How Fernando Amorsolo's Drawings Helped Shape a Generation of Filipino Leaders
In the years of the American Occupation, one of the most important instructional resources used in Philippine schools was the Philippine Readers Series. It introduced whole generations of Filipino youth to what they would come to know about the world. The stories and illustrations helped mold the perspectives of a nation.
The series’ author, Camilo Osias, was one of the first scholars sent to study abroad after the American invasion of the Philippine Republic. He studied education at schools such as Columbia University in New York City. Upon his return to the Philippines he embarked on an illustrious career, eventually becoming the first Filipino Superintendent of Schools. He was later elected Senator and served as Senate President.
From the story of Doña Teodora Alonso and her son, José Rizal.
It can be gleaned from the revised editions that Osias held copyright to the Readers material as early as 1919. A team of collaborators helped in the production of the Series. Teachers and officials from Abra to Davao are listed in the acknowledgements. To stress that he had not worked alone, Osias’ byline is followed by the phrase, “... and Others” spelled out completely in uppercase letters.
Among those who helped the series see the light of day was the artist Fernando Amorsolo. One indication of the painter’s reputation at that time is the fact that, unlike the teachers mentioned above, he is credited on the title page as illustrator. In contrast, the illustrators of similar publications were not as lucky. In the Philippine Health Series of 1935 for example, one only knows that the artwork came from the hand of Ireneo Miranda because his signatures are clearly visible.
It seems that Amorsolo actually served as art director for the Philippine Readers. Osias explains that he selected some of the illustrations for the stories which had been reprinted from foreign sources. Osias also explains in the preface of the 1932 edition of Book Two that: “Both the author and the illustrator, Mr. Fernando Amorsolo, being Filipinos, depict not only what they have heard and seen, but in many instances what they themselves have actually experienced. Both are aware of the things in Philippine and foreign life and literature worthy of transmission to Filipino children…”
Clearly, the future National Artist participated actively in the creation of the series. What then were these textbooks like?
The world of the Philippine Readers was filled with idyllic rural scenes, historical tableaus and vignettes from fantasy and fancy. Given the innate power of visual images, it may be posited that Amorsolo’s drawings truly helped shape the consciousness of young people who would grow up to lead the nation. It should be remembered that the generation that studied the readers were members of a new elite, educated by the American regime to play important roles in society.
From the legend of the first banana tree.
What Amorsolo depicted corresponds with the main body of his works as described by scholars. In the Readers one encounters countryside panoramas filled with kalabaw, ricefields, bahay kubo and bamboo. One also sees the painter’s favored rendition of the Filipina.
As discussed by art historian Alfredo Roces, Amorsolo’s idealized portrayal of Philippine womanhood had features similar to Miss Universe, Gloria Diaz. The artist usually drew the women in the Series wearing baro’t saya, the local costume. In contrast, some of the men are shown in Western suits complete with neckties. One notable exception would be an illustration of students in a school yard whose attire would have been easily recognized by their counterparts in California. Interestingly, in a story about a human-like pig, the creature is shown wearing a tapis!
In many ways, the Amorsolo drawings helped form the self-image of young girls and boys in the Philippines. Nipa huts, bamboo groves and kalabaw would soon dominate the collective nostalgic imagination of a whole country.
Amorsolo also produced images of Pre-hispanic Filipinos. This was very much in keeping with his major works like Early Filipino State Wedding, Traders and Sikatuna. Similary, the painter’s iconic 1922 work, Rice Planting which has been described as “one of the most popular images of the Commonwealth Period” finds its counterpart in a harvest scene in Book Four which accompanied a piece entitled, “Secrets About Growing Rice.”
Nena and her lamp of fireflies in a bottle.
Some of the illustrations can be quite dramatic and even dark. In Book Five, for example, a terrifying giant is seen creeping up on a little boy cowering in a cave. In the same book is one of the loveliest images in the Series: Jose Rizal being taught how to read by his mother, Teodora Alonso. Doña Teodora is depicted wearing the fashion of the period complete with the large striped skirt. Her arm lovingly encircles the young Jose whose shirt is also striped. A background of bamboo completes the picture. One cannot help but recall similar images of St. Anne teaching the young Mary to read, a well-loved illustration of the resiliency of the Divine Word. Could Amorsolo’s image have been an allusion to the holy mother and daughter pair?
More research will have to be done to determine when the illustrations for the series were made. All the drawings associated with the Philippine Readers as reproduced in Roces’ seminal book on the National Artist are dated 1932. One source points out that by the 1930s, Amorsolo had already been so successful that he could afford to give up commercial work. What is quite evident is that there was a kind of cross-fertilization going on between the Readers’ illustrations and the painters’ main body of work.
Alice Guillermo and Rene Javellana, writing in the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art credit Amorsolo as being “the first to extensively portray traditional Filipino customs ad manners, fiestas, and occupations like fishing, planting, going to market, washing laundry, cooking and reading.” It may be posited that the painter was actually tapping into an important need of a Philippine society that was gradually becoming more aware of itself. It was an awareness that was, however, tempered by the agenda of the American colonizers. From the early days of the Occupation, the Americans had been busy charting and photographing their new colony. Nothing escaped the acquisitive imperial eye, not markets and fruits, volcanoes, exotic costumes, house interiors, forms of transportation, half-naked bathers. Documentation meant ownership and a whole new wonderland was just waiting to be described, pictured and owned. The first coin produced by the American authorities was a woman with an anvil indicating the colonizer’s stress on productivity. In the background one spies a mountain whose perfect cone identifies it as Mount Mayon. The message is clear: both woman and tumescent geographic feature are now part of this new insular possession.
An iconic rice harvest scene
This then is the world of Amorsolo. It is no accident that among his most enthusiastic clients were American officials and tourists seeking the perfect souvenir of their sojourn in Paradise. Interestingly, American visions of what was supposed to make up the Philippine world would be passed on to the Filipinos themselves. This is not surprising given how much more people had been reached by the American machinery compared to that of the Spanish. Through a revitalized and democratized education system and with the advancements in photography, a whole generation of Filipinos were learning how to look at themselves as dictated by the colonial framework set by their American masters. In many ways, the drawings in the Readers helped form the self-image of young girls and boys in the Philippines. Nipa huts, bamboo groves and kalabaw would soon dominate the collective nostalgic imagination of a whole country. Could one even dare suggest that Amorsolo’s school book illustrations would help mold Filipino tastes and perhaps lay the groundwork for the popularity of his paintings among future art patrons?
This story was originally published in the September 2008 issue of Town & Country Philippines.