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Historian: Among the Artist's Multiple Roles

I attended another engaging Ambeth Ocampo lecture two Saturdays ago at the Ayala Museum, "Fernando Amorsolo:  Portrait of the Artist as Historian".  I didn't let the lecture pass since, aside from being delivered by one of my favorite Philippine history lecturer/writers, the topic is a convergence of some of my great loves -- art, history and Philippine heritage.  This was also another opportunity to view the Ayala Museum dioramas and original paintings of one of my favorite artists, Fernando Amorsolo whom I wrote about in an earlier post.

Below are some main points I found interesting in the lecture:

  • how history is too important for us to leave it up to historians alone 
  • how the ideal Filipina should look like - not droopy eyes, rounded face, etc. - according to Amorsolo
  • revealing facts about Amorsolo's World War II  drawings -- perspectives from above, notes about the Japanese in the drawings, etc.
  • a funny excerpt from an Amorsolo letter to Guillermo Tolentino
  • Amorsolo also used photographs as tools for his painting (Ambeth showing a photograph of two Filipinas in a river on the first slide and a painting based on the photograph on the following slide)
  • Amorsolo's commercial illustrations

A more detailed review of the lecture has been written by another blogger and you may read it Travel Maria  

I will instead train my attention on one thing Ambeth Ocampo mentioned.  He presented that, despite criticisms to the contrary, Amorsolo was also "modern" during his prime.  He used this observation to assert that anything modern now will ultimately be tomorrow’s "traditional" type

Ambeth Ocampo showed slides of this painting and the photograph from which Amorsolo based it.  photo from www.artfreaks.com

 While his general assertion on modernity is true, it does not seem exactly true in this particular case with Amorsolo.  I don't think that even at his prime Amorsolo was "modern" in light of the avante guard movements in the world and even in the Philippines who already had Edades et al during the time.  Amorsolo could be modern compared to his famous uncle Fabian dela Rosa based on the former's mastery of the impressionist inspired palette but as to form and intent he still belonged to the traditional and romantic fold.  At that time impressionist colors, perspective and form were already around 60 years past and as to idealized farmers and peasants Vincent Van Gogh already advanced its depiction  from the idealized works of the Realists such as Millet and Courbet by as much as 30 to 50 years earlier.

I guess my point put simply is Amorsolo was not modern even at his prime, but there is nothing wrong with that at all.  

Why?  Because the artist has different roles.

Ambeth Ocampo's lecture dealt with the artist's role as an historian.  We need not force ourselves to believe that Amorsolo was a "modern" when we can comprehend him and his major role as historian.  

I believe that among the artist's top roles are historian, philosopher, prophet, reformer, and an agent of beauty.  Amorsolo was a historian and an agent of beauty.  This was the important role he played.  He has been criticized for it but again, there is nothing wrong with it, hence we should not be hard pressed to defend him as a modern during his prime.

"Defend Thy Honor".  One of Amorsolo's works during/out of World War II, also presented during the lecture.

As I reflect on a landscape I am currently working on I am now more convinced that a landscape is not merely a picturesque copy of mountains, plains, sky and sea.   It need not be opposed, inferior to, nor occupy a position contrary to modern or contemporary art.  The landscape approached in their own visual and mental philosophies were vital to the works and thoughts of the fathers of modern art -- Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin.

In and of itself, and approached properly, the landscape can go beyond being a mere pretty  record and even scratch the philosophical and prophetic artistic roles.  It can represent not only what is but also what has been, what could be and what ought to be. It can tell a story, it can expose, it can expound a theory or an ideology.  This can be done with constant reminders on the balance of visual scintillation, intellectual stimulation and social relevance.

The landscape painting then can inform, educate, propagate, encourage, and rebuke the viewer who has been drawn by the two-dimensional visual feast.  The landscape painting should attract the eyes and excite the heart, stimulate the mind, evaluate and improve social order.

The landscape painting then is an interaction of what God has created and what humankind is directing it towards, always presented by the artist on a surface that can hang both in museums and in living rooms.

This is how the artist can fill the roles of philosopher, historian, leader and prophet in a single pair of shoes.  By this the artist can parallel the feet of a prophet described thus:

"How beautiful upon the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who proclaims peace,
Who brings glad tidings of good things..."
                                                            --Isaiah 52:7 NKJV


  1. thank you for the mention :) look forward to read more of your posts

  2. Oops, I just read your comment. :-( Apologies for this much delayed acknowledgement and appreciation.


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