Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The many colours of our National Museum




When traveling abroad, a museum is always high on my list of must-see places.  Aside from being  the repository of a country's treasures -- I believe that the museum is a mirror of its culture and its soul.   I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have only just revisited our very own National Museum ... perhaps after more than 40 years.


The National Museum of the Filipino People, as it is properly titled, is located in the old Legislative and Senate Building which was built in the 1920s.  The building was almost completely destroyed when the Americans bombed Manila.  Thankfully, it was restored and renovated and and now
retains much of its original grandeur.


These gorgeous marble rounded columns are just some of the minor changes from the post war renovations.  The Museum, specifically the National Gallery of Art,  moved to this location in 2003 and the building, an architectural work of art in itself, is certainly the best place to hold our nation's masterpieces. 


After you go through the columns, you enter what used to be the old Session Hall of the House of Representatives.  


There are only two paintings in this cavernous space but they are by two of the greatest Filipino painters  -- on the left  is "The Assassination of Governor Bustamante" by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, a painting that was based on an actual local historic event.


Across it is the "Spoliarium" by Juan Luna, often called the most important Filipino painter of all time.
Unfortunately it does not depict a local event, as Hidalgo's does, but instead shows all the blood
and gore of the spoliarium or the basement of the Colosseum of Rome.  
I must have been in college when I  first saw this painting, set in a much darker room.
I had an almost physical reaction to it.   I could smell the blood, the sawdust, the sweat that seemed to ooze from the painting.  I remember that I wanted to throw up and leave the room.
But on this occasion, in this well lit and spacious hall, the painting while still magnificent, seemed to have lost some of its gut wrenching effect on me.  


My reveries in front of  Luna's obra maestra were soon interrupted  by dozens of elementary school children who were on a field trip.  It is heartening to see how they are exposed to art at an early age. 


There's one more masterpiece in the hall - a statue of the Winged Victory done by National Artist Guillermo Tolentino.  It's a lady I know only too well -- the original stands at the top of the obelisk
of Bonifacio in Monumento, a place that I passed nearly everyday when I was growing up.


The two massive paintings do not need any other kind of setting than the wide beige expanse
of the Session Hall.
But as I walked through the rest of the rooms and galleries, I noticed that each was painted in a distinctive hue -- one that perfectly complemented the artworks displayed inside.
The first thing I noticed when I entered the vermillion room housing the Fine Arts Collection of the Museum was this wooden statue of my amigo, Santiago -- here in his full Matamoro fierceness.


Aside from his statue,  a marvellous retablo or side altar from Bohol is also on display. The machuca tiles in checkerboard pattern are reminiscent of old spanish churches. 


From vermillion hues, the next room was painted a bright, blazing red.  This room is called the Gallery of the Via Crucis with 14 paintings on wood of the Stations of the Cross.
Done by an unknown Boholano painter, the paintings look so European,  it's hard to think that a Filipino painted them.  The walls match the red colours of Christ's garments in the paintings.
These are part of the collection of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas   (Philippine Central Bank).


More paintings belonging to the collection are displayed in the next room -- now painted a deep emerald green.  All of the paintings show religious themes --  scenes from the Bible,  various saints and martyrs, several lovely renditions of Our Lady and a smattering of bishops and friars.


My eagle eye spots Amigo Santiago here called Santiago de Galicia, which of course brings back memories of the Camino de Santiago.


The museum's corridors,  painted a cool salmon  are lined with various sculptures. 


It was on this first visit (I would return a few weeks later) that I discovered the genius of a little known (well, at least to me) artist named Isabelo Tampinco.  A contemporary of the more well known painters like Luna, et al he was a remarkably prolific and versatile sculptor  -- making not just statues but even furniture and decorative pieces and of course, ecclesiastical art.
You can find examples of Tampinco's work in the Manila Cathedral and on the molave door of the Sto. Domingo Church.


I fell in love with his many sculptures displayed in the Museum's collection.  They were exquisite pieces that would not have looked out of place in any museum or church abroad.


I was impressed by Tampinco's classically themed pieces but it was his sculptures of Filipino women that completely captivated me and made me a forever fan.


An entire gallery is dedicated to our National Hero, Dr.  Jose Rizal.  With off white walls and wide windows that look out onto the busy street,  the room contains statues, busts, paintings and other memorabilia on display.


