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The Fields of Amorsolo

Tenera de Manga, 1951

The first National Artist in Philippine history, referred to warmly as the “Grand Old Man of Philippine Art,” Fernando Amorsolo (1892–1972) still stands today as a looming figure in Philippine art responsible for being one of the artists who helped define what we up to now visually imagine as essentially Filipino. The images of rural life, of golden fields below clear blue, blue skies; the smiles of farmers which diminish their weariness as they plant, harvest, and winnow rice;  most especially the iconic figure of the Filipina maiden working in the fields—the beloved dalagang bukid--; these, I believe, even after generations of Filipino painters since Amorsolo, have remained in our hearts and memory.  Amorsolo did what great masters do for their country: bestow upon it its own icons, represent its native beauty, that is, to give its people and lands an identity and a face.
            There are, however, as many intentions for art as there are works of art. And these intentions will always remain in secrecy with the artists. To say simply, as is often the case, that Amorsolo painted everyday rural scenes as can be easily found in the Philippines as an anti-thesis to the colonial rule of his time may perhaps be too rash. Artists paint what they see, be it real or imagined—or both: the fine line between the two being what ‘critics’ can arbitrarily wish to underscore. Another comment on Amorsolo’s work was that it was a romanticization of Philippine realities. But to romanticize is not the same as to idealize. We can see in the many maidens Amorsolo painted that they weren’t by any stretch of the imagination glamorized, as if cosmetically made up to look more beautiful than they were. For they already were. Instead of making the features of the Filipina more mestiza, he presented them in their raw and natural beauty.

            To focus on Amorsolo’s iconic maidens, however, is to miss what to my mind is perhaps the greater contribution of the master. Like any painter, photographer, or any writer knows, the subject or actor can only come alive, that is, emerge from a given context or milieu. It is the background which gives birth to the foreground; without the former, there is no latter—or at least we are left with only one plane of view, one dimension, which limits the field of vision unnaturally. True to the source of his inspiration, Amorsolo never failed to give us a breathtaking view of the landscape behind his famers, harvesters and fruit pickers. Equally honest in his rendition of its people, Amorsolo’s backgrounds of lush trees, green fields and sparkling waters are taken from the very fields the islands of the Philippines are blessed with. His paintings show what typical Filipinos then until today do in the rice fields daily: the hard work of planting, harvesting, winnowing rice under the noonday sun; the conscientious picking and gathering of fruits; and the more intimate moments of the day as women bathe by the river and families and friends share meals under the shade of mango trees in mid-afternoon. Then as now, the Philippines being a largely agricultural country, and in spite of urbanized Manila, a large part of its population remains on the countryside among the fields. It is there among the wide plains, and not in the suffocating jungle of the city, where the Filipino must be sought.

