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THE Iuncr

AND Irs CotlTExT

he elements in themselves (line, value, color, texture, forrn and shape,com-


position in space, movement) belong to the non-mimetic plane of the visual
work of art. But as signifiers, they are capable of conveying concepts,
values, feelings, and attitudes; and are constituted to form the image on the mi-
metic plane, which with the thematic plane that relates the work to its larger social
and historical context contribute to form the total meaning of the work.

In the visual arts, the image is also called an icon (from the Greek word
meaning likeness, image, or representation). While a road or traffic sign is a con-
uentional sign and appears in the same form in similar situations, an icon or
pictorial sign,,which may be a painting, drawing, illustration, and so on, bears a
rich and highly nuanced meaning that arises from its unique visualform.

In looking at a representational or figurative work-be it a drawing or paint-


ing, a piece of sculpture, or a tapestry-we may recognize its subject matter as
representations of human beings, animals, plants, natural scenery and nonJiving
things, artifacts used by people, and so on. But we do not limit ourselves to recog-
nizing them in general as people or things on the purely mimetic plane of the
image. We proceed to the thematic plane to situate the subjects in their social and
historical context.

If the visualwork is a portrait, we ask: Who is this person? To what group


or class of people does he/she belong? What values, ideas or qualities does helshe
stand for? What does the painting say about him/her? If the picture is genre
showing people engaged in activities, we ask What are these people doing? What
is their socialcontext? What are these places and things?

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But to know the full meaning of a visualwork, it is also necessary to study
the manner of presentation, the relationship of the figures to one another, their
relationship to the viewer, as well as implied concepts of time as movement, narra-
tive. and process. Are the human figures, for instance, consciously oriented to a
hypothetical viewer or viewers as figures on a stage? Or do they seem to occupy a
self-contained universe, in which the viewer is but an unbidden witness? Aside
from the way the figures relate to the ground and to the entire pictorial field, there
is also a question as to how they are situated in the field. Is there a strong central
focusing or are the principal figures on one side, asymmetrically, or even cropped
at the sides to imply the extension of the figure into the viewer's space? What is the
relationship between the space of the painting and the space of the viewer? Are
there devices in the painting that link the two spaces?

Styles of Figuration

A discussion of the styles of figuration requires the elucidation of a number


of terms, namely, representational art, nafuralism, and realism. This is not an easy
task because their meanings have not been fixed once and for all by aestheticians
and writers on art, and there exists a considerable variabilig in their usage. To be
able to arrive at working definitions, it is necessary to consider that 1)the usage of
these terms occurs in particular culfural contexts, such as Western art history or
19th century French literature, which have to be initially identified, for their mean-
ings change according to their contexts; 2) terms form their meanings, values,
qualities, priorities in relation or in contradistinction to certain terms in the same
cultural context; 3) a term can have several related meanings in a broader or nar-
rower s€nse or with emphases on different aspects arising from the history of their
usage and 4) the meaning of a term may undergo change in the course of art
history in one country or in general.

Of the above-mentioned terms, "representational" is the broadest. With


"figurative," as synonym, it is a general term used in opposition to "abstract,"
"non-figurative" and "non-objective." "Representational" thus describes any paint-
ing, sculpture, or form of visual art where the subject matter is recognizable as
taken from the world of people and nature, in opposition to "abstract," "non-
figurative," or "non-objective" in which the subject is a composition of lines, shapes,
colors, and texfures which do not constih:te images and figures from the nafural
world. In representational art, the figures may be highly stylized or distorted, but
the work is representational as long as the subject can be identified. Of course,
there may be semi-abstract works, or figurative works tending towards the abstract
because they place emphasis on abstract or non-mimetic (non-imagistic) aspects of
the work.

"Naturalism" is used in art history and criticism to denote a type of art


which "puts the mirror up to nature," that is, seeks to represent natural objects as
they appear, in contrast to stylized or "conceptual" art such as that of the fuyp-
tians. It is important here not to lose sight of the terms in opposition: naturalist, on

LL2
Corlos "Botong" Froncisco, "Comote Ctatherers," 1956, oil on cont)os.

one hand; explicitly "stylized" or "conceptual," on the other hand, but both within
the framework of representationalart. Following this definition, the sculptures of
the Greek Archaic Period, the kouros and the kore are stylized, while those of
Phidias, Polycleitos, and Praxiteles of the later Hellenic and Hellenistic Periods
(although ideahzed) are naturalistic.