I had never seen Jose Rizal in profile -- this portrait is by Fernando Amorsolo, one of our most
noted Philippine painters.


It was poignant to see this small prayer book  that Rizal had left as his final gift to Josephine Bracken.  It is inscribed to his "dearest and unhappy wife"




The second floor of the Museum is devoted to all the Masters.  A gallery celebrates the work of
Juan Luna, perhaps the most famous son of Badoc, Ilocos Norte -- if you discount his brother, the general of course.
The walls of the Luna Room  are painted a  bright pink -- I think Luna would have approved. 



Next to the Spoliarium, this is probably Luna's second most famous work  -- the portrait of his wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera.  The rosary she clasps in her hands makes this look like a funerary portrait but of course she is not dead -- at least not yet.  



There is wit and humour in Luna's studies of Parisian life.  



Thankfully there were cameras at the turn of the century.  In the Luna room is this huge photo of the master in his studio.



Sharing the same gallery is Luna's contemporary and in my mind, the painter that is most often mentioned in the same breath.  Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo was two years older than Luna 
and they were both in Paris to study and paint at the same time.



Hidalgo's paintings in the museum show scenes from his life in France. 



These scenes of Brittany are beautiful and I must say I cannot understand why people have to argue about who is the better artist between the two -- why compare at all?



Warm, golden yellow walls in the next room hold portraits of presidents, government officials and society ladies.  My very favourite one is a painting by Ramon Peralta of a Filipina in an elegant violet terno.  There is something about her that reminds me of my maternal grandmother, who I never met, but who has a photo showing her in a similar pose and attire. 


Apart from his bucolic scenes of life in the barrio, Fernando Amorsolo painted many presidential portraits.  This is  Manuel Roxas, the fifth president of the Philippines.



It must have been de rigueur to sit for an Amorsolo portrait if you belonged to a certain level of Philippine society.  


I can almost imagine that Amorsolo had just stepped out for a bit -- perhaps to smoke, perhaps to stretch his legs --- as I stood looking at this recreation of his studio, with furniture and brushes that
he actually used.  I waited for a while but he didn't come back.


The galleries on the third floor showcase modernist works.  The corridors are painted in a neutral, cool oatmeal shade, the better to balance off the colours of the various paintings on display.
I love how the wide wooden planks have a warm patina -- and I  wonder who walked these halls before -- surely a number of senators and perhaps even some presidents?


One of my favourite "modern"  painters is the National Artist Vicente Manansala.  His cubist
avant garde style is something I can relate to and understand even if my personal preferences lean  towards the realists and impressionists. 


Manansala's brushes are preserved and displayed in the room along with his paintings.


A separate gallery is solely for his murals which are on loan from Philamlife.
I remember how I would always enjoy viewing these whenever I visited the old Philamlife building in Manila to watch a concert or a performance.  The building has since been closed down and sold.
I'm happy the murals  are on loan to the National Museum so they can be appreciated by a new and younger generation. 


I was lucky to catch the retrospective of the paintings of the realist, Agustin Goy spanning sixty 
years of his career.  A Chinoy from Binondo, Mr. Goy counted Vicente Manansala as his mentor.


The showstopper for me was this utterly serene and majestic ox obviously taking a break from hauling around his covered cart.  I loved the detail and the light that practically infused the animal's skin with a soft glow.  


This water-colour of Marikina  is another of my favourites from the retrospective.  The moss green hues of the walls complemented the verdant hues of the landscape. 


Another favourite was the teal blue room containing the works of E.Aguilar Cruz, also known as Abe, -- artist,  journalist,  diplomat, gourmet, and bon vivant.  Mr. Cruz's sketches and paintings, his letters, books and other memorabilia have been donated by his family to the Museum. 


Stationed in Paris as a diplomat, Abe's watercolors and sketches of his life in my favourite city bring back many happy memories.  My special favourite shows the bouquinistes -- the booksellers that line the sidewalks along the Seine.  The Notre Dame cathedral is a shadowy but recognisable figure in the background.


This pen and ink sketch of a couple of elderly Parisians poring over -- books? pastries? fruits?  -- is just  delightful and perfectly captures a scene that is so familiar in the streets of Paris



My visit to The National Museum was a vivid experience -- with  different shades of reds, pink,
greens, blues and yellows exploding in my mind -- and I'm just talking about the colours of the walls!
Come and visit and be dazzled by the varied hues of the genius and spirit of the Filipino as an artist.  



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