Exploring The Trademarks of 11 of The Philippines' Most Significant Artists
Style is a great weapon for any artist. When developed gradually and used correctly, it gives an artist a recognisable edge. In fact, some of our best local artists — from National Artist awardees to creative pioneers of various movements — have infused their own souls into their work, so much so that a piece is easily recognisable as “theirs”. One can look upon an Amorsolo and know that it is an Amorsolo, another can cast a glance at a Zóbel and say with confidence: “this is Zóbel”. Explore the various signature styles and hallmark pieces of some of the Philippines’ most beloved creative minds with our quick guide.
To gaze upon an Amorsolo is to gaze upon the soul of idealistic, Filipino sentiment. The painter’s authoritative brushstrokes depict relaxed scenes of days in the market, afternoons spent idling under the shade of an overarching tree, and fiestas, of course; all of which have become the trademark of Amorsolo’s career.
Although born in Manila, Amorsolo spent his formative years by the rural backdrop of Daet, Camarines Norte. His sense of community at having been brought up within such a setting has proven impactful; his conscious choice to paint a world of rural simplicity and charm contrasts highly with the political turmoil of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (of which was his world). In some of his paintings — such as in “Ligawan”, “Afternoon Meal of Rice Workers”, and “Palay Maiden” — subjects in the foreground are shown smiling or talking, while scenes depicting work are sent to the background.
The “Spoliarium” stands majestically at the forefront of the National Museum. At almost eight metres tall, Juan Luna’s imposing depiction of a battle lost is sombre and striking. The scene of the painting is at the Roman spoliarium, the basement of the Colosseum where dead gladiators are brought and stripped of their worldly possessions.
Trained in Spain, Luna mastered the art of classical style at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. While most are of the opinion that the “Spoliarium” is political commentary on the Spanish government in the Philippines, one may also guess that Luna’s turbulent personal life, as well as his European education and cultural integration, had inspired the work. After all, the scene is set within the context of European battle and was completed by 1884, before his service with the Philippine revolutionary government in 1898. Either way, there is no doubt that the “Spoliarium” is a true obra maestra by one of the country’s most enigmatic personalities.
Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera
A muse, one that has held Benedicto Cabrera’s imagination captive for years: this is Sabel. Undoubtedly a trademark of BenCab’s work is the scavenger woman he peeped through his Bambang apartment to find. She was said to have been looking for scraps of plastic when Cabrera started drawing abstract sketches of her from his window. Since then, he has drawn and painted Sabel in various forms and through various lenses.
What mystified Cabrera the most wasn’t who she was exactly, rather it was the fluidity of her identity. “Looking at the way she moved, how her ‘clothes’ swayed, she could be an OFW, a vendor, a dreamer,” he said. The BenCab Museum states that Sabel has served to be a “vehicle for the transmission of intensely emotional moods”. One can interpret Sabel to be a different person each time and it’s through this unconfirmed identity that she becomes a fertile ground for the artist’s exploration into shape, structure, theme, and mood.
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Anita Magsaysay-Ho, first cousin to former president Ramon Magsaysay, is one of the Philippine’s pioneering modernist painters. She was the pupil of Fernando Amorsolo, whose influence can sometimes be seen in her landscape artworks such as “Fish Harvest At Dawn” and “Three Women In A Landscape”. However, her personal signature is independent of her famous teacher and lies not just in her style but also in her subjects; which most notably are women at work.
Magsaysay-Ho portrays women with high cheekbones, slanted eyes, and beautiful morena skin. They are more often than not surrounded by nature, harvesting crops, selling fish, or sheaving grain. In Alfredo Roces’ “In Praise of Women”, published in 2005, Magsaysay-Ho talks about why women are her subject of choice. She says: “In my works I always celebrate the women of the Philippines. I regard them with deep admiration and they continue to inspire me—their movements and gestures, their expressions of happiness and frustration; their diligence and shortcomings; their joy of living. I know very well the strength, hard work and quiet dignity of Philippine women, for I am one of them.”
Ang Kiukok is perhaps best known for the emotion in his art, most of which are raw and oftentimes sombre or angry. The scenes in his works depict crucifixions, screams, or figures forlorn. Using vivid colours and a surrealist, cubist style of expression, Ang Kiukok expressed his views on society throughout much of his career.
