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‘Chicharon’ and furniture in Baliuag

If we are to go by the results of the recent local and international auctions, the prices of Philippine art have not only hit the roof but actually shot out of it! There is so much liquidity in Manila these days that many speculators have jumped on the bandwagon and have been buying names rather than pictures.

Blue chips in the art market are of three types: first, the names sanctified by history—Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fabian de la Rosa, Guillermo Tolentino, Victorio Edades, Carlos V. Francisco, and Fernando Amorsolo; second, the names established by canonization—National Artists Vicente Manansala, Ang Kiukok, Cesar Legaspi, Hernando R. Ocampo, Jose Joya, Napoleon Abueva, Arturo Luz, and Benedicto Cabrera; and third, the names magical in relation to their talent and the prices paid for their work—Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Nena Saguil, Fernando Zobel, Elmer Borlongan, Jose Santos III and Ronald Ventura.

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There actually is a fourth class of Filipino artists whose names hog the media through their shameless self-promotion, but these are best ignored because their artificially inflated prices will fall when the art bubble bursts. I had wanted to risk libel suits by naming some members of the “Fourth Estate” as a warning to buyers misled by “praise releases,” but I realized that it’s best to just leave you with this advice instead: Buy what you like. Buy the best that you can afford. Buy expensive authentic works instead of cheap “lookalikes.” Buy pictures, not names. Buy art, not investments.

Paintings are not the only things worth investing in because prices for Philippine colonial furniture have also been rising steadily. Before you pay a seven-figure sum for an imported sofa from the high-end shop, do consider paying a seven-figure price for an 18th-century table of Philippine hardwood if it is available. If Western music has the so-called “three Bs”—namely Bach, Brahms and Beethoven—Philippine furniture also has very distinct regional styles that developed into a different set of “Bs”—Batangas, Baliuag and Bohol. Of the three styles, Baliuag is the most recognizable because of its aesthetic use of bone inlay. You can still buy reproductions of the iconic Baliuag chest of drawers in shops that specialize in “modern antiques.” These stately pieces of narra and bone inlay trace their lineage to Baliuag artisans who produced what may very well be described as the “mother” of all chests of drawers once owned by the Viola family of San Miguel, Bulacan.

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According to unconfirmed oral reports, this particular chest of drawers was originally commissioned for an exhibition in Europe in the late 1800s. Whether the piece was actually sent off and returned to the Philippines cannot be ascertained, but it is a masterpiece in cabinetmaking. Cultural researcher Ramon Villegas describes it as follows: “The massive volume of this cabinet is masked by the contrast of light golden narra parts and dark kamagong structural parts, ornamented by a tracery of leaves and flowers on vine stems. The Viola cabinet has, aside from multiple drawers, many hidden compartments: secret repositories behind the split turnings; false floorings, and containers inside drawer housing.”

The cabinet top opens to reveal a slim secret drawer, and two columns can also be opened to reveal small compartments supposedly for jewelry. One wonders what valuables were kept in this magnificent piece of furniture, and whether Maximo Viola, a friend of Jose Rizal who subsidized the printing of “Noli Me Tangere,” used the cabinet to hide his autographed copy of the “Noli” during the times when it was banned by the Spanish.

It is unfortunate that if you go around Baliuag today in search of “Baliuag furniture,” you will end up empty-handed and bring home chicharon instead. Among the three distinct regional styles, Baliuag furniture has the most European influence compared to colonial furniture from the two others. Altar tables are best studied for comparison and contrast: A Baliuag altar table is elegant in form and proportion; it is more restrained in decoration, unlike the Chinese-influenced Batangas table or the more folk or rustic Bohol type filled with carving. Antique Baliuag pieces studied by the pioneering historian of Philippine furniture, Milagros Jamir, are described as follows: “In appearance they ranged from a small one-drawer type with turned legs to those of two drawers and three drawers. The decoration on the drawers consisted of simulated panels of bone or light wood enclosing swags of bone inlay.

Although these two motifs are the recurrent on all the altar tables, either singly or in combination, yet no two tables looked alike. And the variations in the interpretation of the swag are simply amazing.”

Furniture is a reflection of Philippine culture and should be studied further. Unfortunately, the main obstacle to writing the history of Philippine furniture is the lack of authentic, unrestored examples from various periods and regions. Nevertheless, extant pieces in museums and private collections provide the first step in the proverbial journey of a thousand miles.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, art, artists, column, furniture, Philippines
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