By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Saturday, September 6th, 2014
Call it an evening of yet another discovery of our little-known rich Filipino heritage.
I was intrigued by the invitation of Vibal Foundation to the launch of a coffee-table book, “The Life and Art of Isabelo Tampinco” written by Santiago Albano Pilar and edited by National Museum director Jeremy Barns, at the Old Senate Session Hall of the National Museum. I had known the name “Tampingco” (yes, with that misspelling) only as a street in San Lorenzo Village where friends lived, and meriting to be in the company of the other village street names as Amorsolo and Juan Luna because he was a Filipino sculptor.
That evening in the lovely hall with its fabled history of an era when stellar senators debated with eloquence and intelligence, the audience was introduced to Isabelo Tampinco (1850-1933) in several ways.
First, that he was no ordinary sculptor and was a contemporary and true peer of Jose Rizal and Juan Luna in the arts. If Rizal was the most outstanding writer of his time and Luna the most outstanding painter, Tampinco was the most outstanding sculptor. He and Rizal were even in the same drawing class. He did not go abroad to study like the two, but that did not prevent him from winning international honors. At the 1887 Exposicion General de las Islas Filipinas in Madrid, which was meant to call the attention of the Spanish government to the richness of the Philippine colony, Tampinco’s individual entries won a silver medal. His entries were described as a collection of religious images of wood or terra cotta or ivory, and miniature models of the ornamentation for the San Ignacio Church in Intramuros—a collection that could fill up a booth.
It was not easy staying focused on the ceremonies after being told that the very venue we were in only carried the sculptures of Tampinco and his sons Angel and Vidal. We craned our neck in admiration and awe, attempting to follow a diagram provided by the museum. Not the best vantage view, but it revealed how these clearly exhibit the sculptor’s deep knowledge of classical sculpture and his desire to Filipinize Western elements and recurring motifs of the neoclassical style. Consider that the scope of the art represented in this hall—standing figures of history’s great rulers and thinkers from Apolinario Mabini to Woodrow Wilson to Pope Leo XIII to Julius Caesar to Solon. There are seated figures, allegories representing various aspects of a progressive and independent nation.
How could someone like Isabelo Tampinco, whose legacy is so significant, have remained an unknown and obscure figure? His commissioned works for churches and public buildings were destroyed during the war years, while his extant pieces are in private collections. And previous to this book, there was scant material on him.
Thus, the ongoing art exhibit at the National Museum featuring Tampinco’s sculptures is a rare visual experience that has been made possible by collectors who allowed the public display of the works in their possession. It’s another mandatory field trip tailor-made for teachers and students, where genuine learning on Philippine history and culture can take place, from exhibit hall to the Old Senate Session hall to the many other museum offerings.
Along with the handsome gold-edged de luxe edition of the book is a short documentary tribute to the great artist. “Estilo Tampinco: The Life and Art of Isabelo Tampinco” carries interviews with author and art historian Pilar, museum director Barns, Tampinco art collectors Ernie Salas and Conrado Escudero. An interesting sidelight to the sculptor’s life is that his mother was Maria Justa de Lacandola, making him a descendant of Lakandula of Tondo.
All these efforts ensure that estilo Tampinco, with its art nouveau style and distinct use of local motifs as the bamboo and the anahaw, will be recognized, acknowledged and appreciated. The more public examples cited of Tampinco art are the classical frieze on wood found in Malacañang’s Executive House, an ornate wooden bulletin board at the Legarda Elementary School, and carved furniture at Villa Escudero. A wooden screen fragment of the San Ignacio Church is in the Ateneo Art Gallery, while other Malacañang pieces are the presidential chair and a side table with an acanthus motif.
Having been “instantly” familiarized with the estilo, we were then encouraged to go home and discover what Tampinco or Tampinco-influenced everyday pieces our homes may be fortunate to have, like those familiar elaborately carved wooden picture frames.
This latest project of Gaspar Vibal, executive director of Vibal Foundation, is part of its Arte Filipino series which has also documented in similar coffee-table editions artists Damian Domingo, Botong Francisco, Francisco Coching, Lee Aguinaldo and David Medalla for a larger public. It is a commendable and heroic effort to propagate Philippine culture especially among the youth and the rest of us who need to know and appreciate the rich legacy to which we are heirs. Belated as this knowledge may be, Isabelo Tampinco makes us stand tall and proud to be Filipino.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.