Filipino Western Art: the good and the bad

Around three years ago, the items on display at the second floor of the Vargas Museum only had one theme—they are the personal collection of Jorge Vargas, the very person to whom the museum was named after.
As such, visitors were greeted by a plethora of artworks and artifacts—paintings, sculptures, old pictures, books, brassware, figurines and coins. Afterall, the museum inside the University of the Philippines was constructed precisely to house, preserve and display Vargas’ rich collection which he donated in 1978 after keeping them many years in his private Mandaluyong estate.
When UP hired curator Maria Victoria Herrera, however, the permanent items in the Kawilihan Gallery were rearranged, grouped and displayed in months at a time according to a theme, an artist, to the medium or art form.
For almost five months now, the gallery featured the visual arts, designs, stamps, pictures, coins and books in the period between the Spanish and the American rule, from 1880s to 1920s. Entitled “Images of Transition,” the creators explained that the exhibition is an exploration of the “changes” and “transformations” in Philippine artistic production through Western influence.  
At the same time, it was an attempt to revisit the images of the Philippines propagated by the West to understand how they viewed the islands and its people.
Coming up with the theme on display, however, was motivated by the feedbacks from visitors who knew Vargas’ collection. They were looking for the works of Juan Luna and Felix Hidalgo which were previously mainstays in the gallery.
With these, the museum’s management decided to display Luna and Hidalgo’s paintings after two consecutive exhibits on Fernando Amorsolo.
Despite the demand, however, Vargas’ curatorial team decided to adopt a historical theme instead, including not only the paintings but also the books, stamps and coins of the era. In fact, they even displayed the works of Fabian de la Rosa and Simon Flores which fell in the same period.
“The items on display tell us that this era is really a turning point from the Spanish to the American rule,” museum assistant Ryan Reyes explained, moving past scanned stamps bearing the image of the king of Spain.
Stopping on a number of illustrations and photos about the Philippines he added, “In these images for example, we see how the Europeans viewed the Philippines. The orientalist perspective is very strong.”
As to the works of Luna and Hidalgo, Reyes said the European influence was undeniable. The two were trained in European art, and with the opening of local art schools patterned after the West, foreign styles, techniques and art forms began seeping into Filipino paintings.
In 1823, Academia de Debujo, the first art school in the Philippines was established. Though it closed because of financial difficulties it was succeeded by the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, which evolved into what is now the UP College of Fine Arts.
“With the founding of the different art schools, we witness how the development of painting in the Philippines almost coincided with that in Europe,” Reyes said.
Half of the gallery was devoted to paintings bearing images of daily life, still life, portraits, nature and a number of works with nationalistic themes. Impressionism in Luna’s paintings and Romanticism in Hidalgo’s were the dominant art movements.
These are now priceless collections reflecting the rich colonial past and culture in the country. They are so important that Reyes refused to give a price tag.
“We really evade that question because we don’t want people to see the artworks in terms of their monetary value. That’s one of the things Vargas wants to promote,” he said.
Other than the paintings, rare books and coins were displayed behind glass in several pedestals around the gallery. The oldest was a 1777 Geographic Encyclopedia. It was propped against a stand specifically designed to prevent the deterioration of its spine.
Reyes said the book, which also contained an entry about the Philippines, must be handled with extreme care lest the brittle pages would pulverize.
Vargas’ collection of books, documents and his library archives were more than display materials. They are also rich sources for researchers studying the Commonwealth and Japanese periods.
Moving to one of the old books on display, Reyes said, “This book for example contains images that no longer exist today. Here we see the Sto. Domingo Church in Intramuros. We can never see a picture of the church because it was destroyed during the war. At least we have preserved visual records of historical buildings that no longer exist.”
Several photos were only printouts, scanned from very old books that can no longer be displayed. There were also enlarged printouts of stamps, logos and government seals for better appreciation of the details.
With such a collection of rare and priceless items, the second floor of Vargas museum is indeed a goldmine, guarded 24 hours and subjected to continuous air conditioning and dehumidification.
It is a must to keep the temperature low and to control the amount of humidity in the air to prevent elements of nature from eroding the old books and paintings. Whenever they transfer the items, museum workers are required to wear gloves and to handle them with utmost care. A miscalculated move—too much pressure, rough handling or hasty unpacking—can easily leave lasting damage on the works.   
No doubt, the paintings of Luna and Hidalgo are cultural artifacts which to some scholars are great leaps to the visual arts of the Philippines. Providing an alternative view, however, UP professor and former member of the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts, Felipe de Leon Jr. believed that the entry of Western influence in art disrupted the natural development of the Filipino art form.
“From the establishment of schools of arts, there came a new art concept—that of a disjointed or exclusivist concept of art. For the first time, drama was separated from music and dance and visual arts,” de Leon said.
Explaining its impact, he added that the natural Filipino concept of art is “wholistic” and participatory. In the past, whenever Filipinos celebrated festivals and fiestas, the entire event involved the community. One can see dancing, music, colorful banderitas, delicacies, costumes and carved bamboos all in a single event.
“Art was integrated. Art was never alone. Art was always together,” the professor explained. “When you separate art, you encourage individualism; you encourage people to be specialists in certain art forms.”
What do all these imply?
For Deleon, divided art goes against interconnectedness and participation—among the core values of Filipino society. He said a person who is an expert in the piano will have nothing to do with those who play the violin or the guitar because of this mindset.
“[With the Western influence] we developed a professional exclusivist attitude towards art. Filipinos became more and more protective of their specialization…their turf,” de Leon said.
Though the Western influence was not all bad, it made the entry of indigenous and budding artists more difficult because of “barriers” erected by elite painters who wanted to ward off competition. Here, the fine and popular arts, including indigenous arts are worlds apart. Unfortunately, of the three, indigenous art is robbed of the respect and admiration it deserved simply because its makers never went to formal art schools, he added.
For de Leon, the paintings of Luna and Hidalgo displayed in the Vargas museum are great works for Western standards. But he lamented their detachment from the social realities of their time.
“They (Luna and Hidalgo) failed to reflect the Philippine social conditions because Western art is concerned only with entertainment and pleasure… Instead of painting Philippine realities, Luna chose European mythology as subjects, except, perhaps for the Spolarium,” he said.
Regarding Hidalgo’s works, de Leon said the only painting he made which had social relevance was the “Slaying of Governor Bustamante.” Bustamante was sympathetic to the Indios so he earned the ire of the friars and was, thus, executed.
On the one hand, the paintings, books and images displayed in the Vargas museum gave a glimpse of the social, economic, political and cultural milieu in the period between two colonial powers. On the other, they reflected a contentious part of Filipino art development—the entry of Western influence which effectively ushered art forms and styles different from the indigenous, wholistic and participatory Filipino art experience.
Whether or not the influence brought more bad than good remains a debate. For Reyes, however, their effort at the Vargas museum to bring these artworks closer to the public is a way of breaking the barriers in what was once for-elite only art in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“We are in a period where artists are freer to explore different subject maters and styles…Their challenge is to find a way to situate their art in today’s changing context. Have we exhausted all possibilities in art? Where will they lead Philippine art? They hold the answers to these questions,” he said. 
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