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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fernando Amorsolo

Man with a Chicken, 1938, Fernando Amorsolo

Fernando Amorsolo
Self-portrait (detail), 1942
Virtually every nation on earth has an individual they term their "National Artist." Sometimes there's a bit of disagreement as to which of several artists it might be but... The bigger the nation, the longer its cultural history, the more vibrant its art world, the more likely the disagreement as to which artist deserves such a title. In England, for instance, a reasonable argument could be made in favor of Turner, Constable, Gainsborough, even Francis Bacon. In France, where the art history is still longer, names such as David, Ingres, Manet, Monet, or Picasso (even though he was Spanish) might be mentioned. American art historians might propose Stuart, Church, Sargent, Rockwell, or Warhol, as candidates for such an honor. In a small country, such as the island nation of the Philippines, however, there would be general agreement. That man would be Fernando Amorsolo.

Defense of a Filipina Woman's Honor (detail), 1945, Fernando Amorsolo.
A WW I Amorsolo bond poster.
Fernando Amorsolo was born in 1892, a time which allowed him to see a great deal of Filipino history. The Philippine Islands were still under Spanish rule. The Americans had yet to set foot on the island, the wars were mostly a part of the next century, and national independence was an undreamt dream. Amorsolo died in 1972 at the age of eighty. Not only did he see all of the above, he even painted some of it. Actually, for an artist who might have built a career around simply painting the cataclysmic events of his time, Amorsolo could hardly be termed a "history painter." Although he did a few pieces in the latter years of WW II depicting the suffering and destruction of the war, such as his Defense of a Filipina Woman's Honor (above) from 1945, Amorsolo was far more interested in painting the good times--especially if there was a pretty girl involved.

Bathing Girls, Fernando Amorsolo. Most of the artist's nudes were neither titled or dated.
Magdalene,1919, lithographic
print, Fernando, Amorsolo
The artist knew a thing or two about pretty girls. He was married twice and had a total of fourteen kids, many of them pretty girls. Five of his children went on to become artists themselves. With a growing family such as that to support, Amorsolo also knew how to turn a buck. As far back as about 1919 he was making and selling lithographs of pretty nude girls, all of which were...pretty nude (right). American GIs loved them. They were a staple of his "art for sale" portfolio virtually all his life. Yet such works from Amorsolo's brush were seldom overtly erotic; they weren't far removed from the calendar pin-up girls of the time. Usually, they were simply bathing in a picturesque stream (above). Amorsolo painted an astounding 10,000 paintings in his lifetime, for many years turning out as many as ten a week. Some critics have cast a negative light on this "commercial" aspect of Amorsolo's work, but with fourteen hungry mouths to feed...

Planting Rice with Mayon Volcano, 1949, Fernando Amorsolo
--the land, the people, their livelihood, and the constant threat of cataclysm.
Maria Corazon Sumulong Cojuangco
Aquino, ca. 1953, Fernando Amorsolo
Of course, there was much more to Amorsolo's work than a bodacious bunch of bathing beauties. A man doesn't earn the august title "National Artist" without having a good deal more depth to his work than that. Amorsolo painted the people of his land, his family his friends, his neighbors doing what they did. His 1949 Planting Rice with Mayon Volcano (above) is one of his best "national artist" paintings. His Man with a Chicken (top) from 1938 is more typical, though. While it's not blatantly obvious, this man does not fondle his chicken hoping for more eggs or tastier thighs. He's is a cock fighter. He is lovingly massaging an athlete, and likely his meal ticket. (The "chicken" is probably a rooster, in any case,)

Return of the Fishermen, Fernando Amorsolo
His most famous wartime painting.
It's tempting to want to categorize Amorsolo as a genre painter, or a landscape artist, or more likely, a figure painter. But that would understate his importance. There is a classical idealism, which the artist rendered with truth and harmony, balance and beauty, alongside a national concept of the Filipino character rooted in rural communities enjoying the cycles of village life. When he wanted to be, he was a painter of gorgeous landscapes (above). He loved painting equally gorgeous girls (with or without attire). When the opportunity came, Amorsolo could also paint portraits, as seen in his youthful painting of the future Philippine President, Corazon Aquino (above, right), though most were of American generals and statesmen occupying his country after the war. And when war intruded into his happy homeland, the man could paint history as well (above, right and below). That kind of versatility is the very definition of a "National Artist."

Rizal Avenue in Ruins, 1945, Fernando Amorsolo


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