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Looking Back

Face to face with Guillermo Tolentino

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What you remember hanging as décor in your home as a child is a way of understanding Filipino taste. In many dining rooms in the past hung an image of the “Ultima Cena (Last Supper)” or a pair of those giant hardwood spoons and forks from Baguio that led some children to believe their ancestors were giants. If the home had a dark den with a bar for the man of the house, it often had glowing female nudes on black velvet by Mabini painters. Fernando Amorsolo’s cheerful pictures of the prewar countryside, be these originals or copies or just framed pictures from a discarded calendar, were also on display. I have also seen homes ornamented with “Persian carpets” that depict dogs playing billiards.

Other homes before the war proudly displayed a lithograph titled “Galeria  de  Filipinos  Ilustres  (Gallery of Illustrious Filipinos)” that is of interest to historians because it resembles a class picture of our heroes. Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio are seated in the center of the group, together with Jose Burgos (Gomez and Zamora are absent), Antonio Luna, Marcelo H. del Pilar and Apolinario Mabini. Standing in the back are more obscure figures including Zulueta, Paterno, Regidor and others. These heroes were never photographed together, so this posed formal portrait is often dismissed as kitsch (baduy) when it is an early work of the National Artist for Sculpture Guillermo E. Tolentino.

The original drawing of “Filipinos Ilustres” was made around 1911 and was a composite from photos in history textbooks. Jorge Pineda transferred the drawing to lithographic stone, and it became a household icon reproduced without permission from the artist who didn’t earn a single centavo in royalties. Tolentino did not seem to mind and, with the excitement of all young artists, was content merely to see his work in many homes. After all, he was still a student at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts.

Two decades later, in 1930, the 40-year-old Tolentino entered a design competition for a monument to Andres Bonifacio. Not content with the available printed materials like books and memoirs in libraries, Tolentino interviewed people who participated in the Philippine Revolution against Spain. He used the bone structure of  Bonifacio’s surviving sister Espiridiona as the basis for his preliminary studies on Bonifacio’s likeness. What he could not get from books and oral history he acquired through conversations with the dead (he was one of the founders of the Union Espiritista Cristiana de Filipinas Inc.). This in-depth research, as well as the practice of copying from Bonifacio’s photographs in books decades earlier, resulted in his winning the commission.

On Nov. 30, 1933, in Balintawak, Caloocan, in a place once known as Grace Park (because it was donated by His Grace, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila), Tolentino’s masterpiece was unveiled. Grace Park and Balintawak have since faded as place names and landmarks; the area is better remembered by Tolentino’s monument to Bonifacio, and all public transport refer to the site as “Monumento.”

Contrary to popular belief that the Americans chose to promote Rizal over Bonifacio, the Monumento was inaugurated in the American period and, as a work of art, far surpasses the Rizal monument in force, expression and beauty. What is not well known is that Tolentino installed a bronze plaque on the granite base of the monument in Katipunan code that commemorated Bonifacio’s battle cry to revolution. One wonders if the Americans would have allowed this if it were written in everyday Tagalog or translated into English.

Tolentino did more than monuments, and I was pleased to find an entire hall in the National Museum dedicated to his work. Here one sees many smaller sculptures that give one a sense of Tolentino’s genius. Most of these pieces used to be stored helter-skelter in his home studio on Retiro Street but are now made available to the public by the Tolentino family, Security Bank, and Frederick Dy in the National Museum. Many years ago I had to go to many different collections to study Tolentino’s work. Now a study collection is accessible in the National Museum that should result in better studies than mine and whatever else is available in print. Unlike other museums, our National Museum also allows visitors to take photos.

Tolentino’s work is not just celebration of physical form; it embodies a quiet sense of dignity and nationalism lost to succeeding artists. His secret was the way he made eyes, how one sure quick jab in clay not only made a hole but gave a living eye to his sculptures. Tolentino made busts of our heroes for Malacañang Palace; he made Quezon and Osmeña tower and welcome us into the legislative building that is now the National Museum. Look at the eyes on any genuine Tolentino sculpture. You will find that these look past you, seemingly pushing us to see beyond ourselves, to look for true independence, peace, or whatever it is we hope and live for. It’s hard to explain in words what one can see so clearly up close.

Classical or representative sculpture in the Philippines died with Guillermo Tolentino in 1976. But I would think that the fire in his work continues to warm and inspire all those who look at any of his sculptures literally face to face.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.


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Tags: Ambeth R. Ocampo , arts , column , Filipinos , Guillermo tolentino , home décor

  • Plymouth Pinoy

    And of course Guillermo Tolentino sculpted the iconic symbol of the University of the Philippines, the Oblation.

  • buninay1

    It is not contrary to popular belief that America had a hand in choosing Rizal over Bonifacio to be our national hero. Renato Constantino who wrote the essay entitled The Veneration of the Myth explained how the selection of Rizal came about and this piece of work should be instructive enough as a clarifying tool to those who are still in the dark about what Renato Constantino thought is an historical anomaly.

  • Guest

    Just because the Bonifacio monument was inaugurated during the American period, doesn’t mean the Americans have equal regards for Bonifacio and Rizal. Some historians see more than that, if you’ll look and analyze the gesture of the great supremo in that monument, you will notice that only the Supremo figure whose not in motion. His stand suggests surrender, his hands are down (though holding a gun and a bolo). The face of the great Supremo is even without emotion almost. Contrary to other figures and character present in the same sculpture that full of emotions, raised hand holding the bolo.

    It was also said that the original Bonifacio sculpture that stands on that place is the one that is now in UP. Whose gesture suggest the opposite of the one standing in the monument now.

  • 12Tsinelas

    Just because the Bonifacio monument was inaugurated during the American period, doesn’t mean the Americans have equal regards for Bonifacio and Rizal. Some historians see more than that, if you’ll look and analyze the gesture of the great supremo in that monument, you will notice that only the Supremo figure whose not in motion. His stand suggests surrender, his hands are down (though holding a gun and a bolo). The face of the great Supremo is even without emotion almost. Contrary to other figures and character present in the same sculpture that are full of emotion, hands up with bolo.

    It was also said that the original Bonifacio sculpture that stands on that place was the one that is now in UP. Whose gesture suggest the opposite of the one standing in the monument now.

    • markus32

      Well the truth is, your said “Bonifacio” sculpture in UP-Vinzons hall is NOT Bonifacio the Supremo but an unknown common katipunero made by a certain Ramon Martinez (whoever he is). It is a tribute to the heroes of 1896.

      Before, when there was no “Monumento” and no markers installed in Cry of Balintawak/Pugadlawin/Kalookan (whatever you want it called), the exact location of the cry was still debated during that time (actually up to now), the old sculpture of Martinez in Balintawak is where the veterans, remnants and survivors used to paid homage to the revolution.

      Nakasanayan na lang na tawagin syang si Bonifacio, at paglipas ng panahon ay tinanggap na rin ng mga Pilipino.

      To summarize, that sculpture of Martinez was the culprit why we see the wrongly Bonifacio image as the barefooted man in-camisa chino and rolled up red pants-with weavering bolo and raising KKK flag.

      That is why Tolentino corrected this image when he built “Monumento” that we know of today.

  • PhilNEXT

    I have access to a Tolentino piece which was given to the heir of one of his proteges in U.P. It is a bust of the great Carlos P. Romulo. I believe it was sculpted before the founding of the United Nations. If you look at the eyes of the piece, it truly amazing and life-like!



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