Nonetheless, "nafuralism" is also used in the limited sense of stressing the


human and commonplace over the divine and symbolic. Bernard Myers in Art and
Ciuilizqtion points out the shift from the idealization of the Hellenic Period (Sth c.
B.C.) to the naturalism of the Hellenistic Period (4th c. B.C.) Sculpture in the
Hellenic Period was charactenzedby the "suprahuman idealization of Greek gods"
and while it was marked by keen observation, the aim of the artist was "to raise
these forms to a symbolic level above the human or specific." With the four.th
century B.C., the influence of the Sophist philosophy "which stressed the rational
over the dMne and accentuated the possibility of developing intelligent citizens by
education rather than by birth... was increasingly felt in art through growing natu-
ralism and emotionalism." With naturalism. the stress was on the human. the
worldly, even the commonplace.

Of the Hellenistic Period, Myers writes:. "the most outstanding art trend of
the age was toward naturalism, often running'over into extreme exaggeration.
Portraits which had been infreqhent even in the 4th century B.C., now became a
staple item, symbolizing an interest in the personality of the individual and his
accurate physical appearance." These portraits which, moreover, of elderly men
and women with wrinkled faces, shepherdesses, fisherfolk, and street types were

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marked by the detailed treatment of human frailty, anatomical knowledge, and
emotionalism. This definition of naturalism goes beyond the general one of repre-
sentation according to what the eye sees, as opposed to stylized treatment.

The term "realism" must, first of all, be contextualized in Western art his-
tory. specifically 19th century Realism as practised by Gustave Courbet, Francois
Millet, and Honore Daumier, who consciously assumed the qualification of realist.
Courbet defined as realist artists those who, in opposition to Classicism with its
idealization and generalized types and to Romanticism with its emotionalism and
imaginative content. drew their subjects from contemporary life, especially from
the lives of the folk. the urban workers, and the peasants, in socialist sympathy
with their aspirations. Later artists who follow in this trend, including subject
(contemporary life and the masses of workers and peasants) and attituCe
(sympathy with the aspirations of the people) can be called realists, or even
social realists if they have a strong and consistent socio-political content based on
specific conditions.

Whether realism is used, as Harold Osborne points out, in opposition to


abstraction, to distortion, to stylization (with naturalism), to idealization, or gener-
alization. it always involves verisimilitude or truthfulness to observed physical data.
As Linda Nochlin in her book Realism sums it up: "All forms of r?alism, regardless
of time or place, are marked by a desire for a verisimilitude of one kind or another.
But there can be no perception in a cultural vacuum, and certainly no notational
system for recording it, unaffected by both the coarser and subtler variants of
period. personality, and milieu."

One can go even farther, however, to say that while both naturalism and
realism involve the effort towards verisimilitude, a difference emerges between the
two. Describing Rembrandt's Landscape with rhunderstorm as "an emotional
vision"" R.H. Fuchs writes: "This landscape is so beyond naturaiism, in its structure
as in its imaginary colour, that to look for a natural explanation (for instance. that
the weird light is the realistic reproduction of lightning) is to deny its prime mean-
rng, which is to be imagination: to be Art." What develops then is ihat naturalism
has to do with the faithful adherence to sensory data in a scientific framework. It
can lead to the preoccupation with detail in itself. in a piling up of observed fact,
and an assiduity in rendering different "types." And realism, in a general sense,
while it is likewise based on the observation and depiction of the external world as
it appears to the senses, therefore shedding formal conventions, formulas, and
schemata, goes beyond fidelity to sensory and empirical fact to a thorough explora-
tion of reality, the world of people and nature, in all its dimensions. In realism at its
best, physical form becomes a vehicle for the spirit within, as Sir Kenneth Clark
wrote of Rembrandt's nudes.

Since the 19th century, realism developed a number of variations. The


most vigorous branch of realism is social realism which involves not only observa-
tion but also comment and protest, as well as directions towards a truly just and

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human order. Irnportant schools of Social Realism appeared in Mexico in the
1930s with the production of the artists Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro
Siquieros, and Diego Rivera who worked on murals aflame with the spirit of Revo-
lution. In a social realist genre, they drew their subjects from the working classes,
the miners, vegetable and fruit growers! industrial workers. They painted large
murals on public buildings depicting the history of the struggle of the Mexican
people against colonial domination.

