Artworks with Contested Histories
Entering the National Museum in Metro Manila gives one a glimpse to the colourful past of the Philippines. It does not only feature the country’s finest collections of sculptures, paintings, and mixed media masterpieces but show the Philippine’s rich history through these works.
“Art imitates life,” the art connoisseurs say. And through the years, artists from every generation have interpreted the Filipino life through art. Since the time of the datus up to the turbulent years of the Martial Law in the ’70s, numerous oil paints, wood, iron, fibre, and many more were brushed, etched, weaved, and sculpted to depict the current socio-political events, Filipino lifestyle and religious practices. These media were not only interpretations of history but witnesses of it.
But what if these artworks interpreted what has been discovered recently as inaccurate? What if the masterpieces that have been hung in these divine walls of the National Museum depicted the wrong scene? Or perhaps the wrong person? Will a fine art revered by many for its impeccable artistry maintain its high stature in the art world if its master is unknown and origin turn out to be contested?
As you enter the front doors of the museum, you are welcomed by the intimidating sculpture of the late president Manuel Roxas. Behind it is the Hall of the Masters, which holds perhaps the finest pieces of neoclassical art in the country: National Artist Guillermo Tolentino’s Diwata, Félix Resurrección Hidalgo’s El Asesinato Del Gobernador Bustamante, Mariano Benlliure y Gil’s The Monument to Arthur Walsh Fergusson, and Juan Luna’s famous Spoliarium. For the latter three artists, it is a reunion that is a hundred years in the making as Benlliure’s sculpture was just installed recently in the said hall. These men were good friends back in the day and the Masters Hall celebrates their triumph in the Madrid Exposition.
However, Spoliarium—Luna's Madrid Exposition-winning masterpiece—faces not its runner-up: the Christian virgins of Hidalgo, in the Hall of Masters. Instead, it welcomes a different painting, which factuality is a subject of dispute. Hidalgo’s El Asesinato Del Gobernador Bustamante was first exhibited in the USA in 1905 but it was not clear when it was actually finished as the date was not to be found anywhere. It remained hidden since then until its grand reveal at the National Museum in 1974. Moreover, the subject of the painting—the assasination of Spanish Governor-General Fernando Bustamante in 1719 by a mob of friars at the staircase of Palacio del Gobernador—was refuted by the Dominican Order depicted in the painting.
How could a mob of friars kill the Governor-General in public? Who are the real victims in the painting? Is it Bustamante and his son who commanded the soldiers to violate the right of sanctuary to recover government records and imprison the Archbishop of Manila? Or is it the Dominican friars who ruthlessly dragged the Governor-General and stabbed his son?
Benlliure’s masterpiece echoes the questions that rise from Hidalgo’s controversial painting. The perennial questions of who really has the upper hand in the government, of who really plays the victim, and who must be trusted in this so-called 'game of thrones' are evident as well in every carved inch of Benlliure’s The Monument to Arthur Walsh Fergusson.
This bust was dated 1912 by the Spanish artist and was commissioned by the Fergusson Memorial Association. It was inaugurated in 1913 at Plaza Fergusson, Ermita, Manila and has survived the bombings of 1945. The bronze-made bust and immaculately white pedestal carved out of carrara marble tells the Filipinos’ fondness of its first ranking government official in the early American colonial period. Fergusson served as the first Executive Secretary of the Philippines in 1901 under Governor William H. Taft but suddenly died from cardiac arrest on January 30, 1908.
After the controversial Treaty of Paris in 1898 and the Philippine-American war from 1899 to 1902, the identity of the benefactor of the monument remains questionable as how can any Filipino or Spaniard commission the making of the sculpture at the time of war? Was it made to glorify a heroic figure or mock a colonial tyrant?
Having mentioned “questionable identity”, on the corridors of the National Museum are the watercolour paintings of the country’s flora. These were commissioned by Spanish botanist Juan José de Cuéllar who together with indios travelled across Luzon examining plants, flowers, shrubs, and trees, and had them illustrated.
It was published in 1786 and were kept in the archives of the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid. Unfortunately, the Filipinos who have shown their mastery in arts were remained unnamed. The carefully painted papers were unsigned and undated.
Years later Tagalog painters Jose Loden, Tomas Nazario, and Miguel de los Reyes were named as the authors of the book, hence recognising them as the first in the country to make still life paintings. However, this claim is still contested as there were many others who joined de Cuéllar and there are no proofs that they actually did the paintings.
This is the problem with many paintings, sculptures and other works commissioned by Spanish missionaries, friars, and ranking officials of the time. Although there are some that still exist in age-old basilicas around the Philippines whose makers are known, their names are side by side with their foreign masters. The watercolour paintings of the country’s endemic plants and the Via Crucis series from Bohol in the Gallery II of the museum are works done singlehandedly by Filipino artists and yet they are robbed of their spotlight.
Juan Luna’s famous painting of a bushy eyebrowed lady with sad eyes entitled, La Bulaqueña, also aroused the curiosity of many historians for many decades. There are many questions of who she was and if she really was from Bulacan. It was a place frequented by Juan and his brother Antonio that’s why historian E. A. Cruz assumed that the lady pictured here was the one courted by the painter after his wife’s tragic death. However, some say that Antonio courted the lady. She could also be Emilia Trinidad who sat for Luna’s famous Tampuhan painting. On the other hand, historian Dr. Asuncion Fernando said that the woman could be Maria Rodrigo Fernando who assisted in the cause of the Katipunan. Another historian, Antonio Valeriano, seconded this by saying that the facial features have similarity to those of the Rodrigos, like those of the late playwright and senator Francisco Rodrigo.
