Sweet Caress (William Boyd, 2016)

Sweet Caress by William Boyd
Sweet Caress by William Boyd Hardcover, 464 pages Published September 15th 2015 by Bloomsbury USA (first published August 27th 2015)

British author William Boyd writes about the fictive photographer Amory Clay. She manages a photo agency in Paris during the Second World War and moves to Germany with the Allies. But what the heroine thinks about her profession does not go beyond truisms.

The British writer William Boyd is a prolific writer. His 15 novels have almost always made it to the bestseller lists, not just in the English-speaking market. One of Boyd’s trademarks is the invention of supposedly forgotten artists. So lifelike that the whole world of art has fallen for it as in the wonderful literary fun of Nat Tate, an American Expressionist who never existed.

In his new novel Boyd tells the story of the fictitious photographer Amory Clay. Born in 1908, the daughter of an English writer soon put on an amazing career, first as a society reporter in the high society of London, then she documents the Berlin sex and gay scene in a scandalous intention.

She goes to New York, where she meets the (married) man of her life; Back in London, she is brutally beaten up by English black shirts during secret shootings of street battles. During the Second World War, she runs a photo agency in Paris, moves to Germany as an “embedded journalist” with the Allies, marries a Scottish lord before finally working as a picture reporter in Vietnam in the 1960s.

An actual a century piece

This is a great stuff. Actually a century piece. You can see the real pioneers of photographic art back then. That’s what Boyd wanted, so he lets his heroine tell her. She looks back at her life on a Scottish island where the 70-year-old lives in seclusion with her dog, keeps a diary and drinks a bit too much whiskey. Unfortunately, and that’s the big disappointment, in a kess-superficial young girl tone, which covers the first half of the novel like frosting.

The real problem, however, is the theme of the book, photography. What the heroine thinks about her profession does not go beyond commonplaces. There “time is stopped”, the “moment is stopped”. What she wants to capture are “snapshots of light effects, abstract moments that a painter could never portray with his means”. Apart from a few sub-clauses on the technique of cross-fading, the medium does not matter. That Amory Clay had so much success – an empty assertion. You just do not think Boyd’s heroine is an equal contemporary of Margret Bourke-White, Marianne Breslauer, or Lee Miller, the Muse Man Rays, who was ambitiously battling from model to avant-garde photographer.

Illustrated is the novel with photos that Amory Clay allegedly shot himself. Boyd found them at flea markets or on the Internet, some even show the artist herself, out of focus enough to make her appear anonymous. But to put the illusion of a forgotten “photographers” in the world and to authenticate, the technically inefficient, aesthetically inadequate photos are not suitable. Just like the whole novel, of which nothing remains as a very attractive idea.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd Hardcover, 464 pages Published September 15th 2015 by Bloomsbury USA (first published August 27th 2015)

Gramsci and Bordieu on the critique of power

Similarities and differences of the critiques of power by Gramsci and Bourdieu

The following text deals with similarities and differences in the thinking of Gramsci and another eminent analyst: the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who died ten years ago, on January 23, 2002.

Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bordieu
Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bordieu

“If Gramsci was too optimistic about questioning domination,” writes American sociologist Michael Burawoy, “Bourdieu was too pessimistic.” [1] Antonio Gramsci did not pay enough attention to cultural mystifications that advanced capitalism was Guarantee continued. Pierre Bourdieu, on the other hand, considered habitual recognition to be too fundamental and universal, in which capitalist relations were reproduced.
This assessment, which Burawoy justifies in a recent essay, is based on another one: that the Italian party communist and the French sociologist have something in common. Burawoy is not the only one who supports this view. The fact that the approaches of the two theoreticians were systematically related to each other has, however, been astonishingly rare.

Optimistic Gramsci, pessimistic Bourdieu

The fact that Bourdieu refers in his major sociological work “The subtle differences” only once on Gramsci, had already noticed the Mexican cultural scientist Néstor García Canclini. He had attributed this to the assumption that Bourdieu did not want to contaminate his social science work – in the politicized atmosphere of the 1970s – by being too close to Marxism. This also seems to be a plausible assumption for the receptionists: The fact that Gramsci and Bourdieu have been thought up so little so far depends above all on the academic and political resentment of the respective followers.

Bourdieu has often been accused by the Marxist side of saying goodbye to political economy and being too “functionalist”, ie only explaining how things work, not how to change them. In contrast, the Bourdieu School still sees Gramsci as merely an ideology theorist. And Bourdieu had left the concept of ideology behind him and replaced it with the concept of habitus that went further in his conception.

In both terms, however, ideology and habitus, could also recognize the question that García Canclini had already described in 1984 as a common and Buroway now playing again as Gramsci and Bourdieu connecting: Why is rule so stable? Also in answering this question, both have some pretty similar ideas. To formulate it to this day can still be seen as pointing the way ahead: it is not violence and repression alone, as widely accepted in anarchistic and Marxist analyzes, that guarantee the maintenance of domination. In addition, there are more subtle forms of exercising power that function through unquestioned everyday practices, participation and privilege. Gramsci therefore spoke of “cultural hegemony,” the predominance of certain ways of thinking and behaving, Bourdieu called these not always recognizable modes of reproduction “symbolic power”.

On the one hand, both of them aim in their analyzes of dominance for culture in the broader sense: [3] Not only the compulsion to sell the workforce and the repressive devices military and police contribute to the stability of the conditions. The ways of thinking and the everyday practices, even the tastes, have their share in the reproduction of the existing. Culture in this sense should not be understood, according to Gramsci, as “encyclopaedic knowledge”, that man would be instilled into a “vessel”.

