Guillermo Tolentino’s dream of unity
Aside from the Eiffel Tower one of the iconic sights of Paris is the Arc de Triomphe, a grand monumental arch set on a rotunda on the Champs Élysées, from where the important avenues of the city radiate like rays of the sun or, at best, spokes on a wheel. Had it been realized, Manila would have had a similar landmark designed by Guillermo Tolentino. It is unfortunate that due to constraints in funding, debates on aesthetics, the eruption of World War II and the brutal years of the Japanese occupation, the Commonwealth Arch remained a dream in Tolentino’s creative mind. But in retrospect, had it been built, it might have been destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945, reduced to ruins like the old legislative building that was rebuilt after the war and now serves as the Arts Wing of the National Museum.
Sculpture is an overlooked cousin of Philippine painting, probably because people don’t quite know what to do with sculptures, unlike paintings that are mostly made to hang on a wall. Sculptors have to tame harder materials like stone, steel, or bronze instead of daubing pigment on a canvas, drawing on paper, or catching images on a camera lens. Yet for the amount of work that goes into pieces of sculpture, they are priced way lower than paintings in the art market. There are more painters than sculptors conferred the honor of
National Artist for the Visual Arts, the giants to beat being Tolentino himself and Napoleon Abueva. Their life and works deserve a closer look.
In the National Museum hall dedicated to Tolentino and his works, you will see the original maquette or preliminary model of the Commonwealth Arch, which gives us an idea of what could have been. Marble, concrete and bronze would have been the material of choice, with sculpted human figures depicting the ethnolinguistic and racial groups from different parts of the archipelago unified in one purpose—to support, carry, and hold aloft a slab of stone on which was to be etched the words “Commonwealth of the Philippines” or the Seal of the Commonwealth. This was not just an arch to commemorate the establishment of the Commonwealth; it was also a yearning for the eventual independence of the Philippines.
The maquette for the Commonwealth Arch can be better understood and appreciated through the paper trail that Tolentino left behind. In the late 1930s, explaining his design and answering critics who were calling for a more “modern” vibe instead of his old-fashioned classicism, Tolentino said that unlike most triumphal arches that commemorated military victories, his was a memorial arch:
“a tribute to our achievements in self government… Because the arch is a tribute to Filipino achievement, the observer is at once attracted to the eight bas-reliefs depicting turning points in the history of the Islands. The first relief portrays the death of Magellan in his fight with Lapu-lapu. Relief No. 2 depicts our ceaseless resistance to Spanish conquest. This time we show Rajah Soliman, the Rajah of Manila, in his defiance to the white invaders. The third relief is the martyrdom of Rizal, whose doctrines and teachings fired the heart of Bonifacio shown in the fourth relief. Relief No. 5 is the unforgettable Battle of Manila Bay; and the subsequent Occupation of Manila (Relief No. 6), the end of almost four centuries of Spanish rule. The 7th relief is that glorious moment when, our ends achieved to a certain degree, President Quezon takes his oath of office. The last and 8th plaque is self explanatory.”
Unfortunately, Tolentino’s sketches or studies for these eight reliefs are not extant, but we can presume that Relief No. 8, which he described as self-explanatory, had something to do with the birth of the Philippines as a free nation, independent of the United States. Tolentino’s interpretation of history needs revision when read from the perspective of 2017 and the historical events he did not live to see. His monument was a dream of national unity, something that we have in fleeting moments in history. Our existing monuments portray how Filipinos come together in the face of a crisis or a common enemy, which begs the question: Why is it hard to maintain national unity without a crisis or a common enemy?
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