Social Realism also flourished in the United States during the Depression
that followed the crash of Wall Street. The widespread poverty and economic
dislocation, along with the rise of labor unionism, was the subject of paintings and
murals by Ben Shahn. Philip Evergood, Ralph Soyer, and others. In the Philip-
pines, Social Realism had its roots in the period before Martial Law with the awak-
ening of nationalist consciousness. It developed in the protest movement of the
Marcos years and continues up to the present. Members of the Kaisahan, the
first group of social realists, were Pablo Baens Santos, Edgar Fernandez, Renato
Habulan, Antipas Delotavo; they were later joined by Neil Doloricon, Jose Tence
Ruiz, Al Manrique, and Papo de Asis. With each artist working in his own indi-
vidual style, social realism is not a stylistic term but is a shared point of view, a
socio-political critique of present society and a vision of a new human order.

Another branch of realism is "Magic Realism" of which the foremost expo-


nent is the American artist Andrew Wyeth. It is a style of meticulous detail in which
familiar objects are seen with a freshness and purity of vision. His painting Wind
from the Seo has a haunting air of melancholy in the image of an open window of
an old house, its lace curtains stirring in the wind and hinting at human presence.
Also along this vein is the work of Georgia O'Keete with her paintings of flowers
magnified by several times, the better to dwell on their exquisite properties of shape,
color. texture, and tone. Reiated to Magic Realism is Hyper-realism or Photorealism
in which the painting has the clarity and sharpness of photographic print. Also in
the realist vetn,is rhe minrcturismo of Filipino portrait painters of the 19th century
in which the criterion of skill was the consummate ability to render the delicate
transparency of fabric and the elaborate embroidery on the native costume as marks
of social ascendance.

Surrealism, particularly Veristic Surrealism, also renders people and ob-


jects in faithful and realistic detail, as in the works of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte,
and Paul Delvarx. It is in fact this sharp realism which enhances the dreamlike
quality of the work as objects from different contexts are juxtaposed to spark
new meanings, or figures and situations incongruous in the light of day are given
visual form.

One must, however, distinguish between a work of art and a documentary


record. A work of art expresses an aftist's vision of people and society. It conveys
or communicates a set of concepts, values, attitudes, and feelings towards a sub-
ject. A work of documentation, on the other hand, presents empirical data and

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facts about a sub.lect and its physical characteristics. But even a work of documen-
tation may elicit strong reactions because of the choice of subject-which is why
repressive regimes may ban documentary films of slums or the seedy side of a city
- and the public exposure of ills that documentation often involves.

An illustration is a visual work done in relation to a text. If the text is a


literary work. such as a novel or a story, the illustration may be an integral work of
art in itself as it conveys the vision of the creative writer or as the visual artist iends
his or her own interpretation of the literary work" When an illustration is a wori< of
art. it has the dimension of vision and human value that a simple record does not
have. As Matisse succinctly put it: "l-'exactitude n'est trtos la uerite." Exactness
does not in itself constitute the truth.

As we have seen, in the context of Western art history, Realism as a


school refers in particular to the French Realists of the 19th century. But the
adjective "realist" is also applied to the work of Baroque painters such as Caravaggio
and the Dutch masters of the 17th century such as Rembrandt. Vermeer, and
Ruysdael because of their keen sense of the social life of the period. their insight
into individual character, and their eye lor the telling detail.

trt rnust be stressed, however, that Realism in the Western tradition is not
the universal standard for "truth" in art. And ways of seeing become artistic and
cultural conventions or schemas relative to particular societies, so that there is not
one "correct" or truthful way. The arts of China. Japan. and india have their own
conventions in figuration and the representation of external reality. In Chinese
painting, for instance. the aim of the artist is not so much to be faithful to concrete
and physical fact as to capture the spirit of all living things. In European art. the
Expressionist art of Edward Munch, as in fhe Scream, is the powerful image of
inner psychological reality. But while these styles also have to do with capturing
reality, the terrn "realist" in its art histoncal usage is not applied to them.

Classical figuration has its roots in the Hellenic Period or the Golden Age
of Greece in the 5th century B.C. It is representational. of course. but it cannot be
called realist. This is because its basic principle is not observation but idealization.
Classicalart is grounded in the philosophy of Platonic idealism according to which
beauty has two aspects, the moral and the mathematical.

The moral aspect of beauty emphasizes the values of balance, restraint,


detachment, serenity, and elegance. This is why the classical statues of athletes,
gods and goddesses done by Phidias, Polycleitos. and Praxiteles have an expres-
sion of elegant detachment and emotional restraint following the classical dictum of
"everything in moderation, nothing in excess." Ideal figures are to be depicted as
above human struggle and strife, thus they should not manifest emotions such as
happiness, sadness, anger, or fear. For emotions are transitory and can have no
place in an art which strives towards the eternal, and absolute. According to Plato,
above the everyday world of appearances, there is a transcendent realm of Univer-

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sal Ideas which are unchanging, eternal and absolute. It is to this realm that art
should aspire; artists thus should \dealize their forms and banish all traces of the
transitory, the particular. the imperfect. and the mortal.

