NATIONAL MUSEUM: Guillermo Tolentino

I had the pleasure of being invited by my  favorite bank to an important event last May 30 at the National Museum. Receiving an email invite from Security Bank’s Cressie Allanigue, I immediately replied, accepting the invite and   conveying my thanks.  To which, her boss, Olivia Yao, retorted with a suggestion that I brought my son Marcel.

Feeling good about the advice, I did just that. My son and I were off to the museum and we sure did enjoy the art masterpieces to be viewed at the Bulwagang Luna at Hidalgo (https://bicolanopenguinswonderlog.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/national-museum-luna-and-hidalgo/)  as well as  the smaller Galleries I, II and III which housed Philippine colonial religious art from the 17th century, Basi revolt paintings, and additional works of Juan Luan and Felix Hildago, respectively.  For this journey thru the three galleries, we had Security Bank EVP Eduardo  Olbes to thank for literally pointing  us the way.

The direct purpose, though, of our being in the museum  on that May 30 was to join in the celebrations of the inauguration of the  new Security Bank Hall.  The special event, billed as “Entwined: Weaving Strands of Time and Tradition,” was a collaborative undertaking of the National Museum,  Security Bank Corporation and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

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The hall, an exhibition gallery, has been renovated with the assistance of Security Bank, so the National Museum renamed it the Security Bank Hall. It now features rarely seen works of the first National Artist for Sculpture, Guillermo Tolentino, in a retrospective exhibit titled, “Eskultor ng Lahing Filipino: Honoring the Life and Work of National Artist Guillermo Tolentino.” Of course, the top guns of the banking industry were there, led  by BSP Governor Amando Tetangco, Jr. and SB Chairman Frederick Dy.  Also in attendance were National Museum’s Chair Ramon Del Rosario and Director Jeremy Barns.

It is noteworthy that banks are among the fervent patrons of the arts.  I remember a decade ago, the move of the then Far East Bank of bringing back to the country a sizeable chunk of Luna works. And now this solid act of Security Bank in helping the National Museum.  A bank is in the business of safeguarding wealth and the long-lasting value of the works of National Artists cannot be discounted.   

But the man of the hour, though, was the National Artist himself.

Now, who is Guillermo Tolentino?

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Tolentino was born July 24, 1890 in Malolos, Bulacan.  He studied in UP, learning from the likes of Vicente Rivera in painting and Vicente Francisco in sculpture.  Graduating from the UP School of Fine Arts in 1915, he went abroad in 1919, gaining further studies at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in the US and the Regge Instituto di Belle Arti di Roma in Italy. He came back to the Philippines in 1923. He received many national and international awards ranging from UNESCO’s Cultural Award in Sculpture (1959) to the President’s Medal of Merit (1972). Of course, the acclaimed highlight was when he was recognized as a National Artist in 1973.  He died July 12,  1976.   

It is hoped that Manila-based  runners should be familiar with him for one of his foremost creations is a long-standing  habitué of the University of the Philippines – Diliman Campus  2.2km loop. Yup. Tolentino is the brains and hands behind the iconic UP Oblation.  Other famous works include the Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan and the bronze figures of Manuel Quezon at Quezon Memorial. He also designed the gold medals of the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

The  Tolentino artworks housed in the Security Bank Hall include busts of national heroes and historical personalities such as José Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Gen. MacArthur, Bishop Aglipay, Philippine presidents  Quezon,  Marcos and Magsaysay. Plus,  Tolentino’s paintings and other polychrome and plaster-of-Paris busts portraying ordinary Filipinos.

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But two pieces of work caught my special attention, and I think it was deliberate that the museum curator  would position the duo   at the center of the hall.

They are maquettes of the Commonwealth Triumphal Arch.  Being face to face with it, I could not help but think pinoy version of France’s Arc  de Triomphe. The Arch  looked marvelous, even at such a small scale.   

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Getting inspiration from the festival archs of  town fiestas in the provinces, Tolentino had the arch supported by men working together.  On one side is a sculptural relief of a mother breastfeeding a baby while on the other side depicts a lola telling a story to her apos.  These figures are replete with nationalistic symbolisms from the bayanihan to the rendition of heroic tales.

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Sadly, this monument of our national pride never happened.  Why?  Curious, I googled about it and came upon a  2002 article by Paulo Alcazaren at the Philstar website (http://www.philstar.com/modern-living/180502/forgotten-triumphs).  It talks about how in 1935 plans were made by the University of the Philippines Alumni   Association, under the guidance of the UP President Jorge Vargas, for the construction of a monument to commemorate the inauguration of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. Tolentino, the sculpture chosen, was promptly able to present a maquette to President Quezon and the National Assembly. The original location was the intersection of Padre Burgos and Taft Avenue, in front of the Legislative Building. The cost of the monument was Php 500,000,  and to raise the money the Post Office issued commemorative stamps. Unfortunately, World War II happened and devastated the archipelago.  A poor and ravaged country would have no immediate appetite.

In 1958, the idea was revived by the Philippine Historical Association. Tolentino was again approached and he immediately figured the arch’s dimensions  to 27 meters tall, 22 meters wide and 8 meters thick.  The scale  of the monument was calculated to fit  into the size of the new location which was the rotunda at the corner of Highway 54 and the Quezon Boulevard.  This rotunda lasted until the 1970s and disappeared with the widening of EDSA. The Arch was never built.   

A sad tale.  The Arch was meant to celebrate the Filipino’s quest for freedom and nationhood. Celebrating not a single hero but the collective bayanihan effort.  Sad  as it is forgotten.  But maybe, and just maybe, in one of the school tours to the National Museum, a future president of the republic or a future tycoon may get the chance to gaze at the magnificence of the mini-version inside the Security Bank Hall  and gets inspired to have it come into fruition in his or her prime years. The dream then never dies.

And if indeed the dream lives, then it would be a triumph of nationhood and of the arts. What a great way to salute the work of Guillermo Tolentino. A  man referred to by another National Artist, Napoleon Abueva,  as  “…the first and last master in the representation of the human form in the Philippines.“      

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