​ A Second Look: The Conservative and the Realist Tradition in Philippine Art

Banaba Tree by Miguel Galvez

The exhibition Revisiting the Conservative presents "the realist traditions of painting idyllic scenes and themes exploring the Philippine landscape" from the 1940s to the 1970s. It runs until June 15, 2019 at the UP Vargas Museum.

It consists of 45 works, mostly landscapes and portraits. As part of the UP Vargas Museum collection, such pieces illustrate this "conservative disposition.” Described as "idyllic, illustrative, and romantic," the conservative style of painting closely resembles the observed world. Familiar sceneries include nipa huts surrounded by coconut trees and bamboos, gurgling brooks and rivers, bancas and seashore, rice fields, verdant hills and mountains. In short, a quite pleasant view of rural life. Such scenes also trigger a sense of nostalgia and reaffirm the romanticized notion that the countryside is better than the cities, and the past is better than the present.

Such works include Barrio Scene, 1943 (Miguel Galvez); A Nipa Hut by the Brook, 1943 (C. Buenaventura), Coconut Grove on A Lakeshore, 1940 (I.Ancheta), Banaba Tree, 1943 (M. Galvez), An Alley in Sampaloc, 1939 (E.Laxa), The Wall of Intramuros, 1939 (W. Garcia) and Landscape in the Mt. Province, 1949 (E. Laxa). Only one work presents a counterpoint to the picturesque views, Antonio Gonzales Dumlao's Tabing-Ilog (n.d.)that shows some barung-barong built haphazardly on stilts along a river.

A number of paintings were done in the early 1940s just before the end of World War 2 when the country was grappling with issues of economic recovery, nationhood, and identity.

A Nipa Hut by Cesar Buenaventura

The Conservatives

The works of 13 artists, who are mostly identified with the conservative style, are on display, namely, Elias Laxa, Romeo Enriquez, Cesar Buenaventura, Crispin Lopez, Serafin Serna, Miguel Galvez, Isidro Ancheta, Antonio Dumlao, Wenceslao Garcia, Gabriel Custodio, Ben Alano, Simon Saulog, and Diosdado Lorenzo.

"The conservative as a category marks a particular stylistic tendency" in Philippine art history, with the works of Fernando Amorsolo as its most prominent expression, and would be closely associated with "Mabini Art" —the commercial art sold on Mabini Street and now, in Greenhills. And the picturesque scenes of rural life have persisted to this day, carried by the third or even the fourth generation of Mabini artists.

A brief look at some of them:

Miguel Galvez (1912-1989): In his early twenties, he went to Manila and stayed with his uncle, Teodoro Buenaventura, painter and professor in Fine Arts, University of the Philippines. He attended his uncle's classes, unofficially. Observing his talent, other UP professors encouraged him to attend their classes as well. He won second place in 1949 in a painting competition sponsored by the Art Association of the Philippines. In 1950, he was honored as the country's Outstanding Landscape Painter by San Miguel Corporation.

Isidro Ancheta (1882-1949): A graduate of Ateneo de Manila, he studied art at the Liceo de Manila, Escuela de Pintura, Escultura y Gravado, Academia de Dibujo y Pintura in the early 1900s. At the St Louis Universal Exposition of 1904, he had eight paintings in the Philippine Pavilion and won an honorable mention of his work, A Victim of War. He taught at the Philippine Normal School, 1918-1926. His landscape paintings were found in classrooms all over the country before the war.

Benjamin Alano (1920-1991): A UP Fine Arts graduate in 1948. In the 1950s, he held art classes for American military families in Cavite and maintained his own studio in Ermita for over 20 years. A disciple of Fernando Amorsolo, he captured Amorsolo’s "warm sunlight colors, which he used representing the Filipino's sun-kissed complexion and innate energy.” One of his last works was the San Lorenzo Ruiz mural inside the EDSA Shrine, Ortigas Avenue.

Seaside at Dawn by Romeo Enriquez

Disrupting the Binary

The exhibition re-examines the conservative that has been marked as "the binary opposite" of the modernists in Philippine art history. In hindsight, the so-called split between the two groups may have been exaggerated. In other words, while there are differences between the conservatives and the modernists, there is a need to understand the subtle variation and context in their art making. For example, the style of Miguel Galvez (Banaba Tree, 1943) ranges from "naturalistic to impressionistic, post-impressionistic and expressionistic" at various phases of his life as an artist, as described by art historian Pearl E.Tan in her study of the Mabini art movement.

Most important, it reframes the narrative of Philippine art history by asserting that the binary might not hold "under a closer reading of the works" and a thorough appraisal of the artistic lives of its practitioners who undergo a range of styles and phases in their art production, like any other artists in the world.

Landscape in the Mountain Province by Elias Laxa


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