Classical beauty aspires towards divine perfection and perfection is at-


tained through mathematics, God being the Eternal Geometer. Classical alt has
reflected the search for perfect proportions. It was the sculptor Polycleitos who first
formulated a system of ideal mathematical proportions for the human figure and its
parts. With the head as module. the idealfigure according to Polycleitos stands at
7 1/2 heads. His own sculpture of the Doryphorus or Lance-bearer exemplifies
the classical norrns.

Classical proportions were also applied to the three orders of architecture:


the Doric. Ionic, and Corinthian. These orders are distinguisl;red by their capitals,
the abacus for the Doric, and the acanthus leaves for the Corinthian. but even
more. each order was a distinct'system of measurements and proportions.

ln the turmoil of the Feloponnesian Wars in which Athens was finally de-
feated by Sparta. and in the subsequent campaigns of Alexander the Great which
resulted in the colonization of Greece, the lofty ideals of Classicism could no longer
be maintained. In the Hellenistic Period (4th c.B.C) permeated by the influence of
Asia Minor, the proportions of the human figure were modified to B or B 7/2
heads, as in Praxiteles's Hermes and the lnt'ant Dionysus which has a pronounced
S-curve and an expression of dreamy languor, as well as in Lysippos's
Apoxyomenos or The Scraper.

As the Hellenic Period (5th c.B.C)gave way to the Hellenistic Period (4th
c. B.C), there was a change from idealism to naturalism. This new direction is
shown in the sculptures of Lsocoon and the Dying Gcul which in their suffering
and agonized expressions are a far cry from the earlier detached and elegant fig-
ures. The Hellenistic Period was a period of true portraiture which brought out the
particular characteristics of indlvidual subjects. with alltheir moies. warts, and physical
imperfectionsr and manifested their all-too-human feelings of pain, anguish, and
despair. At the same time,genre showing people engaged in everyday activities
made its appearance, such as the old market vendor and Spinorio or the boy
removing a thorn {rom his foot, whereas previously. Hellenic art disdained to por-
tray these subjects as banal.

Naturalism which was carried lo trompe l'oeil exlremes became much


admired. This is brought out by the well-known anecdote regarding the two artists
Zeuxis and Apollodorus.As the most famous artists of their time, the rivals held a
competion.Zerxis was said to have painted such a lifelike bunch of grapes that the
birds came to peck at them.His skill was such that even the birds were deceived.
Apollodorus, in turn, invited Zeuxis to.unveil his painting as was the custom. But as
Zevxls made a move to draw the veil aside,he suddenly realized to his chagrin that
the veil itself was the painting. Thus, Apollodorus won the competition because his

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painting in its verisimilitude fooled not only the binds but a human being, and an
artist at that.

The Renaissance which began in Italy and reached its maturity in the 15th
century revived the Greek ideals of Classicism in art. Taking up from where Polycleitos
left. Leonando da Vinci resumed the systematization of the proportions of the hu-
man figure, but this time the ratios and proportions of the body parts reckoned with
movement, which involves muscular contraction and expansion.lmbued with the
scientific spirit of his age, da Vinci dissected cadavers because he wanted to go
beyond superficial form to dynamic structure.After the Mannerist, Baroque,
and Rococo periods, Classicism rcappeareA in the Neo-Ciassicism of the 18th
century, particularly in the work of the French artists Jacques Louis David and Jean
Auguste Dominique Ingres,contemporaneous with Romanticism. Eventually, Neo-
Classicism with its Olympian deities of old declined into an outworn academicism
to be later challenged by Realism and Impressionism, which sought to bring back
afi to contemporary life.

Expressionism is a style in which emotion is the motivating principle that


gives shape to the figures. Thus, this fugurative style is not restricted by ideal norms
nor by the tenet of fidelity to nature but is free to express the artist's strong feeling.
Because of this, Expressionism often involves distortion in the elongation,
attenuation, or exaggeration of the ordinary proportions in a manner of represen-
tation that invites the wrath o{ classical-mindedartists,who can only see it as ugly.
Expressionist distortion, while it also takes design into account, primarily
follows emotional impulse, mood, and feeling. It capfures subjective realitSr, inner
states of mind. Also part of Expressionism is the personal or subjective use of
color to convey emotion, independently of the color of subjects in nature.
Colors are used vividly and strongly as vehicles of feelings. It is particularly
in this respect that Expressionism is allied to Fauvism, as in the works of
Matisse, Andr6 Derain, and Pierre Bonnard. But while Fauvism distorted form and
brought out the most valid intensities of color in search of a new and fresh
approach to art in order to discover primitive harmonies, F-r<pressionism had a
morbid side, as in the work of Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Ernil Nolde,
which reflected the decadent and militaristic society before World War I.
With Fxpressionism, the traditional criterion of classical beauty that long provided
the basis of aesthetics was replaced by expressiveness, which permitted the wide
range of contemporarry art.

