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Simon Flores, the first Filipino international artist

Apr 28, 2008 By Constantino Tejero
MANILA, Philippines - Unknown to many, the 19th-century painter Simon Flores y de la Rosa was the first artist of pure Filipino descent to receive international art recognition.

In 1876, he won the silver award at the Philadelphia Universal Exposition for "La Musica del Pueblo" (now nonexistent). That was some years before Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo got their gold and silver medals in Madrid for "Spoliarium" and "Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace," respectively.

The Ayala Museum is giving this underrated Filipino master the recognition he deserves with the show "Simon Flores (1839-1902): His Life and Works," 21 pieces in oil on canvas, wood panel and ivory sheet and in pen and ink and pencil on paper. Curated by Kenneth Esguerra, the show runs until May 25 in the third-floor gallery of the museum at Makati Ave. cor. De la Rosa St., Greenbelt Park, Ayala Center, Makati City.

Esguerra, senior curator and head of conservation at Ayala Museum, says he had long wanted to mount a Flores exhibition since he was connected with the Metropolitan Museum of Manila almost a decade ago. But it wasn't until now that he has realized his dream, after gathering the rare artworks from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Collection and private collectors such as Ambassador Bienvenido Tantoco Sr., Paulino and Hetty Que, Dr. Eleuterio Pascual.

Of the nearly 50 Flores artworks in existence (excluding the permanent fixtures in old churches), almost half are in this exhibit. Most are paintings in oil on canvas, two on wood panel, one on ivory sheet, while a few are sketches or studies on paper, two in pen and ink and one in pencil. Most are portraits, for which Flores was known, while many are of religious subjects. There is also one country scene, which demonstrates the artist's skill in perspective.

Sheer mastery

Those who have seen only Araceli Limcaco-Dans' paintings and thought of them as the apogee of the calado must go to this show and see Flores' barong and baro't saya and be forever stunned.

The fine detailing is such that Esguerra says they refer to these paintings when they have to do research on the costumes of the period, and not only with the intricate designs but also the exact materials, the fabrics used in those days.

Consider the sheer mastery with which Flores recreated the embroidery design in "Portrait of Cornelia Sison-Hizon," details that can truly overwhelm. The exhibition note can hardly contain itself in describing this piece: "Garbed in 19th-century regalia, this sitter wears a fully embroidered piña blouse and pañuelo of fishu, matched with a brick-red checkered long skirt. She is also adorned with a set of gold tambourine or filigree necklace, earrings and peineta (comb). The folded fan in her right hand signifies stature in society."

In these portraits of the merchants and landowners of the Central Plains of Luzon, clothes and accessories, more than the physical features and postures of the sitters, speak of prosperity and refinement. Here, garment is personality, costume is culture.

Beyond aesthetics

One can see that even a simple portrait by Flores goes beyond aesthetics, as some can be heavily allegorical-the equivalent to contemporary art's social statement. Take, for example, the exhibit's centerpiece, "Portrait of Cirilo and Severina Quiason with Their Two Children," probably the Flores painting most well-known to today's viewers.

Of this large painting from the Central Bank Collection, the note says: "It reflects the family's prosperity, as the painter faithfully recorded the refinements of the new culture: the intricate embroidery on the jusi garments; the sheer transparency of the bodice and the large sleeves; the delicate prints on the long skirt; the handcrafted jewelry and careful choice of accessories. Special attention was given to the gracious and elegant interiors, here featuring chandeliers and velvet curtains.

"The portrait expresses a cultural value. Here, the family is formally posed in a domestic setting. The importance of the family as a social unit is implied. The seated position of the wife with the two children; the standing position of the husband with his arm akimbo-these define the traditional male and female roles. The compact grouping has for its center the vase of flowers encased in glass, a symbol of abundance."

Such pieces show Flores to be a master of miniaturismo, that technique of rendering minutely detailed costumes and jewelry on portraits and religious icons. And he shows his mastery not only with large canvases but also miniature formats, such as the small thin sheet of ivory on which he delicately limned with a one-haired brush "Portrait of Monsignor Ignacio Pineda Tambungi." (The high-ranking prelate was his brother-in-law, who introduced him to several rich families of Pampanga which commissioned him for portraits.)

Realism and genre

We can see, however, that Flores did not devote his art only to the rich and famous of his time, but might be as much interested in the common tao, as revealed by two untitled drawings on paper from Teyet Pascual's collection.

One is of an old woman seated on a bamboo bench while mixing the ingredients for her nganga.

The other is of a peasant with sickle, which the note describes: "It is a barefoot woman wearing an everyday blouse and a checkered skirt. A scapular hangs from her neck, and a wide-brimmed straw hat shields her from the noonday sun. Her pose suggests that she was probably interrupted while harvesting palay or cutting grass, as indicated by the sickle she is holding."

Aside from their harsh social-realist look-a far cry from the wealth of portraits and religious icons in the gallery-these pieces demonstrate Flores' mastery in tridimensional illusion through shading, smudging, crosshatching.

The religious paintings are chiefly genre, ranging from the Madonna and Child to the Mater Dolorosa to San Roque-all academic art as the portraits.

There is one piece, however, that stands out for its dramatized narrative, "Parable of the Repentant Mother." In its rich color tonality, bold chiaroscuro and dynamic composition, this one recalls Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Titian.

Born in Paco (then San Fernando de Dilao), Manila, Flores studied under Lorenzo Guerrero and Lorenzo Rocha at the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, the first official art academy in the country. The school, where Damian Domingo had been director, was then receiving guidance from the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid.

Without the means or the opportunity to travel and study abroad, unlike Luna and Hidalgo, Flores gained mastery completely on home ground. Thus, it can be said he was our first homegrown master.

If we have to search for their Western counterparts, Flores and Domingo would be the pioneering Italian primitives, while Luna and Hidalgo would be the masters of the High Renaissance.

Previous Photographer of the Week: Arnold C. Jumpay

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