Looking Back

Face to face with Guillermo Tolentino

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.

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