Among the Expressionist worls are Picasso's Blind Man With a Guitar,
Van Gogh's Starry Night and Sunt'lowers, Munch's Scream, and Kirchner's
women in the street Some Filipino Expressionists are Ang Kiu Kok, onib olmedo,
and Danilo Dalena.

The precursor of Cubism was Cezanne with his dicfum that "everything in
nafure can be reduced to the cube, the cone, and the cylinder." In his landscapes of
Mont St. Victoire and his still lifes of apples on a table, he introduced multiple

118
perspective in which the
subject is painted as though
from different angles or points
of view, thereby overcoming
the limitation of single-point
or linear perspective. Further-
more, Cezanne as a Post-
Impressionist sought to regain
the structure of forms by
simplifying and geometrizing
them.

Braque and Picasso


the
!t
' ,* t t-
carried Cubism further with ' ':lt' ,',L-K*i\*t*
influence of African masks and
what they convey of primitive
strength and power. Picasso's
portrait of Gertrude Stein and
hispainting LesDemoiselles.d' J;.::] *#!*!}
ov'Yttvtt (1907)
Avignon vvrE out
\L)v' t bore this -),,,,,,^-^^
vul..Lrr' T^t--ti^^ ,,(\ht^*;an
"Oblation," ,, castbronze.
rac| hranzo
GuillermoTolentino,
newbold influence in figuration.
In Analytical Cubism, the
human figure is fragmented into small monochromatic facets and planes, as in
Picasso's portrait of Kahnweiler. In the later Synthetic phase, the planes become
larger, color returns, and decorative textures make thier appearance. Picasso's
Guernica, painted in protest against the fascist bomblng of the small Basque
town, also shows the capability of a modernist style such as Cubism to express
strong feeling.

Cubist influence is seen in the works of the Philippine artist Vicente


Manansala who,developed the style of transparent Cubism. But unlike in the ten-
dency exhibited by the European artist, there is evidently a reluctance to subject the
human figure to drastic fragmentation in Manansala's style. The best example of
this style in the Philippine context is his Modon no of the S/ums and his r'nurals on
Philippine Lit'e lor the Philamlife lnsurance Building on U.N. Avenue.

The figurative style of Pop derives inspiration from popular visual forms,
particularly the comic strip, as well as from commercial design. Roy Lichtenstein,
for instance, did blow-ups ol Dick Trac1 frames into paintings of figures made of
simulated Ben Day dots {or an authentic effect. Andy Warhol is known for his
Marilyn Monroe series as well as his Campbel/ Soup andDollar Bil/ serial images
which make a sly comment on American consumer society.

There are many styles of figuration. They can be highly invidual and resist
labeling. Artists have moved away from the originalformulations o{ the modernist
styles in the first quarter of this century to develop their own styles more expressive

119
of their time and place. What is important is the ability of the style to signify,
convey. or express certain qualities, values, or concepts which are an integral part
of the meaning of the work. Schooled artists. for instance, may choose to render
the human figure in a folk-naive style (as in Medieval. folk, or children's art), thereby
implying opposition to the dominant style (classical, academic); and when'trans-
lated onto the thematic plane may subtly suggest a position taken in favor of the
people's interest and aspiration vis-a-vis dominant oligarchic or superpower inter-
est, as in works of anti-nuclear or human rights themes.

Thus, a style of figuration is not the mere expression o{ an artist's passing


whim or choice of the moment; it is rather contextualized in a particular society, its
economic and political conditions, its social concerns and interests. as well as its
history, traditions, and values.

Subject matter and its Presentation

subject in the visual arts is what the image is generally about: it is the
image that we view and that we identify. It may be representational or
figurative in which case we are able to recognize it as drawn from the world around
us and as forming relationships and associations with things, people,and events.
It is abtract, non-representational, or non-figurative when it does not have a
recognizable subject; its subject is the very composition of lines. colors, shapes,
and textures.