Working in Space and With Time

Rice Planting, 1949

Compared to the cramped office spaces in the congested cities of the metro and the tight cabins of trains and jeepneys, Amorsolo’s famers work in the liberation of space. His typical scenes of farmers planting rice such as “Rice Planting” (1949) above do not fail to help us, its viewers, breathe. And space (as in a ‘breathing space’) is of much importance to painters. Naturally, it is space which ‘frees up’ a background (Greek skene) which in turn breathes life to something so that it can unfold, slowly show itself, and be seen in its own truth (aletheia). Of course there are spaces and there are spaces; yet what interests me is that, as when I was a curious child of six, sometimes I do not know what the real ‘subject’ (if there is any) of Amorsolo’s rice fields is. For his emerald and yellow trees are so rich and illuminated as his skies are so bright, so at times my attention is turned to them from the farmers who toil underneath them. As in the case of the painting above, it its easy to turn one’s gaze from the famers because the native hats they wear (known as salakot) often cover over the faces and heads, making them anonymous, and indistinguishable from one another. The repetition of farmers bowed down as they sow rice saplings form a diagonal line to the right side of the canvas, leads the gaze naturally to follow the direction toward the three farmers with their backs toward us, and unto to the lonely guitar player farther back. But after the musician, our gaze is led to the trees and upward finally unto the beautiful clouds in the sky, where our eyes finally rest. This Amorsolo, with its directional guides, make us appreciate the whole canvas from bottom to top. We begin as it were from human toil in the soil, and then to the nature which watches over us, and then to the freedom the skies promise. The painting tells me that whatever present hardship we may be experiencing, all the ‘toil and trouble’ that hard work entails, is to be rewarded in time: come harvest season, when the fields are golden, we shall reap what we have sowed.
              Planting and harvesting, evidently requiring different activities that are to be accomplished during different times, are nevertheless identical. We sow what we hope to reap, and reap only what we have sowed. The sometimes painful difficulty with this natural cycle is the period of waiting. Since the famer cannot do anything to ‘speed up the process’ or hasten ‘development’ or inject artificial ‘growth’—the watchwords of today’s industry and economy—he or she is left to wait and watch many sunrises and sunsets before work is rewarded. Often lost today in the world of technology and capitalism is the virtue of patience. In a time when faster is better, when everything should be a click of a button away, convenient, and efficient, we have forgotten the art of waiting: of enduring time and staying in it. When one’s waking day is covered over by the distractions of both work and entertainment, time escapes us, and no longer makes itself felt. And one only has to undergo (sometimes painfully) a period of waiting in order to once again feel time and its weight, or its substantiality.
            Experiences of waiting, as a farmer does for the sun to come out on its own in order to plant, let the truth of time enter our lives again. Time’s truth is that it passes, and cannot but pass, and along with it everything that is earthbound and mortal. The passing of time in the fields, which is marked by day and night, or the giving and taking of space by light and darkness, remind us that we too have to pass. “It is us who pass when we say time passes” (Bergson). The farmer above all has a ‘sense’ of time, has the greatest feel for it; above all, it is he who respects time the most. He was born in it and he shall die in it, in the meantime he lives in it and by it, he stays in it and dwells in it.             The philosopher Martin Heidegger, after his so-called “turn” or Kehre, likened thinking to dwelling, particularly saying that to be mortal means to be able to dwell.[1] As one of the pioneering thinkers of modern technology, the later Heidegger would turn his attention to such things as countryside bridges, peasant shoes, and fruit gatherers; and of waiting and letting be (Gelassenheit). Which comes to no surprise: after entering the age of modern technology, we have lost sense of space and time, have forgotten to look up the skies and watch sunrises and sunsets.
             Amorsolo’s iconic Filipino farmers are spared from such forgetfulness of space and time—and therefore of life. And that is what Amorsolo to my mind tried to show: the unfolding of life set against the backdrop of nature. Whereas we in the city are sheltered but at the same time separated from each other by concrete walls in which lifeless objects litter our space, rural life today as in Amorsolo’s time teem with life and light. We commute from place to place daily form our homes to the workplace, to the restaurant, and the market and to many other locations (the mall, cinema, etc.) we have to reach in order to fulfill our different desires. In the countryside, as carefully depicted by Amorsolo, there need not be too many commutes people there have to make. For everyday life happens in one place, albeit in a wide space. Life springs from and remains in our native soil—ang ating tinubuang lupa.
            Different activities unfold in the fields and are shared among fellow farmers and their families. A sense of community is still present there, in contrast to the isolation capitalist competition and individualism has relegated individuals to. If the eating places of the city are littered by small tables for small groups (of friends, family), meals are enjoyed in the fields where no tables are set to separate one from the other. Amorsolo depicted meals shared by family and friends under the cold shade of mango trees. They share among themselves fresh produce and grain. The idea of “farm to market” restaurants which to many today seem so novel (and expensive!), is the norm if you live in the farm.

Communing with Others

Under the Mango Tree, 1941

In “Under the Mango Tree” a family awaits the rice which a careful girl cooks in an earthen cooking pot. Behind them, as in other similar paintings, we still see some farmers hard at work as they harvest rice. In “Afternoon Meal under a Mango Tree” we see a mother welcoming the return of his husband from the plain, ready to enjoy what his wife has prepared for him as he rests from his work. Filipinos typically love the shades of the trees, and we do so in order to cool ourselves away from the sun which loves our lands. And it is in those moments of respite beneath a cool shade that we are able to catch up with one another or share a meal or simply rest alongside family and friends.   The tree in this sense offers not only shade or protection for us; it is like a second home for the farmer, another dwelling place where he can stay and be with others as in a home. Trees are not only raw materials for wood and lumber, but their shade has for millennia also been a home to mankind, a place of communion or solitude, even of enlightenment. Under the cover of trees human beings feel secure and at the same time admit that they are only dwellers of the land, dependent on its fruits and for its protection. Today’s exploitation of our natural resources, their objectification as raw materials for production in industries such as manufacturing and technology, are antithetical to what Amorsolo’s works evoke.
            The natural environment is not only a source of human production, but a home, a life-world where our daily life unfolds. Amorsolo’s paintings show the possibility of still being immersed in the natural world, in the extreme sense that there is no separation between background and foreground, man and nature, subject and object. Again, there is no clear focus in some of his works, signifying to my mind that his pictures can only be seen as a whole, a whole not built by different parts (man, field, tree, sky), but as a synthetic whole wherein to abstract one element out would change everything—or change nothing. For nature and mankind are to be forever linked and shall remain the same even if they pass; they both are born and then die, and then the cycle of nature and of life continues. In nature nothing really changes even if everything changes. Likewise daily life is always the same but also always different; it is always the same sun that in its rising calls on us to work and in its setting invites us to rest; like the same yet always different meals we have to prepare and happily take within a day.

