by: Eric Torres
from The Times Journal, Sunday, October 26,1975
Any one who wants to study the works of early Filipino painters will find a small if lacklustre collection in our National Museum to start with. The real glories, unseen by many and unknown even to connoisseurs, hang in ancestral homes – or are kept in the garages – of some of the premier families of Manila and neighboring provincial towns. Just to see these masterpieces in a house –to-house quest is a matter of such Odysean resourcefulness and frustration to make one imagine that a camel’s passage through the eye of a needle simpler.
The relative obscurity today of painters born in the early decades of the 19th century is undeserved though explainable. Perhaps the cultist attention to those late 19th-century laureates who made it to the fashionable salons of Europe, Juan Luna and Felix Resurrection Hidalgo, has made many lose sight of the genuine, and no-less-brilliant, achievements of such artists who stayed home and contributed to the development of a native aesthetic tradition as Antonio Malantic, Lorenzo Guerrero, Simon Flores, and the legendary Justiniano Asuncion, alias Capitan Ting.
At the peak of his creative life Capitan Ting enjoyed a reputation matched only by that Master of Tondo, Malantic. A work done in his prime, which has been in the possession of the Castrillo sisters of Biῇan, Laguna, for generations, is an oil portrait of his grandniece, Romana Asuncion Carrillo, dated 1870 and signed “J.A.” is a florid script. It is as sophisticated as one could ask for, in late Renaissance style characteristic by a mirror-image illusionism, classical clarity of outline, and veristic modelling. It is certainly more full-fleshed than any portrait by Damian Domingo, the mestizo who directed the first school of fine arts in Manila; by comparison, Domingo’s portraits look like whimsical dolls or mannequins.
The portrait of Romana tells us much about the conventions of portraiture at that time. The subject is idealized: forehead, nose and mouth are rendered with pearly smoothness; no trace of epidermal imperfection is allowed to appear; eyes peer at the beholder in a manner piercingly limpid and alive; not one strand of the well-combed hair is out of place.
One convention demanded that the appearance of the sitter be impeccably correct, in unimpeachable taste, for the portrait was meant not merely to decorate the growing expanse of the walks in the house of Indios whose wealth derived from trade and commerce. It was also a cachet of status for the rising ilustrado class eager to win the respect of everyone and to perpetuate an image of superior education and breeding in the best possible light.
As in Renaissance icons of European nobility, the portrait of a lady was calculated to show the comfort and leisure of her class, and to show these by her putting on the finest and most expensive clothes – fulsome panuelo and camisa of piῇa, billowy skirt of brilliant silky stripes and such accessories as perfumed lace handkerchief and ivory fan. Sitting for a portrait also provided a splendid excuse to deck herself with the treasures of her jewel box, and these consisted of comb, petache (a hair ornament), earring, tamburin (pendant) or rosary – all studded with pearls and diamonds – and rings on most fingers (three for each hand was a standard number). Each exquisite detail of rococo embroidery and filigree was delineated with a virtuoso precision designed to astonish.
Above all the artist was expected to capture an ambience of decorum and highmindedness, which among other things meant keeping the sitter’s mouth shut.
What gives pictorial clout to early portraiture by painters of Capitan Ting’s calibre was a certain delicate tension created between the exuberant linear and textural details of finery on one hand, and the rather plain Pilar expression of the face on the other – and again between the stiff transparent planes of dress and the roundly sensuous modelling of the face, hands and sometimes forearms, if shown at all. Evident in Capitan Ting’s best portraits is a wide-eyed, provincial curiosity about the status-seeking attitudes and material splendour of his ilustrado patrons, whom he saw at their Sunday best – a curiousity mixed with just the right measure of enthusiasm and detachment, which accounts for the crisp sentimentality in the portraits he did of the women in the Paterno family of Quiapo.
Capitan Ting was born in Sta. Cruz, Manila, on September 23, 1816 to a family of Chinese extraction. (In a double portrait he did of his parents, his father strikes a pose which clearly displays his Chinese queue.) He was second to the youngest of 12 children. Five of his brothers were all-around painters and sculptors, the most gifted of whom was Leoncio, who carved fine religious images in ivory and baroque furniture as well.
About 1855 he served as barrio captain for Santa Cruz, and was well liked for his worldly wisdom and congeniality. That he had a stone house built on Calle Quiton is a sign that he enjoyed some measure of economic prosperity from commerce. There he lived most of his long life, raised six children, and supported a number of relatives. In his late years, he retired to Bulan, Sorsogon, where two of his sons, also painters, had settled down. In his Bicol retirement, he raised some of the best fighting cocks in the region. He died in Bulan in 1896 at the age of 80.
A self-taught artist, he painted for pleasure rather than for money. Like the other masters of his time, he applied his prodigious skill to all kinds of art work, including colourful genre illustrations depicting such local types as a mestiza cooling herself by the river, a vendor of mats, an aficionado of the cockpit coddling his gamecock, and so on, which must have delighted foreign visitors.