If the subject is representational, it may be a portrait of an individual or a


group. It may be genre which shows people in everyday activities. It may be a
domestic interior or a nude. It may also be a landscape. seascape. or cityscape, a
panorama of nature or the urban environment. It may be a still life showing a
bouquet of flowers, an arrangement of fruits on a table. musical instruments. or
various cultural artifacts and household objects. The subject may also be historical,
mythological, literary, religious,,or surrealistic.

A portrait is the representation of an individual. More than capturing


the physical likeness of a person, a good portrait gives insight into the character of
the subject. The first true portraits appeared in the sculpture of the Hellenistic
Period (4th c.B.c.): these were representations of real living persons, old or young,
with alltheir particularizing features that distinguished them as individuals, unlikl
earlier sculptures which were generalized idealized types, often composites of
several models.

The subject may be shown full face and occupying the center of the picto-
rial field, thereby strongly asserting his or her presence and possibly directly ad-
dressing the viewer. or he or she may be shown in three-fourths or in. profile,
apparently absorbed in thought, thereby suggesting a roflective character or bring-
ing out the subjective quality of the person. We should likewise note if the subject is
off-center or if cropping is used as a signifying device.

720
The direction where the subject parlays his or her gaze is part of the mean-
ing of the painting. Does he or she directly address the viewer with a look, thereby
projecting an imaginary line between him or her and the viewer and unifuing their
space? A good example here is Juan Luna's Chula leaning forward and holding a
cigarette between her fingers. Does the subject tend to look upwarrds, downwards,
or sidewards; or does he or she engage the viewer directly with his or her gaze?
What is the angle of the gaze? Is the subject lost in thought or intently scrutinizing
an object inside or outside the pictorial field, thereby extending it, as in Degas's
Woman with Crysanthemums? Ukewise, what is the quality of the gaze? Soft,
contemplative, and in reverie; or hard, alert, challenging, insolent?

What does the general posture convey? How is the angle of the head to
the body?

The dress or costume and accesories worn by the subject, as well as the
background and surrounding objects should also be taken into account in arriving at
the meaning of the work. Dress and accessories are indicators of social class and
cultural identity. They constitute what may be called the "iconog6aphy" of the sub-
ject, a terrn originally applicable to religious imagery, such as stahres of saints
which are identified by their iconographic features. Color symbolism also plays a
more or less important part in cosfume.

If the subject is a full figure, it is also important to take note of the general
orientation of the body with respect to the viewer who now takes over the place of
the artist contemplating the subject. What kind of relationship is suggested? Is the
subject-to-viewer relationship erotic, hostile, indifferent, domineering? Does the
subject seem to offer himself or herself passively to the pleasure o{ the viewer or
does it assert his or her integrity as an independent person? The manner of pre-
sentation of the figure is particularly significant in paintings of nudes, usually of
women. John Berger in Woys ot' Seeing explains how nudes subtly convey sexist
attihrdes as womeh in seductive poses are proffered as passive objects for the erotic
gratification of the male vrewer.

In genre painting, the subject is people engaged in daily activities. Much of


Philippine genre, for instance, centers around occupations and fiestas that are
communal activities. Amorsolo's Planting Rice genre integrates the figures of
farmers into a rural background of fields and mountains. Often, painters rooted in
the folk traditions tend to orient the figures towards the viewer as in a tableau, for
their most significant visual influence is the folk theater, lhe komedya, moro-moro,
and sorsuurelo. The firllest expression of the fiesta theme is found in Blanco's Son
lsidro Festiwl in which the principal figures enact a small outdoor skit.

The development of Philippine genre from the 1fth century with Flores's
Feeding the Chicken and Primeras Letras through Amorsolo's Planting Rice to
Legaspi's Gadgets and the constmction workers of social realist Antipas Delotavo
records the social and economic changes in the life of the people. On the other

l2t
hand, European genre has a different spirit. In the paintings of Vermeer of the
Dutch middle class of the 17th century, the viewer is an unbidden spectator to a
scene of quiet, measured gestures of people in a self-contained world. In the same
period, paintings of the folk exploited their picturesque qualities and showed them
carousing and quarelling rather than working in the fields.

Landscapes may be realist, romantic, classical, or symbolic. Realist land-


scapes are often titled with the name of a place because they are often done on the
spot and bring out the specific features of a site which, moreover, may be one's
familiar backyard. Romantic landscapes, on the other hand, are picfuresque, ex-
otic, mysterious, or awe-inspiring, with the suggestion of the divine spirit in natwe
reflecting the pantheism of the romantic vision. 19th century romantic landscapes
are exotic in the quest for unfamiliar realism of beauty. In general, romantic lhnd-
scapes are also subjective, expressive of inner mood, with nafure seen through the
refracting lens of the emotions.