According to Gramsci, the special significance of the dominance of certain ideas and behaviors arises only from the fact that culture is to be understood as a matter of self-employment and practical appropriation. It is not for nothing that Gramsci called Marxism, which was supposed to help understand these practices, a “philosophy of practice”.

Class structure and cultural consumption
Also Bourdieu’s approach is – for the same reason – referred to as practice theory. He wanted to point out the connection between every allegedly personal taste judgment and the respective affiliation to a social class. The “consumption of cultural goods” (Bourdieu), ie the different ways of dealing with all sorts of art and everyday objects, finally became the focus of both analytical and political interest.

On the other Gramsci like Bourdieu dedicated themselves to culture in the narrower sense. So they asked about the role that books and artistic productions, from dime novels to opera visits, have in the maintenance of domination. Both taste and class have something to do with each other. Bourdieu has shown in empirical studies that of all the products consumers can choose from, “the legitimate works of art are the most classifying and class-giving” [4]. Brand sneaker and ringtone, subway reading and evening: One shows about the handling of cultural works is not only to which social class one belongs, but renewed and consolidates this affiliation also.

Bourdieu assumed that predominantly the prevailing class structure is reproduced in cultural consumption, and especially by the lower classes, which are oriented towards the upper classes. This is the pessimistic implication that Bourdieu draws from his studies, as mentioned by Burawoy. Gramsci, on the other hand, was more positive. The handling of works and ideas can thus develop a transformative effect. Just as in the story “the bayonets of the Napoleonic army […] had already paved the way for an invisible army of books and pamphlets,” [5] Gramsci saw also future upheavals prepared by manifest thoughts.

On the question of resistance, the theoretically and politically significant differences become apparent. Theoretically, Bourdieu – unlike most Marxist cultural theories – inserted into the idea that books and works of art changed political realities, or even a level of mediation. The effects of such artistic productions are always broken, meaning that Gramsci’s “Books and Brochures” had to be enforced only in certain circles and contexts – in Bourdieu’s words in the “intellectual field” – before they could (and can) produce broader effects. ,

For example, Oliver Marchart paradigmatically illustrated in his book “Hegemony in the Art Field” the example of the world’s most important contemporary art exhibition, the documenta held every five years in Kassel, in which the connection between art and politics must first be understood within the field of art. here there have been various shifts between the Documentas dX (1997), D11 (2002) and d12 (2007) towards increasing depolitization. Only then can it be understood how and through which the field of art is produced and constantly rebuilt as an “important terrain […] on which ideological alliances” [6], has effects on society as a whole. With the word “Biennalisation” in the subtitle, Marchart points to the increasing event character and the economization of art. So he uses Bourdieu and Gramsci at the same time to show that art analysis must also mean to conduct power analysis. [7]

The fact that the focus must be on ever-changing alliances means three things: Firstly, very specific constellations of a field are to be observed (which hype is taking place in sports, is relatively irrelevant to art), and secondly, these alliances go well beyond Field of art (and are integrated into sponsoring by banks for their image-building). The fact that alliances – against and for this art, for or against sponsoring etc. – must be made and rebuilt means that they do not understand each other by themselves. So they are not given from the point of view in the production process. “The struggle of and for classifications”, that is, how things are assigned to individuals and to people (including a class), “is a fundamental dimension of the class struggle.” [8]

These allocations and allocations are not fixed and are not self-explanatory, but they are always contested. This is also the transition to the political difference between Gramsci and Bourdieu.

Politically, for Gramsci as a Marxist-Leninist, it is clear that it is the proletariat that makes history. But unlike many of his comrades, Gramsci supplemented this conviction with an analysis of the need for covenants: Since the seizure of power by the working class is not necessarily produced either by nature or history, different strategies would have to be considered, including the formation of broad alliances Gramsci’s words of a “historical block”.

Books and pamphlets, but also labor disputes and, of course, party work, provided the necessary means for this. “Cultural hegemony” was to be achieved and was henceforth regarded as an important prerequisite for social and economic upheavals. Gramsci says it has to be fought for the tastes. In any case, he was confident about the possibility of “combating the melodramatic taste of the little man in Italy.” [9] Gramsci therefore not only put culture of great theoretical value, but also put his political hope in it.

Taste issues and cultural hegemony
Bourdieu, however, derived no emancipatory hopes from the cultural consumption of the lower classes. On the contrary, he saw the preferences and desires always oriented to the upper classes and thus predominantly “sovereign effects” prevail. For a long time he could not and did not want to recognize stubborn, even resistant cultural practices of the lower classes, which were subordinate to Gramsci. The argument, in his studies of the Algerian rural population in the final phase of colonialism, was very similar to what he applied in the 1990s to those who saw themselves exposed to the increasing precariousness of working and living conditions in neoliberalism: who did not even have the trace of power over them owns your own present, how should the one or the other also develop their own future visions?

After all, this structural pessimism has also brought him much criticism, both from the Marxist side and from cultural studies. The already mentioned Néstor García Canclini, for example, did embrace Bourdieu’s constructivism, ie he did not accept social classifications as a given (but also as socially constructed). But he argued – using the example of Latin American societies – that the populare, that is tastes and behaviors in the lower classes, develops from inequalities. However, there would be quite independent and also resistant forms of practice. García Canclini distinguishes between “practices” that reproduce the prevailing patterns and structures and “practice” that transforms them. [10] Similarly, the Gramsci expert and editor of the social-philosophical journal Das Argument, Wolfgang Fritz Haug, has tried to save forms of thinking and acting against the assumption of merely permanent restoration of the existing.

