What is it in man that seeks immortality? To be painted or carved, forever to be immortalized?
Some indigenous cultures of the world believe that to capture a person’s likeness would be to capture his soul.
Through time and culture, the artist has sought to capture the soul of a period or society, and sitters willingly obliged. Sitters posed in well appointed interiors or landscapes in their finest clothes to document their property, good taste, and sophistication.
By means of such devices as clothing, pose, gestures, inscriptions, and the position of the figure in relation to others, artists were able to successfully convey the subject’s character in the portrait. A confident gaze, a bold pose, a roguish smile, or a striking goatee all express something about an individual’s personality or character, while an attribute or a coat of arms discloses more about the sitter’s background or profession.
Portraits also show individuals either self-consciously posing in ways that convey a sense of timelessness or captured in the midst of work or daily activity. For whatever reason the portrait was made—vanity, social status, remembrance, recognition—they can be studied at different levels. They come down to us through time to convey the flavor of the era and the physical likeness and identity of the person.
In non-Western societies, portraiture is less likely to emphasize visual likeness. Chinese portraiture is largely a product of social practices related to public declarations of status or identity and religious rituals of commemoration.
It was customary for monarchs and members of the ruling class to commission nearly life-size portraits of themselves; huge hanging scrolls that were intricately detailed and brightly colored. Apparently, these portraits served a dual purpose: to hang during their rule, and to serve as a reminder of their dynasty after it had passed away.
Portraiture was part of a religious ritual in a culture that worshiped its ancestors. Oftentimes, portraits of the dead were painted on the tombs of individuals or hung on altars in the homes of relatives. Undoubtedly, ancestor worship has been deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. Since the 16th century, painted scrolls of deceased parents and forebears have been the center of the private family rituals of all types of Chinese peoples, from emperors to scholars to peasants.
The Chinese believe that, through these rituals, the deceased are guided in the afterlife. Based on tradition, three practices are done before the Chinese ancestor paintings as signs of worship: burning of incense, offering of food and wine, and “kowtowing,” in which one kneels and touches the forehead to the ground. Kowtowing is done before the painting not only for worship, but in the belief that the ancestor could bring forth good luck and charm.
We find traces of this Chinese value system in the large double portrait of Enrique and Maria Yuchengco painted by National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco (1913–1968), which dominates the Masters Gallery of the Yuchengco Museum. The painting was transferred from the Yuchengco family mausoleum. The realistic likeness of the personalities is juxtaposed against symbolic elements of history and Philippine myth as was characteristic of the style of the country’s great muralist.
A more somber and intimate interpretation of the couple, which can be seen in the Ancestral Gallery, are two paintings by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo (1892–1972). Both paintings are intimately set in the home. Enrique is dressed in a Western coat and tie, representing assimilation into a Filipino culture that had already been won over by influences from the West. Maria, on the other hand, is painted wearing a pale blue traditional floral cheongsam, rooting her to the deep Chinese culture of the family. The background is more intimate and personal as the sitters are both set against the interiors of their home, impressionistically, almost amorphously painted by Amorsolo.
In the Philippines, portraits called larawan (portrait) represented specific ancestors or heroes. When the Spaniards came and colonized the Philippines in the 16th century, their culture and religion inspired portraiture. It took Filipino artists only two or three centuries to absorb Western art, which had taken the Europeans themselves several centuries to develop. In the process, the classical heritage of the ikon (Greek for “portrait”) as distilled in the Spanish concept of the imagen (image) was integrated by the Filipino artists with the Chinese idea of the hua and the Malay principle of larawan.
During the Spanish period, portraits in the country were exclusive to Spanish government officials and church figures. Official portraits include those of the rulers, heroes, and prominent men gathered in government, academic, religious, and business sectors for public edification. However, the art of portraiture in the Philippines finally gained its importance with the development of international trade in the 19th century, which led to the emergence of the local merchant class, the mestizo, and native elite. With their newfound wealth, this affluent class commissioned artists to have their portraits painted as a means to indulge and document their social ascendancy.
It was from this portrait-painting tradition that Fernando Amorsolo emerged as the master painter of the 1930s, the Commonwealth period.
Mukhang Tsinoy: Portraits by Fernando Amorsolo is on view until January 17, 2009 at the Yuchengco Museum. The museum, which is open Monday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., is located at RCBC Plaza at the corner of Ayala and Sen. Gil J. Puyat Avenues in Makati. For more details, call 889-1234 or visit www.yuchengcomuseum.org.
Print ed: 12/08