Born to Chinese immigrant parents, Kiukok was said to have been inspired by teacher and friend, fellow artist, Victor Manansala. On a trip to New York, Kiukok was said to have been moved by the squalor and decrepitude of the city, eventually translating these themes in his work. During the Marcos regime, Kiukok once again used his art as both self-expression and social commentary in works such as “Screaming Figures” and “Seated Figure”.
Fernando Zóbel de Ayala
Despite Fernando Zóbel’s prolific background as kin of the prominent Zóbel de Ayala family, one can guess, from his biography, that his life was far from easy. He had suffered health problems since childhood, lost his father to an infection, and lived through political turmoil both in Spain and in the Philippines.
His art style, abstractionist, was inspired by Mark Rothko, but although Rothko is famous for vibrant colours, Zóbel’s artwork has been mostly done in blacks, whites, blues, and greys. Although some works evoke a calming feel with their soft, even brushstrokes, others are created that feel quite tense, with sharp, dark, criss-crossing lines against a light backdrop.
While Zóbel’s play on colour and strokes can be interpreted differently, he had once been quoted talking about the emotion in his approach. “Critics have asked me,” he once said, “what I did with the anguish in my life. My answer is that I leave it at home where it belongs, since it has nothing to do with my painting.”
Carlos “Botong” Francisco
Carlos “Botong” Francisco’s signature lies not just the subjects of his work — most of which depict scenes of deep-rooted Filipino histories — but also in his medium. A muralist at heart, Botong Francisco helped revive the form in Manila; his work can now be seen in the City Hall of Manila as well as in the National Museum.
A storyteller through and through, Francisco’s works have captured narratives closest to our collective conscience. He has created murals of the first Mass in the Philippines, Rizal’s death at the hands of the guardia civil, and the iconic reimagining of Andres Bonifacio charging against the Spaniards with the KKK.
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Although Jose Joya has shown his audience a range of subjects, styles, and mediums, he is perhaps best known for his brightly coloured paintings, most of which seem akin to Cubist abstraction. His trademark work could quite possibly be his “Granadean Arabesque”, features gobs of colour, mostly yellow, alongside impasto and sand. But while his play with colours, textures, and depths have earned him an esteemable place in the world of Philippine art, he is perhaps best credited as a pioneer in mixed-medium artistry. His use of rice paper to portray transparency, along with his resourcefulness in utilising ceramics as a medium has earned him a posthumous spot as a National Artist in Visual Arts.
Arturo Luz’s sophisticated geometric design is perhaps his most well-known and celebrated style. The elegance to be found in his neo-realist paintings are manifested in his simplistic use of colours, as well as in his subjects: of which the most famous range from cityscapes to musicians.
A National Artist for Visual Arts in 1997, Luz is an artist well-trained, having studied in Manila, Paris, New York, and California. Speaking on his style, he was once quoted saying: “I cannot paint flowers. They are by nature too decorative and pretty. I like things that are very stark, elemental, simple—like a stone or a shell.” And in true Luz fashion, he has transformed complex shapes, architectural elements, and human forms into minimalistic shapes, rectangles, and lines.
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Betsy Westendorp-Brias, who has actively donated several of her exquisite paintings to worthy causes via the annual Tatler Ball, has created a name for herself in the art world with her unique style that involves gentle brushstrokes and seamless colour integration. Perhaps most well-known for her skyscapes and floral paintings, Westendorp-Brias has also dabbled in portraits and still lifes. She has also since released her two-volume coffee table book with The De La Salle University Publishing House. She is also one of the proud members of our 400 List.
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Elmer Borlongan’s artwork is recognisable mostly through the stylised way he renders his human subjects: with bald heads, upturned eyes, and elongated limbs. His dynamic images portray his attunement to the everyday struggles of the working class Filipino, portraying familiar objects such as the kariton, the bangka, and the tricycle. While there is a touch of surrealism in the distortion of some of his artworks, some of his images also portray situations which are familiar, and very real.
His childhood spent in Manila had exposed him to the subjects of his early works — street children and the homeless — which first brought him to the spotlight. Since then, his move to more rural areas of the country had shifted his subjects from urban dwellers to fishermen, horseback riders, and cockfighters. He is now internationally acclaimed and has art on display in Japan and Singapore.
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