In contrast to Bourdieu, Haug distinguishes between “cultural distinction” and “cultural distinction”: the former, as Bourdieu has described, contributes by means of prestige and subtlety to everything that remains as it is, the second form simply “gives concrete form” Something preferred to something else. “[11] With Bourdieu – and ultimately with Gramsci – however, it would be doubtful whether such innocent selection practices can exist in a socially and culturally highly unequal world.


A version of this  text was first published in ak – analyze und kritik, no. 573, Hamburg, June 2012, p. 23. Written by Jens Kastner and translated into english by Geronimo Cristobal


[1] Michael Burawoy: “The Roots of Domination: Beyond Bourdieu and Gramsci.” In: Sociology 46 (2), pp. 187-206, here p. 189. (http://soc.sagepub.com/content/46/2/187)

[2] Néstor García Canclini: “Gramsci con Bourdieu, Hegemonía, consumo y nueva formas de organización popular.” In: Nueva Sociedad, No. 71, March-April 1984, pp. 69-78.

Gramsci’s most important art and cultural theoretical writings have recently been reopened in German in a collective form: Antonio Gramsci: Literature and Culture. Gramsci Reader. Eds. on behalf of the Institute for Critical Theory of Ingo Lauggas.Hamburg: Argument 2012.

[4] Pierre Bourdieu: The subtle differences. To the critique of social judgment. Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp 1987, p. 36.

[5] Antonio Gramsci: “Socialism and Culture.” In: like: Philosophy of practice. A selection. Eds. by Christian Riechers. Frankfurt a.M .: Fischer 1967, pp. 20-23, here p. 22.

[6] Oliver Marchart: Hegemony in the art field. The documenta exhibitions dX, D11, d12 and the politics of biennialisation.Cologne: Bookstore Walther König 2008, p. 13.

[7] See ibid., P. 94.

[8] Pierre Bourdieu: “Social Space and Symbolic Power.” In: like: Speech and Answer. Frankfurt aM: Suhrkamp 1992, pp. 135-154, here p. 153.

[9] Antonio Gramsci: Literature and Culture. Gramsci Reader. Eds. on behalf of the Institute for Critical Theory of Ingo Lauggas.Hamburg: Argument 2012, p. 48.

[10] Néstor García Canclini, p. 176.

[11] WFHaug: The cultural distinction. Hamburg: Argument 2011, p. 56.

The Buru Quartet (Pramoedya Ananta Toer 1980-1988)

“The Buru Quartet” by Penguin Books (1990)
“The Buru Quartet” by Penguin Books (1990)

The Buru Quartet refers to the the volumes Bumi Manusia (“This Earth of Mankind”, 1980) , Anak Semua Bangsa (“Child of All Nations”, 1980), Jejak Langkah (“Footsteps”, 1985) and Rumah Kaca (“Glass House “, 1988). The books were banned by the regime of long time Indonesian president Suharto and his successor B.J. Habibie. The ban was lifted in 2000.

The Quartet establishes Pramoedya as a leading figure in Southeast Asian literature and showcases his mastery of the classical historical realism. The carefully constructed narrative structure and detailed rich descriptions provide a broad overview of the cultural and ethnic diversity of colonial society.

The books tackle the nature of power and how it is balanced by social classes throughout history. They also provide an insight into the relationships between groups identified in the book and guide the reader’s attention on the world outside the former Dutch colony. Pramoedya has shown an deep understanding of the events and developments in the Philippines, Japan, China and the Netherlands, the motherland of the caste of colonial masters. This outlook is remarkable since the book was the result of stories originally told from the prison cell and gathered from memory.

The tension in the novel comes from the inherent conflicts between families, a complex love affair, as well as elements fit for a detective novel. The works primarily trace the life story of the Javanese nobleman Minke between 1898 and 1918. This is told through a first-person narrative in the form of revised diary notes and memoir writing. This technique gives us a peek into the process of political awakening by the protagonists. Minke’s experiences are extraordinary in his time. His radical rejection of colonialism, his aspiration for freedom, equality, and brotherhood, his insistence on self-determination and his commitment for nationalism, appear credible in the novel as the only correct answer the social conditions besetting the colony at the turn of a new century.

This unique place occupied by Minke, makes him, according to the formulation of Australian literary scholar K. Foulcher in the Anthology Culture and Politics in New Order Indonesia (1993) , as a “prototype of the Indonesian intellectual.” Minke is midway between tradition and modernity as well as between individual self-realization and social responsibility. On the way to becoming a revolutionary, Minke meets journalists and initiators of the early nationalist organizations and learns about the experiences of various social groups inside and outside the colony.

The novel’s exposition of the intellectual’s role model function as a journalistic, social reformist and its account of the political activities of the minorities (mestizos, Chinese, Arabs) are diametrically opposed to the common view of Indonesian history. It is very surprising for the reader then when the narrator shifts  in the fourth volume: We are presented with Pangemanann as a first-person narrator. Pangemanann is the only indigenous police commissioner in the colony and is Minke’s main antagonist.