The questionable identity of La Bulaqueña has been disputed by many historians even until today. And this issue is the same with Luna’s A Portrait of a Lady. The eminent sensual painting of a European lady lying in bed has been a subject of contested history and controversy as well. Some historians say that this is Maria de la Paz Pardo de Tavera, Luna’s wife, whom he had a son named Andres. Due to jealousy, Juan killed his wife and mother-in-law, making the painting referrred as 'cursed' because previous owners of it also experienced tragedies in their families.
Now, the painting is one of the most sought-after work in the museum and many people say that it is not cursed but a masterpiece ought to be revered. It is splendidly done by Luna that it sets “onlookers’ imagination to wander in reverie”, as Nick Joaquin put it. It is alluring, seductive even with the lady’s “dewy eyes” and “auburn curls”.
But is this how Maria really looked like? By checking the actual photos of Maria, it was a shock to discover that it is not her in the painting after all and many historians over the decades have already asserted that it cannot be her. But whoever this may be, the painting exemplifies Luna’s mastery and does not diminish the artist’s eminence.
Does it really matter? Does finding the truth affect a hero’s gravitas? The tour led us to a copy of De La Imitacion de Cristo y Menosprecio del Mundo written by Thomas Kempis. Apparently, the copy that they carefully placed inside a delicate glass box is the actual book that Dr. Jose Rizal gave to Josephine Bracken hours before he was executed in present-day Luneta Park.
On the first page of the book is a dedication written by Rizal to Bracken. It says “To my dear unhappy wife Josephine”. However, many historians would say that Rizal may be using the term “wife” differently as there were never any records found regarding the hero’s matrimonial union with the Irish immigrant. But according to Bracken who outlived Rizal by a few more years, they were married an hour before Rizal was executed with Reverend Father Vicente Balaguer officiating the ceremony.
The loss of written records indeed affect the factuality of an event. Historians always have contradicting claims regarding to a significant event in history. Some would say it didn’t happen. Some would identify a different person being there. But what if there is no primary evidence to be found? What if there is nothing to confirm where and when it happened and who were there?
Just like in National Artist Botong Francisco’s famous painting The First Mass in Limasawa. It is both an interpretation of what happened when the Spaniards first set foot on Philippine shores and a recount of the colonisers’ propagation of Catholic faith. Ferdinand Magellan’s chronicler Antonio Pigafetta wrote that the first Eucharistic celebration in the Philippines was held on Limasawa Island on March 31, 1521, Easter Sunday, and was attended by Magellan and his soldiers, Pigafetta, and native inhabitants. Hence, Botong’s illustration of a colourful and peaceful celebration on the beach with Father Pedro Valderrama consecrating the wine.
But was it really a peaceful celebration? Were the native inhabitants able to easily accept the new religion? Moreover, there were disputes on the real site of the first Mass as an Italian-Franciscan friar and missionary explorer by the name of Odoric from Pordenone was also believed to have held the first Mass in Bolinao, Pangasinan in 1324, predating the one held in 1521. Today, a marker in front of Bolinao Church states that the first Mass was held there, similar to the marker found on Limasawa. Both markers show a huge cross towering the island but both were believed to be replicas as the originals were believed to have either lost or destroyed.
The loss of original materials or primary records for references is a big problem for art historians. It may be caused by negligence, urbanisation of a supposedly historically significant place, or even corruption by the authorities.
A similar situation happened to the case of National Artist Arturo Luz's Departure and Arrival burlap paintings. Mysteriously it was removed in 2011 from its inaugural place in the then Ninoy Aquino International Airport to give space for the Department of Tourism's "It's More Fun in the Philippines" banner.
It was allegedly kept safely in the warehouses of the airport and turned over to the National Museum in 2014. It is a precious work of art by Luz who was one of the pioneers of abstraction in the country. How can it be replaced by something else and simply stored for a number of years? On the other hand, the airport authorities said that they have taken great care of the artwork during its storage and when it was recovered by the National Museum, they were happy to turn it over.
But either lost or not, a work of art should have been greatly taken care of. Its significance to historical events of a country and its maker's retrospective are some of the things that make it valuable. But what if it tells the wrong facts? What if a certain work of art used as an educational and navigational tool like a map shows the wrong details?
In the latest exhibition at the National Museum entitled, Hocus, which features the works of Guy Custodio and Saul Hofileña curated by Gemma Cruz-Araneta, the artists have a masterpiece entitled The Lost Island of San Juan. They revisited one of the most controversial contests in Philippine history regarding the island that Fray Herrera, one of the first missionaries who came in 1600s, believed to have existed near present-day Siargao.
The first map showing the mysterious island was sketched in 1601 and later seen in Dell Arcano del Mare made in Florence in 1646. An English fleet was said to have dropped anchor near the island in 1686, en route to Mindanao. Today, the island is nonexistent and believed to have disappeared mysteriously. However, there are no harder evidences than these maps that could support the claims that there were such an island and inhabitants.
Photos by Franz Sorilla