rizal. This alienation confined art into a specific social stratum. Juan Luna’s Spoliarium may have awed the world, but it remained a very remote vision to an ordinary Indio. It is only when the Americans started to commercialize and massify visual arts that Filipinos came in contact with the messages from the drawings and sculptures.

Fernando Amorsolo, "Cooking the Noon-Day Meal"

The paper has centered its discussion in the changing perspective on visual arts in the American and contemporary periods in the country. According to the paper, classicism as a style in painting was borne from an artist’s portrayal of an ordinary rural life in the Philippine landscape. Fernando Amorsolo has so ingeniously painted the Filipinos as hardworking citizens, stooped in the rice fields under the intense heat of the sun, yet optimistic and happy. His landscapes were bathed with light – where the faces of Filipino women celebrate the uniqueness of their native features. It is thus not unreasonable to suppose that this radiance on his paintings was the main reason why he had a “long artistic career spanning more than half a century.” Truly, Fernando Amorsolo has opened a new frontier for aspiring Filipino artists, who have eventually adopted his style and painted a heavenly realm of the Filipino people.

This artistic movement has been somewhat threatened if not shattered by the emergence of modernism. For Victorio Edades, Carlos “Botong” Francisco, Galo B. Ocampo and their successors, the real expressions of Filipino sentiments and cultures are not the Amorsolo’s lighted landscapes and smiling faces – though Filipinos value hard work, they are not always smiling under the heat of the sun… they are a working class people, who get dirty with sweat and grime, who are oppressed by various regimes, and who are victims of the hell of atrocities because of the war.

It is in this context that we can see how Filipino art evokes extreme emotions that came from the very artists’ portrayal of his self and his beliefs. While we would believe that Amorsolo’s utopia of the Filipino landscape is far from the real experiences of the Filipinos that time, we could still not deny that such depictions of the countryside gave its people some hope… that through war and sickness and deaths, a world with peace and harmony could be created; people’s hard work in the rice fields would be rewarded by a bountiful harvest, and Filipinas would continue to celebrate their uniqueness from their other Malayan counterparts. As one of the precursors of Philippine art, Amorsolo was able to paint a bright future not only for the Filipino artists but for the people as well. I do not know whether this was Amorsolo’s real motives or whether the rumors that he has succumbed to commercialization were true. Nonetheless, an undeniable fact remains – that he is still one of the most important and influential artists of our time.

On the other hand, the distortions – though they may depict hopelessness and angst, became more-or-less accurate expressions of the Filipino sentiments particularly during the onset of the war and during the American and Japanese occupation. These modernist paintings have become a wake-up call to the Filipino people – a slap on their moral consciousness, and a rebuke to their apathy. The modernist paintings may have lacked the call for hope and optimism that the classicist paintings convey, but it undeniably starkly illustrates the reality of a working class’ life.

This scenario was also repeated in the evolution of Filipino sculpting and printmaking. Classicists who uphold standard, aesthetics and beauty would always be accompanied by modernists who show raw emotions and uphold reality – often in its most painstaking form. Nonetheless, they have both succeeded in capturing the emotions that they want the public to feel… They have both succeeded in creating a “moment” – a still-illustration of the heaven that they want to reach and the hell that they want to overcome.

This, for me, counts as the most important achievement of Filipino art.

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