This opens up to the reader a look inside the colonial security service:The fourth and final novel of the series, House of Glass is narrated by Pangemanann, the police commissioner who arranged for Minke’s exile and who has constantly monitored Minke during his time in Ambon. The plot revolves around Pangemanann’s moral conundrum—fulfill his responsibility to identify and imprison rebel leaders, or to join the growing independence movement. Pangemanann becomes obsessed with Minke, who has returned to Indonesia from his exile, after reading three novels that Minke wrote during his isolation—paralleling Pramoedya’s own experiences. Eventually Minke is poisoned by younger revolutionaries, who regard Minke as an ineffective remnant of a past age, and Pangemanann loses his position due to changing political circumstances. Pangemanann cannot, however, the voice of his complete supress the voice of his own conscience. His personal decline, the failure in his marriage and in his non-professional life show him that his victory is hollow, and he is sure that Minkes idealism and historical mission will be continued by others.

Minke does not fail primarily due to the cunning superiority of Pangemanann and the repressive apparatus he represents. A much bigger setback for Minke and his goals is the emergence of Budi Utomo, a Javanese ethnic group aligned and soon dominated by the aristocracy.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer illustrated in his novels the interdependence of colonial power and Javanese nobility.  These are the roots from where the conservative tendencies had sprung and are now the face of the independent Indonesia: a social conservatism, the traditional hierarchies which are yet to be radically challenged, and a tradition-bound concept Nation, which focused on the indigenous people and excluded all other minority.

Pramoedya’s Buru Quarter is thus not just a story about the emergence of a national movement, but at the same time the story of a missed historical opportunity.

Budi Utomo appears as the broader context of Pramoedya’s thoughts. It embodies the sinister link that contributes to the continuation of the pattern of colonial mentality  that have seeped into nationalist circles. The scope of this message becomes clear when one recalls that in the semi-official historiography of the founding of Budi Utomo, it is considered the beginning of the first national movement after which, all pre-existing organizations and movements became marginalized.

Nationalism, democracy and humanity are of paramount importance in Pramoedya’s entire oeuvre. In the 50 years of his career as a write, Pramoedya always abided by these ideals which has placed him in conflict with the changes and developments in the colony,  circumstances which later on became more accepted.

In one of the letters from Buru he says: “Shut up, my heart, do not be sorry to have had dreams, and not to be satisfied with the existing one “. In the 14 years of imprisonment and 19 years of house arrest, Pramoedya has guarded this aspiration. Before his death, Pramoedya has helped in a small private foundation for investigation into the 1965 massacres and other human rights violations, and contributing in small steps to the strengthening of the rule of law and Indonesian democracy.

Literate Gangsters

“BY NIGHT IN CHILE” is another novel discovery by the great Chilean author Roberto Bolaño

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño,  Chris Andrews (Translator) Paperback, 118 pages Published December 1st 2005 by New Directions (first published November 2000)
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, Chris Andrews (Translator) Paperback, 118 pages Published December 1st 2005 by New Directions (first published November 2000)

A mediocre Chilean poet, far more famous as a literary critic and priest, is dying. All his life he had been alone, Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix writes. He then proceeds to a monolithic paragraph of his laborious justification, in which it is unclear what the reproaches are and whom they are raised against. These are just some of the things that would instantly hit you in this dark Chilean noir piece.

The flow of the speech of the narrator produces digressions from digressions and meandering anecdotes, which seem to omit what really happened and are only implied by hints and unreliable narrations. This opens the door to the harsh conjectures: What about the libido of the priest, does he refer to the direct advances of the criticism paper Farewell? What happens when he spends “unforgettable hours” with another clergyman?

Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix is a windmill. Though it is so rough in his life, he will always be haunted by crises, fiasco feelings, and great dreamy misfortune without being able to name reasons.

And the real disaster is not far. The secret center of his eloquence is not the prohibited desire of the priest, but the aestheticist existence of the art critics and artist in politically highly troubled times. During the demonstrations against Salvador Allende, as a shortage and inflation spread, he reads Greek tragedies. When the military putsch is there and killed Allende, he pauses briefly, “a finger between the pages of the book that I read, and thought: What a peace.” And what does the Church do? She sends him to Europe during one of his unexplained crises to investigate how church buildings are damaged by pigeons. And that while Chile is burning.

It is about the obscenity of an existence based purely on art under dictatorship, about the relationship between art (enterprise) and violence, including church and violence. This obscenity culminates in a party of the “Literatengesindelsel”, when a guest finds in the cellar of the Privathaus in the search for the toilet a half-dead tortured: “And the avant-garde theorist quietly closed the door without making noise.”

Even the narrator himself is entangled in the regime as if he were only reading through the clause: upon request, as a fully educated man (and in no case a Marxist), he gave the putschists around General Pinochet tutoring lessons in Marxism-so that they could better understand the enemy.

The path of the author Roberto Bolaño was opposite to his figure. The literary late-only perceived, who barely experienced his international success through his early death in 2003, wanted to help build socialism under Allende, for which he was imprisoned under Pinochet for a short time. Then he left Chile forever, most of the time he lived in Spain. He had to pay the price of the exile.

His books, however, are far from being “engaged” in a pedagogical sense. Bolaño shows reality as surrealistically inspired monstrosity. “Chilean Nightmare” neither uses literature nor denounces it, the novel is the celebration and parody of art at the same time.

