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Pioneers in Philippine Art

By Rosario Charie Albar

When I first heard about this exhibition, I was disappointed to learn that the works of Carlos “Botong” Francisco would not be part of the show. That said, the 38 paintings and sketches by Juan Luna, Fernando Amorsolo and Fernando Zobel, now on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, is an impressive collection spanning 100 years of Philippine Art.

Each of these three artists studied and honed their craft in Europe or the United States. As such, their works reflect Western art trends of their respective periods. Juan Luna lived both in Madrid and Paris. His Woman with Shawl (1880-1890) and Lady at the Racetrack (1880-1890) show influences of the Impressionist style of painting. Impressionism had burst into the art scene in France in 1884, precisely the time Luna won the First Gold Medal for his painting, Spoliarium, at the Exposicion de Bellas Artes in Madrid. Luna’s later sketches of Ragamuffin and Study for People and Kings show his foray into the social realism genre, nearly a century ahead of the social realist movement in the Philippine art scene.

Fernando Amorsolo is perhaps the best known of the three due in part to the calendars which featured his paintings and which were widely distributed in the Philippines. Amorsolo portrayed his ideal Filipina woman in Palay Maiden and Balintawak Maiden with Banga (1926) with these qualities: “My conception of the ideal Filipina woman is one with a rounded face, not of the oval type. The eyes should be exceptionally lively. The nose should be of the blunt form and strongly marked. The Filipina beauty should have a sensuous mouth...not…white complexioned nor of the dark brown color…but of the clear skin…which we often witness when we meet a blushing girl.”

While studying in Europe, Amorsolo admired the works of Joaquin Sorolla who is known as the “painter of sunlight”. Amorsolo infused his idyllic landscapes with the bright light of the tropics.

Not all of Amorsolo’s paintings are happy and beautiful. From his window at his home on Azcarrraga Street, he sketched what he saw first hand of Japanese occupied Manila. The burning of the ship, Intendencia and the destruction of Rizal Avenue are immortalized in the Bombing of the Intendencia (1942) and Rizal Avenue in Ruins (1945).
Through his works, Amorsolo gave a newly independent nation (1946) and its people a sense of identity after many years of colonization, first by the Spaniards, followed by the Americans.

Fernando Zobel brings Philippine Art to the modern period. His early works like Bridge over Charles River IV (1949) is a study in abstract art. Self Portrait on the Wall (1954) and Oriental Carpet with Paul Haldeman (1955) is in the style of post-Impressionist painter, Henri Matisse and German Expressionist, Beckmann. In White Syringe Piece. Zobel uses a hypodermic syringe to trace lines that hint of movement and emotion.

Zobel’s artistry triumphs in the Icaro, (1962). Monumental wings tell the story of a bird plummeting to his death. Zobel’s Icaro soars.

Pioneers in Philippine Art reveals, not surprisingly, that Philippine art as represented by the works of Luna, Amorsolo and Zobel could hold its own when hung next to a Manet or a Sorolla or a Pollock.

The exhibition will be on view till January 7, 2007 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco. For more information visit

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For more information on the works of these artists check out these websites:


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