Classical landscapes are studio landscapes often following formulas of ideal


proportion such as the Golden Section. They are visions of arcadian woodlands,
ideahzed setting for the Olympian deities and people oi the epic past. In the vistas
of harmony, balance, and serenity, the paths wind slowly by gmcefirl leafy trees
and porticoed temples. Architecture with what it conveys of ideal proportion, per-
manence, and immutability is part of the classical landscap€, as in the worls of
Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine. The huge classical canvases for 1fth cenfury
salon competitions often have architecfural backgrotmds. Landscapes can also be

i
I
I
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r
,&
Vicente Manansalo. "Angelus (l Belieue in C,od)," 1948, oil on lawanit.

122
symbolic, although their meanings are often obscure, as in Giorgione's Tempest or
in some Mannerist paintings. Human figures are often found in landscapes, and
their scales in relation to the entire scenery express the relationship between people
and the universe. In the Dutch landscapes of the 17th century, people are tiny
creatures in the vastness and infinity of the universe. Classical landscapes are meant
to be contemplated from a distance; realist landscapes are meant to be shared with
the viewer.

The still life or nature morte focuses on natural objects or artifacts. In


Western stilllifes, they are often natural objects appropriated by people such as cut
flowers in a vase or fruits in a basket. Sometimes they are objects that belong to a
society's or period's material culture, such as porcelain, glassware and metalware,
as well as maps, books, and household utensils. A still life shows the interest, tastes,
and concerns of a social class or of the members of the households of a particular
place and time as in the paintings of Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin. Again, the
Dutch 17th century was a high point for the still life as it was the fashionable
expression of the material prosperity of the new bourgeoisie. Dutch still lifes, such
as those of William Claesz Heda in austere monochrome, implied a story in the
overturned glasses and the repast left unfinished as though by people suddenly
called away from their mundane pleasures. Flemish still lifes are more sumptuous,
with piles of cheeses and other food among glowing crystals and clusters of grapes.

The first European still lifes, however, where called uqnitas or memento
mori (reminders of death) because their subjects invariably included a skull.
Moreover, the many beautiful and assorted flowers in different stages of bloom and
decay showed, upon closer scrutiny, tiny bugs and worms boring into the petals,
thus alluding to the finite existejnce of people. At the beginning, it was not enough
to indulge in the purely hedonistic pleasure of appreciating flowers for their
own sake, the still lifes had to bear a moralistic message which lent them a
larger sigificance.

The spirit of the European nature morte is alien to Chinese flower paint-
ing. For one thing, in traditional Chinese painting, flowers are never shown as cut
and appropriated by people for their personal delight. Different flowers are never
massed together in a vase. Instead, the Chinese arlist takes pleasure in rendering
them as living plants, flowers filled with ch'i or spirit as they interact with one
another and subtly respond to the changes in their environment.

Classical paintings of the European academies long derived their subjects


from Greek mythology and from ancient Greek and Roman history. Venus, the
goddess of love and beauty was the perfect pretext for the classical nude. Subjects
from contemporary history appeared later with Romanticism and the images of
Bonaparte's North African campaigns or the Greek struggle for independence from
the Turks. Surrealistic subject matteris derived from dreams and nightmares and
drav;s from Freudian symbolism, which plumbs the subconscious and unconscious
leyels of the mind. Veristic surrealism is executed in meticulously naturalistic style

723
but juxtaposes in an incongruous manner objects not found together in real life.
For religious subjects, it is necessary to know the traditional iconography of the
figures in order to identify them properly and to understand the narrative aspect of
painting, if any, and its meaning.

Having arnlyzeA the image, one has to refer to the elements to see how
their use confirms, reinforces, or strengthens the meanings that the image itself
conveys.

The Thematic Plane

When we view a painting, we initially note its basic data which include the
title, the artist, the medium, the dimension, and the year in which it was made.
Beyond proving the documentary identificdtion of the work, these data make it
possible for us to situate art in a particular period and socialmilieu. To arrive at the
fullmeaning of the work, one should necessarily view it in its social and historical
context as indicated by texts, symbols, and allusions or references.

In case of texts, the image may be supplemented by texts within the work
itself and appended to it. In many cases, the title merely serves to identify or state
the subject of the work. Sometimes, the title may bear an ironic relationship with
the image. In the case of some Surrealist works, the title extends the meaning of
the work and provides a literary dimension.