Bolaño’s irony sometimes works with strong breaks, but often it is hard to grasp. When the narrator meets Pablo Neruda at a young age, the portrayal of this scene combines his pathos with the author’s irony to a sort of tender mockery of enchantingly slate poetry. The great poet muttered in a deep voice words for no one I could not tell what happened, I was not there, where Neruda, a few yards away, was standing in the middle of the night, in the middle of the night Moon, surrounded by the equestrian statue, the plants, and the shrubbery of Chile, surrounded by the dark dignity of the fatherland. ”

In this friction lies also the art of convincing an ego-narrator as a mediocre poet, and at the same time to have written a glittering book on the highest floors. Over the narrator, in the second paragraph of the book, which consists of a single line, “the hurricane of shit” breaks, the one which he has tried to restrain for 156 pages. Great.


By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, Chris Andrews (Translator) Paperback, 118 pages Published December 1st 2005 by New Directions (first published November 2000)


Sister Stella L. (Mike De Leon, 1984)

Enlightenment is not a badge, but a wound. Mike De Leon tells of the transformation of a charity worker nun into a politically active front-line soldier.

Mike De Leon is next to Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal in the line of master directors of the second golden age of Filipino cinema. Compared to his colleagues, his filmography is manageable: where those – due to their early death in a narrower period – cranked down dozens of films, often several in a year, De Leon has only completed nine feature films since his debut. This may have something to do with the characteristical disposition of the passionate loner (“I just want to be alone, I’m no longer a director and I’m no longer a public property” – with these words he had rejected a prize this year, another reason should be sought in the films themselves: While in the work of his colleagues, a tension between the formulas of commercial genre cinema and the political-aesthetic use of the author filmmaker remains (and not only between the films, so between the many commissioned works and the few heart projects, but also within the films), seems to be unequivocal at De Leon: Batch ’81 is precisely the ultimate allegory of the Marcos dictatorship, because the film as claustrophobic thriller works wonderfully; and Sister Stella L. is therefore a poignant and clairvoyant testimony of the resistance against this very dictatorship, because De Leon is at the same time a gifted melodramatic.

Stella in the monastery, Stella in the streets

It starts with a split: twice Sister Stella . The one, older (Laurice Guillen), surnamed Bautista, sees her place outside the convent, on the streets, among the slum dwellers, who she enlightens about her political rights, including the striking workers who stand in front of the sweeping carriages of the bosses throw on the concrete. A great traveling star in the film: Stella B. walks through a slum with Nick Fajardo, a journalist, the camera slides in front of the speakers and casually captures the life around which the nun reports: playing children, Street dogs, even the poor house facades are suddenly no longer a backdrop, but receive subject status.

The younger Stella (Vilma Santos), surnamed Legaspi, that Stella L., who gives the film its name, used to be with Nick Fajardo before she went to the convent. It is not yet as far as Stella B., it still wavers between the white costumes of the convent’s living, charitable and therefore only subsequently helping, pain relieving nuns and the blue divide of the politically active women in the front. A young woman, who seeks help after an abortion in the Convention, accuses her of having not suffered herself and therefore could not understand her.

The nuns’ gown as an open visor

In the course of the film, the younger Sister Stella will inherit the older – a key scene shows the staff handing over: both Stella faces side by side in a split screen setting. In this central aspect, Sister Stella L. is a straightforward didactic cinema: the hesitant becomes the resolute, the spectator the actor. And even the nuns’ gait soon no longer has the same meaning, no longer stands for renunciation and self-denial, but on the contrary for an open visor: Framed by the hood looks the face that has left all self-protection, all adjustment behind, not more, as in the first shot of the film, transfigured to God, but free and open to the world: At the very end Stella holds a speech directly into the camera, directly into the audience, a secularized sermon, the same ethical-moral self-positioning and call for Fight is. Nonnentracht and framing together isolate the face, which seems to become a permeable membrane that creates a link between cinema and the world.

Sister Stella L. was created in 1984, during the last years of the Marcos regime, at a time when censorship seemed to be losing control of the cinema: De Leon’s film, after its completion, had to contend with performance bans, but the mere The fact that suddenly in the middle of the industry – Sister Stella L. and also Lino Brocka’s a year later Bayan Ko – My Country was produced by Lily Monteverde, the grande dame of commercial Filipino cinema – openly made political cinema possible on the creeping loss of authority of the regime. And indeed, Sister Stella L is . a film that not only speaks of oppression but also outlines the fundamentals of a new, pluralistically organized polity.

Fight the external and internal resistances

As in the two years before Batch ’81 , the relationship between the individual and the institution is at stake. This time, however, there is not one alternative institution, which provides all the freedom and which, once it has licked blood, one devours with skin and hair. Instead, there are several competing institutions: church, newspaper, union; and individuals not only have the choice between them, but also within the chosen, in themselves pluralistic, institution of creative freedom. However, this scope is realized only in the fight against resistance; and the political use of the film consists precisely in demonstrating that these resistances are not only external in nature (police, censorship, strikebreakers, rules of the order), but also settle in the individuals themselves, in the form of traditions, religious dogmas, false assumptions, short-sighted self-interest.

Sometimes the moral rigor of the film (which is not always very far from the totality of terror that Batch ’81 demonstrates) can scare you: is there really a Stella B in each one of us, just waiting to catch up? successful self-discipline qua self-education to break path? The great thing about the film, however, is that it tells the cognitive process that Stella L. goes through, not as a sober essay, but as an emotional melodrama (culminating in two deaths and also communicating in the melancholic guitar sounds that replace the harpsichord chase from Batch ’81 ): Stella L. becomes a mature revolutionary subject through empathy with pain, enlightenment is not a badge, but a wound.


