Thursday, December 23, 2010

SATOSHI on Letras Y Figuras, an ingenious Filipino art form (Part 1)

I was looking for an appropriate Christmas card in my stash, when I saw this card, published by the Ayala Museum in the Philippines. This work by Alvaro Jimenez in watercolor in 2002 is entitled “PASKO”, which in Filipino means “Christmas”. I was very lucky to be able to negotiate and purchase the original painting in 2002 in which the card is based on. What makes this painting interesting is that it is based on the 19th century style called Letras y Figuras (Letters and Figures).

Letras y Figuras is perhaps the most unique Filipino design arts during the Spanish colonial period. It is an art form wherein the artist creatively forms letters by making the most out of the contours, colors and shadings of the different human figures, animals, plants and other objects. A letras y figuras artwork normally showcases an individual’s name – usually the patron’s. It usually integrates a variety of images that tell the story about the patron who commissioned it. A good example of this is the modern letras y figuras artwork in the Malacanang Museum of the Philippines bearing the name of Imelda Romualdez Marcos. Yes, the politician and wife of the 10th Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, who is often remembered for her collection of 2700 pairs of shoes. In her painting, buildings and institutions that she (and her husband) has established were proudly showed-off. I do wonder who painted it.

Santiago Pilar, an expert on 19th century paintings and a professor of humanities explained it as “age-tinted paintings in manila paper depicting vignettes of the 19th century Philippine life, ingeniously arranged, delineated and highlighted with color to form the letters spelling out a certain person’s name.” She believes that they are “some of the most quaint and endlessly fascinating relics of the Filipino culture in the Spanish times.”

Jose Honorato Lozano (1815-1855)

watercolour on Manila paper
23 x 28in. (58.4 x 71.2cm.)

Unfortunately, I rarely see this art form practiced in the Philippines anymore. Thinking about it, this painting by Alvaro Jimenez is the only one I have seen since 2002 despite my occasional visits to different Philippine galleries. My little bit of research indicated that the Instituto Cervantes in the Philippines used to hold an annual Letras y Figuras competition. However, the latest article I can find in relation to it was in 2005, the 10th Letras y Figuras Visual Arts Competition. Back in 2002, Instituto Cervantes presented an extensive Letras y Figuras exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila to honor this classic Filipino art form. The exhibition was composed of three modules: 1) original 19th century works from private and institutional collectors, 2) works by today’s foremost authority in Letras y Figuras painting, Alvaro Jimenez; and 3) the works of the seven finalists of the 7th Letras y Figuras Visual Arts Competition, as well as the awarded entries in previous editions of the contest.

This uniquely Filipino art genre is so rich in history and visual beauty that it would be such a loss if Filipinos stop practicing it.

For more information about this art form, here are some articles I have found in the web:

P.S. Like to know more about Letras y Figuras? Check out my interview with the foremost authority of Letras y Figuras, Alvaro Jimenez.

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At February 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM , Blogger hanzst said...

Amazing! this is a great find to know that you have the original "Pasko" painting!

you might want to be updated of the works of alvaro jimenez - you can check his personal website and portfolio.

can we exchange post? i would like to feature you on the website, and of course you can feature the website too on your own..please email me at hanzylo(at)yahoo(dot)com


At February 18, 2011 at 12:02 PM , Blogger SATOSHI said...

HI! Thank you very much for your comment and also the information on his website! I have been trying to look for it for quite some time!

Let us do exchange email! Do you happen to know who did the IMELDA painting in Malacanang?


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