Most of us have had an adventure in art. Perhaps, it started in grade school when we began drawing with pencil and crayon. And perhaps we also realized dearly that artists are special, because only a few can draw.
I had dreams of becoming an artist when I was a kid. I did drawings that my teacher liked. I also watched the town painter, Wagas Manalad, at work in his studio near the town cockpit. I marveled at his paintings, landscapes, and portraits. His magnum opus was the backdrop for the float of the town fiesta queen. On it he lavished his skills, painting a mural with Philippine scenes and writing in the most artistic calligraphy, “Her Majesty Queen Teresa.”
In Manila, in the late 1940s, when I started out in journalism, I was a frequent visitor to Angono. I was an early fan of Carlos “Botong” Francisco. I also visited Fernando Amorsolo at his apartment in Azcarraga, and Vicente Manansala, who then lived in San Francisco del Monte.
I was traveling all over the country and all over Southeast Asia, looking at folk crafts, and was introduced as well to the region’s classical art forms influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. By the late 1960s, I had visited most of the major museums in the world with the exception of the Uffizi in Florence for the simple reason that the lines were very long. I had also become a photographer and had two exhibitions at the old Philippine Art Gallery, which was then managed by Lydia Arguilla, the widow of the writer, Manuel Arguilla.
I had also become interested in our art, which had been so influenced by Western tradition that much of it no longer had a Filipino identity. So in 1967, I opened the Solidaridad Galleries in Malate with the sole purpose of giving our art a Filipino and Asian face. A section of the gallery was devoted to folk crafts, which the writer, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, magnificently curated.
The gallery did not only exhibit art from Asia but also held demonstrations of indigenous weaving and of classical Asian music and dance. It was also a place to listen to lectures on art and culture. Many of the leading lights in Philippine art today first exhibited at Solidaridad.
THE POINT OF THIS EXPOSITION is to affirm what Voltaire said, that every time a writer holds a pen or a painter a brush, they have in their hands a sword.
Whether artists recognise it or not, art is revolutionary even if the artists themselves are not inclined to accept revolution. With their sensibility and creativity, artists are always creating alternative realities, which may not be tangible in the sense that one beholds them changing societies and history. But all this they do just the same, perhaps not today or tomorrow, but surely in the future. As the old saying goes, art is forever and it is the artist who leaves lasting monuments and depicts nations at the height of their glory or at their downfall. It is the artist who also records history, and without the artist’s genius and their gift to our collective memory, there will be no nation or civilization.
After the death of Alice Guillermo, we lost a very good scholar and student of Philippine art. I hope that Cid Reyes and Patrick Flores will be able to fill her place. We need this kind of learned criticism in our art, cultural and educational institutions so that we can understand and appreciate aesthetics and excellence in art. Art is always elitist because the best in art is also produced by the country’s best artists.
Except for literature, the arts in this country are flourishing today, particularly the visual arts. Paintings are selling, even those by very young artists, some of them still in art schools, some of them very cheeky to demand thousands for their work. What a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s when our finest artists had difficulty living on their work. Their artworks are now priced in the millions.
I see something missing in much of this cultural flourishing. In spite of competent craftsmanship, I see a lack of depth in the latest works of our artists and that includes the creative writers whose venue for their work — magazines and book publishers— has unfortunately narrowed so much. This is a very difficult conclusion for an old hand like myself to make and I am eager to be disproven.
GREAT ART ALMOST ALWAYS has nationality although artists may not have roots or loyalty to a particular nation. As a cosmopolite, the writer’s main purpose is to achieve excellence. To arrive at this, they will have to deal with the context of their particular reality, their particular environment. And, perhaps, without even being conscious of it, they give their work a particular essence and an identity.
My novel, Sherds, is a meditation on art. The main character, PG Golangco, is a rich potter, designer, and scholar who takes under his wing a young combative artist. When Golangco says the artist is responsible only to himself, that he needs freedom to pursue his art, the student disagrees. She argues that the artist has a responsibility to truth and justice, that art itself must be moral. Golangco discerns the truth in his student’s words, a discovery fraught with revelation as well as pain.
Pain is seldom portrayed in much of our art. Although it is a tradition in our music -- in our kundimans -- much of our art is bright and sunny. This is most evident in the paintings of Fernando Amorsolo and in the agrarian painters he inspired. Not so with Vicente Manansala, and in the later paintings of Carlos Francisco. These three painters, in spite of their idiosyncrasies and repetitiveness, have explicitly defined Filipino art. My spirit lifts when young artists today, who draw from their own adventures in art and are rooted firmly on native soil, enlarge and enrich that definition.
First published in The Philippine Star, August 12, 2019