Elmer Borlongan’s Extraordinary Eye for the Ordinary

Elmer Borlongan’s mid-career retrospective held on his 50th birthday at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila establishes him as the essential post-EDSA artist: an artist painting in the veristic sociocritical vein of the 90s, but who, with the downfall of the Marcoses, finds himself with no one to rebel against so he turns to a kind of mellow social realism. The works, which span the years 1994 to 2018, indicate that his oeuvre  has indeed become worthy of the term, “Borlonganesque,” a critical shorthand for a form of social realism that has become formulaic. At the same time, the term concedes that his work has become something of a benchmark in the art scene, which begs the question: is his social realism driven less by social issues than by the art market?

Borlongan has evolved a reputation as a proletarian artist who paints in the Expressionist style. His brand of social realism has a subtle activism, but what political statements he is making in his paintings have largely remained opaque. However, the post-EDSA era has come to celebrate the eclectic mutability of the artist. He is lionized as something of a historical epigone, and it is in this development that Borlongan is celebrated: not as an adept master of styles but as a narrow conformist to the cliches of social realism.

Does it mean, then, that we need to retouch the prosaic image of  Borlongan – perhaps to darken his aura, in order to make the closet activist shine all the more? Did the erstwhile radical activist who once confessed to being clueless on what to do as an artist turn to painting the ugly and the deformed to produce poverty porn? Or are his works a chief example of the memento pauper tradition in Philippine art? Is it protest art?

The curators at the Met Museum retrospective seem bent on canonizing Borlongan as a progeny of figurative masters but not necessarily as a Social Realist. The works are presented in such a way that there is only a token mention on the political messaging of the paintings, such as an entire wall given to “Kapit-bisig”, but and there is nothing radical about the presentation or the painting itself. Social Realists would balk at the idea that the subject is ordinary but the artistic rendition is extraordinary. The reverse holds true: the reality in Social Realism is rarely ordinary.

Apparently, this regression became the norm in light of a national art historical perspective allergic with politics that emerged after EDSA 1986.  

The highlight of any good retrospective of a Social Realist would be the radical younger years. Elmer Borlongan’s early career indeed affords glimpses of a nascent radicalism.

He joined Artista ng Bayan (ABAY), an activist art collective, with Mark Justiniani, and served as a graphic artist for various leftist organizations of the National Democratic Front. He eventually decided to drop out of art school after his involvement with these organizations became more intense. Academic training offered no guarantee for anyone going into a career in art, and Borlongan’s decision to drop out was abetted by a quivering appreciation for social-realism against the background of a euphoric uprising. The increasingly reactionary climate of the 1990s saw culture and the arts suffering from serious institutional failure. The stigma of “deodorant of the Marcos regime” apparently stuck, and artists like Borlongan were driven to a corner. They had to reinvent themselves, and many, like Borlongan turned to urban and folk and quasi-religious allegories.

The retrospective should have served to remind us that during and after the period of the EDSA revolution, Borlongan worked on several posters, pamphlets and efffigies; one with a gruesome picture of Ferdinand Marcos as a vile yellow gnome, the personification of corruption. This last piece of ephemera could very well have been the marker for Elmer Borlongan’s entry into the art scene. Some of these works are now in the collection of the Ateneo Art Gallery, but unfortunately, the Met Manila exhibition did not show a single graphic from his early career as a leftist-activist graphic designer.

The modern city is the usual Borlonganesque subject; so much so that even in its treatment of provincial scenes, you sense a deep “city mouse” perspective. In his large-format paintings and his sketches on paper, the artist invites you on a ramble through the nocturnal metropolis. In the selection for the retrospective, he leads us past bunker-shaped concrete blocks in threatening black against a night blue sky, under bridges and train stations through the ecstatic world of nightclubs with their flashes of light, filled with rhythmic and swirling human bodies.

Almost always it is night in the Borlonganesque painting, and even when they are lit up by the light of day, they are bathed in a dirty, pale mist, the same shade of a polluted estero. Like lemurs, the human figures move in this cosmos, anonymously, without any physiognomic distinctness except their baldness and big eyes. The eyes bear within them the narcissistic gaze that sees the world as a reflection of the subject’s existence. This is best illustrated in “Batang EDSA (1982) and “Gabay” (1994), as well as the early painting “Kapit-bisig” (2006), in which the subjects’ eyes powerfully register, and affectively allude to,  the social forces that have occasioned the subject’s oppression.

Borlongan painted mostly tragic protagonists of a grotesque metropolis and ensembles of stereotypical urban figures that are Social Realism’s representative eyewitnesses. The relentlessly factual, and at the same time hallucinatory, social milieu in these paintings comprise the actual veristic core of an immense provocative body of work.

In the pictorial works, the representation of the body seems to trigger the kind of music that Borlongan’s paintings and drawings vaguely suggest. The facial expression disguises rather than reveals the suffering of his subjects, as in a painting of a child Sampaguita vendor in “Batang EDSA.” The humanoid faces of his stock figures are embodiments of certain attitudes rather than individualities, but with strongly accentuated eyes.

Borlongan’s visual language is uncomplicated, effective, sometimes shrill and eruptive. To a certain extent, it forms the optical equivalent of rock and punk music, which he used to play in his younger years as a member of a band. But if, on occasion, the painter cannot avoid the danger of routine, then his paintings stagger between smooth mannerism and a flat “onomatopoeia.” Borlongan is an exponent of a branch of figurative art that he represents with his fellow artists Emmanuel Garibay and Mark Justiniani and the rest of the Salingpusa group, whose works almost ritually allude to and quote one another.