Texts may be in the form of collage elements, such as printed words, news-
paper headlines, clippings, or corporate logos. They can also be printed by the
artist. In any case, the very lypetace of the text. be it bold face, script, or ancient
alibata, signifies values and concepts. Artists may us€ printed elements to bring in
allusions (as multinational logos suggest economic imperialism), to evoke memories
and emotional associations, or to serve as units of visual design. Street graffiti and
leepney signs (Kotos ng Soudi)'have been used by visual artists to convey the
temper and spirit of the times.

Then, too, there are works of visual arts which are accompanied by texts
such as poems, aphorisms, or lines of insight. In Chinese painting, calligraphy is
part of the entire visualdesign at the same that it expands the meaning of the work.
Sometimes, beautifully executed calligraphy alone constifutes the figure on the pic-
torialspace.

It is also on the thematic plane that symbolism and allegory operate. Sym-
bols may be human figures, animals, objects, whether nafural or made by people,
or geometric figures. Symbolism may be personal in which case the artist's
-
explanation may be called for, or it may be conventional or commonly understood.
Usually, symbols can be understood in the context of an artist's thematic concerns.
Some young artists, such as Arnel Agawin, for instance, have a strong anti-nuclear
sentiment, and the yellow mushrooming cloud is the symbol of universal holocaust.

L24
Tequi's Retablo Series has an underlying anti-fascist theme in which political per-
sonalities and events are transposed into a religious idiom. For social realist Jose
Tence Ruiz, the beast's carcass in his Kofoy Series symbolizes the decaying system
which spawris such ills as prostifution and crime.

An allegory, on the other hand, is a system of symbols in which an image


or narrative contains elements in a one-to-one correspondence with another image
or narrative with which they have a parallel relationship. Luna's Spoliarium,
the subject of which is drawn from Roman antiquity, specifically the era of Imperial
Rome (spoliarium meaning the hall to which the dead and dying gladiators
were dragged after the combat and in which they were despoiled or stripped of
their last worldly effects) is considered to be an allegory of Spain's colonization of
the Philippines.

In order to fully understand an artist's vision, philosophy, or interpretation


of reality, it is also necessary to go beyond the single piece to the entire body
of work and to see how the various themes and thematic elements interrelate.
It is also in surveying the body of work that one understands the artist's thematic
development and the growth and elaboration of personal philosophy, as one be-
comes aware of the appearance of new
]1
interests, concerns, and values that shape
artistic direction. It is also here that one * {:\r } ,$

reckons with influences on the artist-cul- t\ j,

fural, artistic, social, personal, and po- I


litical-and that one views his or her pmc- ,.. *
s
tice in relation to the work of contempo-
raries with their own themes, interests,
and concerns, their own ways of looking
at life and reality.
I
I
A work of art may also bear ref-
erences or allusions whether personal,
social, religious, and political. The artist's
biogmphicaldata may shed light on char-
acteristics, tendencies, and preferences;
or on personal allusions that appear in a
particular period of his or her career.
These contribute their ou,rn mearring to
the artist's work as a whole, a meaning
which derives from socio-cultural back-
ground and unique psychology of the
artist. Allusions may also be to social
and political events and personalities,
past or contemporary; and the artist rix-
presses particular attitudes and value- Edgar Talusan Fernandez, "Kahapon,
judgements with respect to these. While Ngogon at Pangarap,' 1990, oil on conuas.

125
different artists may draw images from the 19th cenfury, the ilustrodos, the Propa-
ganda Movement, and the Revolution, they may convey different meanings or
shades of meaning.

An artist lives in a period marked by issues, debates, events of greater or


lesser importance, and crises. How does he or she respond to the issues of his or
her time? Of the artist as political being, Picasso has this to say in 1945: "What do
you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only his eyes if he's a painter, or ears if
he's a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he's a poet, or even, if he's a
boxer, just his muscle? On the contrary, he's at the same time a political being,
constantly {ive to heartrending, hery, or happy events, to which he responds in
every way. How would it be possible to pay no interest in other people and by
virtue in an ivory indifference to detach yourself from the life which they so copi-
ously bring you? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an intrument
of war to attack and defend against the enemy."

From the foregoing, from the medium and expressive elements, from the
image and its larger social context, one arrives at the meaning o{ the work of art, its
value and its espousals, its philosopy and vision of life and reality. Art is a product
of a particular time and place to which it is primarily relevant, though often it has
meanings that go beyond these in the universal struggle for tnrth, freedom, and
equality. Art thus reflects the concerns, interests, and ideologies of a society, more
especially of particular sectors, groups, or classes, at the same time that it may in its
highest aspirations become a catabst for change towards the realization of a people's
fullhumanity. (A.G.G.)

Onib Olmedo, "Homage to Nuregeu," 1994.

126