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Revisiting Mabini Art book cover

In a new book, Mabini art shows its true colors

 by Carlomar Arcangel Daoana

Before the advent of Romanticism, which emphasized the importance of the individual and his utterance (especially artistic) as a veritable imprint of his soul, art was largely seen as a trade and the artist as a craftsman meant to address the demands of his particular patron. Of course, not all artists were created equal. There were those who, showing exemplary talent, coveted lucrative commissions. Artists sought, even fought over, patrons. The Roman Catholic Church was inarguably the most powerful client there was.

In a sense, art-making was tied with, if not deeply entrenched into, commerce. The tide turned when artworks were seen more than just objects of beauty but as nebulous entities invested with spiritual implications. To trade one openly was to corrupt it. Even if galleries proliferated at the start of the 20th century and sold more paintings than at any point in history, care was still extended in the treatment of artworks as sacred objects. Like a spiritual relic, they were placed on a pedestal, illumined by a light source, held with gloves. Viewers, pondering them, kept their distance. This practice continues up to now.

That is why artworks sold openly by a commercial establishment, which dispenses with ritual preparations and curatorship connected with a formal display, are frowned upon, if not outrightly rejected. They are judged not according to their forms, movements and subtleties but on their context. Since no care is extended in presenting them and evoking their magic, the consensus is that their value—if there’s any at all—lies merely in the decorative. Never mind if the art works in question share the same qualities as those which are shown in legitimate galleries and exhibitions.

The book Revisiting Mabini: Its Significance in the Development of Philippine Visual Arts, edited by Oliver Quingco II and Klaus W. Hartung and published by the German-based company Transwing Jane e.K., offers a corrective to this view, even arguing that what is viewed as “commercial art”—specifically those showed in the famed street of Mabini in Ermita, Manila—has helped propel the momentum of art in this country, bringing its own welter of iconography, impulse and inspiration. The editors, with contributions from some of the most notable art critics and academicians in the Philippines, present their case in more than 200 pages of art history annotations and image reproductions.

In their Preface, the editors promise to “revisit how Mabini Art developed starting from 1949 and its role in the development of visual arts in the Philippines, the walk-out of the conservatives from the AAP [Art Association of the Philippines] competition in 1955, the influence of modernism, and later on the mingling of studied artists, college dropouts and self-studied artists in the galleries and studios in Mabini, and the subsequent opening of Pistang Pilipino.” Pistang Pilipino, by the way, was a commercial complex where different galleries traded their wares.

But before the editors proceed to their bone of contention, they offer a sweeping view of the history of Philippine visual arts, back from its indigenous roots to its present-day incarnation and blossoming. For those with no or little knowledge about the subject, these chapters are a treat. They elucidate, aside from a variety of concerns, how our forebears translated the world into symbols they carried on their bodies; how Filipino artists during the Spanish times worked with foreign, therefore hostile, Christian iconography; and how Jose Rizal, having been schooled in painting at Academia de Bellas Artes de San Francisco in Spain, became an accomplished landscape artist.

The book then turns a gear as soon as it covers the 20th century. Fernando Amorsolo, who would eventually gain the distinction as the country’s first National Artist for Visual Arts, was the acknowledged master of the first half of the century with his idyllic settings, lovely maidens and intoxicating treatment of light. He was also the figure that the modernists, after the Second World War, rebelled against. Leading the modernist pack was Victorio Edades who, himself, would also become National Artist.

It was during this intense period (when the conservatives and the modernists staged their confrontations) that the so-called “Mabini Art” was born. Pearl Tan, associate professor of Art Studies at UP Diliman, mentions that the reputation of  Mabini Art we know today—something that is openly commercial, ready to be snapped up with the click of a purse—is largely faulted on the third generation of artists who have set up shop on the street.

“Because the paintings are easily produced and reproduced in quantity,” Tan writes, “Mabini Art is commonly looked upon as commercialized by most art experts and non-Mabini artists and dismissed as low-quality art or ‘cheap art’…” She adds that “such disparaging aesthetic judgment and stigmatization prove to be unwarranted” since the first two generation of artists (and a handful from the third) were serious practitioners, worthy of historical documentation.

Revisiting Mabini makes a roll call of notable Mabini artists from all three generations, including Cesar Amorsolo Sr., Cesar Buenaventura, Roger San Miguel, Oscar Ramos Apuli, Rafael Arenillo Cusi and Emmanuel S. Nim. The book’s piece-de-resistance, however, is about Francisco “Paco” Gorospe Sy (who signed his work as Paco Gorospe). Why he is made as a focusing lens of this book could be credited to three factors. First, even if he belonged to the second generation of Mabini artists, he was one of the street’s loyal denizens (re-building his gallery twice after being engulfed in fire), making him a credible witness to and an active participant in Mabini’s history. Second, he was willfully eclectic and prolific, playing around with trends and figurations and not sticking with one particular style. He was a micro-Mabini Street all by himself, metaphorically speaking. Third, after his death in 2002, one can now make an objective appraisal of his work and contribution to Philippine visual arts.

Born on July 10, 1939 in Binondo, Manila, Gorospe was largely a self-taught artist, even if having spent a term as a student at the Fine Arts department of University of Santo Tomas. Initially, he worked with crayons and watercolors but found out that he could best express himself in oil. After getting married and having four kids, he founded his gallery in Mabini in the ‘60s, forging what is now referred to as the Mabini Triumvirate, the two artists being Roger San Miguel and Francisco Ello.

Prof. Paul Blanco Zafaralla, Ph.D., respected art historian and critic, sums up the Gorospe visual vocabulary as such: “For 45 years (1957-2002), Gorospe fixed his eyes, mind and heart on at least 11 different subjects, in various media and styles. The subjects…were the following: people, fowls, fishes, animals, landscapes, riverscapes, abodes, still-lifes, climate, industrialization, religion.” Gorospe, Zafaralla adds, was at home with “realism, cubism, abstraction. He used the styles of some Western and Filipino artists as take-off points for his deconstruction of the subjects whose pictorial units are taken as metaphors.”

Though they are metaphorical as they come, Gorospe’s works, especially his figures, are full-bloodied, alive, inflected with the immediacy of animate objects. His coloration, trumpeted as his main achievement, renders a multi-dimensionality to his paintings (he was not called as the “Picasso of the Philippines” for nothing), as though they are transpiring, at once, in the realm of sense and spirit. They are undeniably painterly. They are pieces whose main subject is beauty, broken through the prism of seductive forms. His portraits of the natural world, especially, are beckoning.

Why he didn’t achieve the renown he was meant to have in his lifetime can only be surmised. Perhaps, just like Mabini art, he was a willful (and willing) outsider, creating his art beyond the whims of trend while ironically operating under the demands of the market. He produced his paintings—all 7,000 of them—to the service of the eye and in the seeming absence of anxiety, employing faultless technique and mesmerizing craft. He will not remain a neglected master for so long. Revisiting Mabini: Its Significance in the Development of Philippine Visual Arts also seeks to redress that.


2012 Palanca Awards First Prize Winner for Poetry in English is Carlomar Arcangel Daoana—it’s his very first time to win First Prize, and he did it after only twelve attempts. Yes. Twelve attempts in twelve years.  That’s how coveted a Palanca gold medal is: you have no right to give up until you achieve it—and yes, Poetry in English is one of the toughest categories for anyone to win; it can take more than a decade!