Elmer Borlongan expresses in his pictures and drawings the most immediate sensations which moves large crowds of museum-goers. In this respect, his pictures are like that of a photojournalist, but in the flood of pictures, painting seems to hold more of our attention. There are always individual works that make us forget the saturation of our world by images because they appeal to us with a suggestive exclusivity. It is in these moments that Elmer Borlongan succeeds in such works, which – even if barely shown in public – become ‘icons of the present’, such as ‘Batang EDSA’, ‘Mobile Record Shop’,  and ‘Walang Iwanan’ which programmatically present us with the ‘Zeitgeist’ painting

What elevates the painting to the level of Zeitgeist is the homology between artistic motive and painterly practice. An autoreflexive moment comes into play that blends music and painting, artistic production and a sense of vitality. The paintings in question are charged with the energy of their subject, characterizing it, while at the same time the reflection on the painting process exceeds the actual occasion—despite his somewhat anemic repertoire of images.

Borlongan’s image panoramas are misunderstood as illustrations of today’s subcultural scene. Whoever looks at them in that way will certainly be shortchanged. One, however, would be overthinking if one appends an allegorical interpretation. While it is possible to read Borlongan’s pictures as works that capture the ‘Zeitgeist’, it would be too much of a stretch to suggest that they are allegories of our present moment, a “summing up” of the present that elicits hermeneutic completion.

Thus, the theorist brings the cosmology of the artist absolutely to the present. Borlongan is no longer a flâneur who, like Baudelaire during the second half of the 20th century, strolls the city from a detached perspective, reading the big city as though it were a text  about the human condition. Neither is he a gritty painter that sees the city as deranged as he is from the other side; Rather, he is someone who literally drowns in its cultural fringes, in hell-holes, where the contradictions and paradoxes collide harder than anywhere else. Perpetrators and victims become one.

In his catalog essay for the retrospective, the historian and now curator, Ambeth Ocampo points to a visceral reality in Borlongan’s painterly oeuvre. Symbols of a personal desire for expression such as the guitar are in the opinion of Ocampo, “against the anonymous brutality of modern city architecture”. Inhabitants of the Borlonganesque city seem to be petrified by the intimidating urban facades of an impersonal and instrumentalized social reality, as if confronted by the sight of Medusa’s gaze. This encounter is violent.

This is the totalitarian violence that the viewer shares with the world presented in the paintings; a moment in which our own inability to connect the painting with reality actualizes our complicity with the city’s structural violence. This is also manifested in the concrete boxes of Manila’s malls and apartment blocks and in protest sites of Mendiola which in its claustrophobic scale, elevates the desire for personal expression to an explosive register.

In Social Realism, society flows through the figures and shapes their expressivity. Maybe this expression is not personal, not even natural – in psychobiological terms – it is nonetheless a reflex of social coercion that works through painting primarily as a personal expression. And yet, to fully become Social Realism, this personal expression must transform into social expression, a demonstration of the total dominance of the society over the individual – its power gives the feeling, takes possession of the Borlonganesque body, and leaves nothing but a vestige of personal identity.

In fact, the Borlonganesque character rarely manifests agency, and is simply possessed by society in its most seductive and overwhelming form. In this perspective, the artistic work merely becomes a mosaic of motifs that merges unexpectedly in the painter’s milieu. Perhaps this is the ordinariness in which the painter mistakenly perceives his world. Far from extraordinary are the heads that break the cityscape by the violence of their growth, the singers and dancers, the vagabonds, who seem to have been catapulted into the scene without warning. How exactly is his gaze extraordinary when he has even restrained the mirror of social realism?

In Borlongan’s lightweight social realism, we cannot determine whether painting takes a step beyond the status quo or simply falls into the traditionalist recourse to the tried and tested. Where the painter avoids the pitfalls of routine, he succeeds by limiting himself to the most elementary repertoire of expressive figuration but still barely articulating the moving metaphors of the contemporary condition.

The exhibition Extraordinary Eye for the Ordinary ran from January 22 until March 28, 2018 at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila.

Constancio Bernardo in Context

Image: Grabbed from the National Gallery of Singapore Facebook. Constancio Bernardo. Bernardian Synthesis No. 1. Image courtesy of Museo Bernardo Foundation, Inc.
Image: Grabbed from the National Gallery of Singapore Facebook. Constancio Bernardo. Bernardian Synthesis No. 1. Image courtesy of Museo Bernardo Foundation, Inc.

How was an artist like Constancio Bernardo drawn into the relatively new language of abstract painting? In mentioning his influences, what are their particular contributions to his work?

The history of Philippine painting runs like a list of forgotten geniuses whose contributions have largely been under-appreciated due to a dearth in scholarship. Such is the story of Constancio Bernardo, who painted like no other Filipino artist in the immediate post-war art scene in Manila. Alice G. Guillermo writes that Constancio Bernardo was “one of the earliest and most consistent exponents of abstract art in
the country.”


In 1978, Leonidas Benesa cited Bernardo as “the most underrated of the exponents of modern art in the Philippines” and as “second to none in this country” in the field of abstraction, “particularly of the geometric-planar, optical-painting variety.”


Refusing to be buffeted by the waves of public opinion, to be conditioned by the dictates of the art market, to solicit attention from collectors, to capitulate to pressures from the art world, or to pursue the trappings of fame, Bernardo chose to be steadfast in the discipline of his studio practice.  So quietly sustained was this commitment over the years that he was referred to by Eric Torres as “the invisible man of Philippine painting.”