He did works of monumental scale as well as miniatures no larger than the size of one’s palm. His one magnum opus of imposing dimensions depicting bigger-than-life figures of four saints, Jerome, Agustin, Gregory, and Ambrose, painted on the pendentives of the Santa Cruz church, was destroyed by fire, before World War II.
But the miniatures have survived as heirlooms among fourth generation Asuncions. These are portraits in oil or watercolour on thin, flat pieces of ivory whose texture was used to enhance the luminescent quality of his hues and to give the superfine rendering of the skin and hair the highest degree of verismo.
A branch of the Asuncion family tree, the Gomezes of Ongpin street, has a few examples which clearly reveal the miniaturismo method. This consisted of first polishing the surface of the ivory to a fine sheen and then drawing the outlines of the figure in pencil. The last stage, the most painstaking, called for the application of paint by means of a tiny brush (which appears for all intents and purposes to have had no more than three or four hairs) in a pointillistic system of dots, or points.
The result was a pellucid illusion of the model which no mere photography could possibly achieve.
“He must have had a sense of humor,” comments one of his descendants, Mrs. Corazon Galang of Cubao, Quezon City. Compared to Capitan Ting’s, Malantic portraits look glum, somber and unsmiling. A quiet cheer or optimism pervades the canvases of the Master of Santa Cruz, especially when he painted women of all ages, of which the portrait of Dolores Paterno, the composer of the languid “Sampaguita,” in the Carmen Gabriel collection, is a fair example.
This optimism radiates with an inspired luster in a portrait of a favourite niece, Filomena Asuncion, a moon-faced beauty whom he painted with a robust sensuousness and a discreet smile ready to break out from her moist lips – a relief from the general uptightness of portraits by his contemporaries. This one, signed “J.A.” and dated 1860 carries a matter-of-fact notation, “A los 22 aῇos y 10 dias de edad,” as if to twit the vanity of human wishes, especially for recuerdos of one’s youth. In doing her portrait, perhaps the best he ever did, Capitan Ting raised the quality of lifelikeness to the level of trompe l’oeil.
His facility for the fool-the-eye lifelikeness was once put to a severe test when he chose for a model the image of no less a celebrity than Our Lady of Antipolo. The final version he did, now in the possession of a descendant who lives in Paco, is in pencil and opaque watercolour. Earlier versions were dismal failures. Each time he painted her the trompe l’oeil turned out gloriously for the rich gold embroidery of the cape and gown and the numerous diamonds that studded her apparel and the gold jewelry she wore from head to fingers. But he just could not get the cool, aristocratic face right. Somebody suggested the reason why she was so elusive was that he was not approaching her properly enough. He had better paint kneeling down, he was told. And that was how he painted the face in the final version, on his knees.
Two anecdotes show Capitan Ting’s humor to advantage, and both deal with his reputation as a magician of visual effects.
Gasps and giggles
He used to hang an oil painting on a wall in his house facing the street and visible to pedestrians (through an open door). Its purpose? To gull the unwary passerby into seeing a baby falling off a split-bamboo bed, or papag, as much as to draw gasps of amazement from the unsuspecting witness of the “accident” – and giggles from the painter and his household who were in on the joke, of course.
Another Capitan Ting fool-the-eye steals a leaf from the Zeuxis, that hyper-realistic painter of ancient Greece who was said to have painted a bunch of grapes so accurately that birds came to peck at them. For want of something better to do in his late years, he painted on the flat top of a wooden trunk, or baul, a scattering of coins painted with such finicky fidelity to the real thing that house guests would try to pick them up.
Did he leave any self-portrait?
Mrs. Galang recalls one which he painted of himself as a gaunt-looking old man with thinning gray hair, deep-set eyes, and mouth unceremoniously open. The children of her sister, who inherited the autoretrato, used to play with it as a means of scaring other kids in the neighbourhood with cries of “Mamaw!” When last heard of, it lay in the basement of her house, a rolled-up piece of canvas gathering dust. And now this sister thinks it might have been inadvertently thrown away.
Tracking them down
One of these days, a great grandnephew of Capitan Ting, Rafael Asuncion, a painter in his own right (whose father, Jose Asuncion, a painter of prewar renown, was the grandson of Leoncio Asuncion), intends to carry out an ambitious plan: a family reunion of all living Asuncions in an attempt to track down and recover extant works by their illustrious ancestor. “None of Lolo Ting’s relatives ever paid very much attention to his paintings,” confesses Mrs. Galang. “None of us ever imagined he would be historically important someday.”
What might yet turn up, if ever the project pushes through, is that missing self-portrait of an artist who is all but forgotten in our time and who, in his peak years, painted masterpieces which now deserve to be declared National Treasures.
A tale likely to be recounted in this planned grand reunion has to do with the last years of Capitan Ting in his Bulan retirement, the best I have heard yet.
His fighting cocks proved to be such persistent winners in the pit that in time (so the story goes) nobody wanted to put up a fight against his champions, as though they had charmed lives. So he decided to employ a little cunning. He changed the colors of his champions by dyeing (one version says “painting”) their feathers so nobody could recognize them, and this way managed to con his fellow cockers – a master of illusion, or deception, to the very end.
Transcribed from the clipping by Anna Rojas, September 28, 2017.