Roots of Diversity in Philippine Contemporary Art

Essay by Ronald Hilario

Philippine art today exhibits an amazingly dynamic relationship between discourses, forms, and styles. This is a unique point in the country's visual art history. Previous to this, a single dominant discourse and group of artists usually characterized "periods" in art history. It is only when younger artists challenge the elder generation's aesthetic ideas do changes in the dominant discourse come about. Thus, Philippine art history is best seen as a succession of generations of artists. The trend of contending generations in Philippine modem art began in the Post World War II period of the 1940's when a group of Filipino abstract painters, who called themselves the Neorealists, challenged the so-called mainstream Fernando Amorsolo school of painting. Debates on the legitimacy of abstraction between the two "schools" opened the field of the visual arts to the discourses of Modernist aesthetics. The Neorealists (a.k.a. the 13 Moderns) and their explorations of abstract style triggered an avalanche of artistic activity and debate among young artists in the succeeding decades. Two stylistic trends appeared in the abstract tradition. The first led to the challenge of forming a Filipino "character" or idiom of expression through abstraction. This approach is represented by the works of painters Carlos Francisco, Hernando Ocampo, and Galo Ocampo and is characterized by the use of abstracted form in the representation of local subject matter and themes. The second trend was towards a more in-depth exploration of the formal elements of art and the creation of non-objective art forms. These concerns were addressed by the next generation of modernists. The early 1950's saw the triumph of the modernists over the conservatives. Thanks to the efforts of Lyd Arguilla of the Philippine Art Gallery in showcasing the art of the young modernists, abstraction gained a stronger foothold and soon became the dominant style. More informed in the aesthetics of cubism, surrealism, and expressionism, these young artists expanded the concern of Philippine visual arts from style to a broader exploration of the formal elements of visual art. The first non-representational paintings and sculptures appeared at this stage, and were developed to a higher level by the third wave of artists who came in during the 1960's to the 1970's. Some of the more active artists in this period were Vicente Manansala, Napoleon Abueva, Jose Joya, Cesar Legaspi, Arturo Luz, and Fernando Zobel. Texts on abstract art became more available to artists in the 60's. Modernist art theories were introduced and taught in the Philippine Fine Arts Schools by academics and artists such as Rod Paras Perez and Roberto Chabet. Readings of these texts paved the way for a more cerebral approach to art making. Conceptual Art, Minimalism, and Performance Art made their debut in the country. Artists also became more vocal about their works and some published their ideas in art journals such the Philippine Supplement in the 70's. The Marcos regime's patronage of the arts added muscle to many artists' projects. The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) – the centerpiece of the First Lady Imelda Marcos' cultural program – was established and became the home of non-objective art. During the tenure of artist-curators Ray Albano and Roberto Chabet the CCP galleries were sites of numerous abstract art exhibitions and performances. At the forefront of these activities were Ray Albano, Gus Albor, Roberto Chabet, Mars Galang, Ben Maramag, Lee Aguinaldo and David Medalla. Meanwhile the country underwent major financial and political crises culminating in the imposition of Martial Law in 1972. Social unrest began to spread in many parts of the country. Student activism and Communist and Muslim separatist movements rose with the various protest movements against Marcos. These developments did not go unnoticed by artists. Artists like Jaime de Guzman and Danilo Dalena painted their impressions and comments of the prevailing social and political climate and started a trend of socially engaged art. De Guzman painted expressionistic murals that touched on topics like American Imperialism, revolution and dejection, much to the irritation of the First Lady. Dalena’s social commentary filled canvases depicted faceless mobs as the dreary audience and decadent participants at horse races, jai-alai and sweepstakes betting lines, and religious processions. He expressed his political stand in his hard-hitting and stinging editorial cartoons of the Marcos regime.