Intimacy with Nature

Lavanderas Bathing, 1943

One of the more intriguing subjects Amorsolo trained his keen eye on is the nude Filipina. Drawing and painting nudes are of course nothing to new to painters: the exercise gives them the opportunity to master the human body, always one of the more difficult subjects to put on canvas. Amorsolo was no different, having sketched and painted numerous nudes in his day. With his brush he produced many provocative works dealing with the Filipina maiden of the fields—the iconic “dalagang bukid”—which has etched a place in our collective memories. Their sun-kissed skin, knowing eyes and delicate poses while bathing in particular challenge the preconceptions of maidens shying away from sight, hiding themselves from plain view.
            In “Lavanderas Bathing” Amorsolo catches that precise moment when an otherwise confident maiden covers over herself presumably because we have stolen a glance. But her movement gives away the silhouette of her whole body. The center maiden in “Women Bathing by the Stream” is not as conscious. She bathes innocently and confidently with the help of another woman. Other works offer the same themes of intimacy and unreservedness, modesty and demureness.
            Such unity with their surroundings can only be possible because we imagine that for them the streams and plains themselves are intimate spaces where one can be unguarded. Just like resting under a tree or having a meal, nothing is as natural as bathing oneself. But beyond such mundane activities done in the open, Amorsolo’s paintings tells us that these activities can be done because nature is intimate in its openness, a familiar in its rawness. The shaded streams and thick shrubbery house us to give a sense of a privacy which is not really private. Before the modern division between the public and the private, originally demarcated by the spaces we traverse (the plaza, market, Church against the home), there was the possibility of the public being private as well, an open intimacy which could only be provided by our natural environment in its breadth and different terrains.

Evidently, the question of environmental ethics—of our stance and thinking regarding nature—would be a non-question for those whose livelihoods depended on her, like the farmer and the fisherman. Exempting cases brought about by the logic of supply and demand of economy where they end up exploiting nature in order to produce and therefore earn more (kaingin, dynamite fishing, etc.), the farmer and fisherman logically care for that which gives them their daily bread. One does not bite the hand that feeds you—or so we thought until the relatively recent phenomenon of modern technology and capitalism which were only inaugurated around two hundred or so years ago.
            Hence the also relatively recent question of environmental ethics which has now become more urgent than ever before. The objectification of nature and its resources can only be possible because we see in it possible means for production and opportunities for profit, whereas in the beginning they were the sources of a man’s life and happiness. It was home. Nature and home are never objects for a human person who resides there for it is the place or backdrop where his own life unfolds; it is his own horizon without which, like a subject of a painting, he will not be possible or not be a person. A human person—we must think—is to be defined by his surroundings because he is a part of that whole, and one must understand the whole in order to understand the parts. A long time ago philosophy itself was not divided into specializations or fields of topics such as metaphysics, logic, epistemology, etc. The Pre-Socratic philosophers, in their wonder before the visible world, their beautiful cosmos, questioned not about themselves and who they were or their place in the world—their question was about the whole, what everything was made of, or the basic element which ties all the different phenomena and beings in the world together. Behind their question of the urstoff, what the basic “stuff” of the cosmos was, was experience of that primal amazement before nature and its unity in spite of diversity. They thought, in essence, that there was a divinity in nature—not a particular god monotheism introduced much later—but a sacredness to it, a holiness that sheltered and protected all beings. Before the questions of man’s soul and the divinity of reason were posed by Socrates, there were the natural philosophers who put the cosmos as the foremost question and miracle.
            The focus has obviously been reversed. Man now stands against nature by investigating and experimenting with it, by consuming it, and abusing it to the brink of a foreseen annihilation. To clarify, this is not a question about how we could return to that romantic and idyllic past, as if everything can just be crossed out with a stroke of a pen. The question is not to go back, but to look back in order to know how to go forward more cautiously, more prudently. And Amorsolo I believe has much to say especially to us Filipinos about the possibility of recalling the past. His paintings of the fields, of rural life, and of our intimacy with nature offer old and new possibilities of life and thinking about our world.
            Again, this is not a call to the countryside, a simple resignation of urban life and rejection of capitalism and technology—though that movement has started already (of businessmen retiring in the provinces in order to farm, of families moving out of cities because they do not want their children to grow in such suffocation, etc.). Painters paint for us to see new phenomena that we otherwise cannot see ‘in reality’. At a time where vision reigns and images are more communicative than texts, the role of the painter who is able to show us possibilities of living and renewal all the more becomes important. The high calling of the painter is to show truths that may be hidden or covered over or forgotten. It is time to call on the painter once again to present truths which are no longer attained by reason or logic (the very faculties we have employed that led us to this problem). It will be prudent to consider the wisdom that art has to offer as we try to face the question of environmental ethics—a wisdom of sight and beauty which was made possible because nature first showed itself to us.

January 2015

[1] Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. and with an introduction by Albert Hofstadter (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 49-49.


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