He has worked in series, combining geometrism and color research in such work groupings as the Bernardian series,  A testament to his obscurity lies in the fact that the main document to his life as a painter is a biography written by his son.  As a testament to his talents, he started teaching at the UP School of Fine Arts one year before his graduation for a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1947. Before the war, Bernardo spent seven years finishing a Certificate in Fine Arts course because of financial difficulties.


In 1948, Fernando Amorsolo recommended him for a Fulbright Scholarship to study painting at the Yale School of Fine Arts. As early as 1950, or just before finishing his second Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting, he began to explore the kind of geometric abstraction initiated by Russian Suprematists even before being mentored by Josef Albers of Black Mountain and Bauhaus, who was then teaching a master class at the Yale School of Fine Arts. Albers proclaimed that Bernardo would become a great artist who will contribute greatly to Philippine art but upon returning home, he was relegated to teaching art history rather than studio classes at UP. Sidelined by Amorsolo and his ilk, he retreated to painting abstraction privately and showing only figurative works in Manila Galleries until the 1970s when a younger generation fully embraced the new artistic language.

By then he was middle-aged with a personality as subdued as his color combinations. While he remained obscure, shunning a Manila art scene that was heavy on social-climbing. His intermittent recognition never gained full steam and commercial success seemed elusive. No other Filipino painter has done abstraction that is as elegant and as authentic, that it can hold a candle against artists in the Western Tradition. When he arrived at Yale in 1948 (he was already aged 35), Josef Albers treated him as a contemporary rather than a colleague.

Turn to abstraction

Constancio Bernardo’s son, Angelo identified his father’s turning point from representation to abstraction: “Two of his studies [on geometric abstractions] are dated February 24, 1950 and March 14, 1950. (They could be pre-Albers). My father’s US journal from 1948 to 1952 mentioned a consultation with Albers for school requirements (only) on June 25, 1950. He attended Alber’s lecture on color fields (and color abstraction) at Yale on September 20, 1950.”

Also mentioned were Bernardo’s other modernist mentors and influences at Yale: Wilhelm De Kooning (who “went to his classes in clogs”); Pennsylvania-born Franz Kline, whose black and white calligraphic works were originally sketches made on telephone books; and Washington-born Robert Motherwell, “abstract expressionist’s philosophical spokesman.”

“They did not insist anything except [for us] to be free. Walang ginigiit kundi maging libre kami [in art exploration],” Angelo recalled his father as saying.

Bernardo was also exposed to other European abstract painters who came ahead of Albers in the US, such as Russian Jew Mark Rothko, Armenia-born Arshile Gorky, and German Hans Hoffman.

Bernardo also admitted to poet Ricaredo Demetillo in 1956 one major influence: Dutch Piet Mondrian, who painted “motion” by rolling on a canvas on the floor—with paint on his body.

A series of retrospectives in 2013 for his 100th birth anniversary have revealed the previously unexhibited paintings , which are said to be only a fraction of the works he threw away and covered up in countless moments of self-doubt. Also shown were sketches, evidence of the natural skill that made Amorsolo see him as a disciple before the war. The recognition came too late as Constancio Bernardo had already died quietly ten years ago in 2003. Despite being, highly educated and highly talented and early recognition as the father of abstract painting as early as 1952 he is least likely be elevated to the Order of National Artists.

The exhibition “Constancio Bernardo: The Early Drawings 1948-1955” explicitly refers to the eye-opening exhibition “Constancio Bernardo: The Years in America 1948-1954” and its catalog, published in 1992 by the Ateneo Art Gallery had been presented. Robin Rivera had already written the main text in this first catalog, and the continuation of his investigation has now resulted in the exhibition and catalog of drawings from Bernardo’s years in Yale, organized by the Ayala Museum and the Museo Constancio Bernardo, Ateneo has issued (overlaps exist only to a limited extent).

The drawings of these early, experimental years, in which Bernardo developed his own imagery along with his own artistic problem, are not more private than the paintings of that time, but they are much clearer and consistent material of Bernardo’s pictorial investigations. For paintings that were intended to be public in the first place, only a few ‘successful’ pictorial solutions were ever made, while in the drawings the various approaches, experiments and preliminary results of his search can be traced much more clearly. These drawings have practically not reached the public; almost all the exhibits in the extensive exhibition with more than 220 drawings and collages come from Bernardo’s private collection.


Constancio Bernardo

Constancio Bernardo came to the United States in October 1948, at the age of 35, on a scholarship for faculty members of the UP College of Fine Arts; After the end of the scholarship, he worked at the American school in Paris and returned in July 1954, after a disease, back to Manila.

In these years, especially in 1950/51, he developed in a series of experiments his own problems, which are far removed from the simultaneous American developments of Color Field Painting and Abstract Expressionism and which gave him a unique position in Europe as well as in Europe granted to Filipinos. In contrast to the abstract expressionists in the United States, while he partially took up positions of radical abstract painting in Europe, particularly Josef Albers, he came to completely different types of paintings and problems, on the one hand, spatially, between Europe and on the other hand, in terms of time, between the abstract modernity that prevailed in the 1950s and late Modernism since the 1960s, so that he preceded the new uses of ‘materialistic painting’ (Ryman) as a pioneer. It is a special pleasure in this exhibition to understand the individual steps and attempts close up, in which Constancio Bernardo finds, tests, discards and revisits solutions for his unfolding problem.

Constancio Bernardo Rhapsody Square, 1979 Acrylic on Wood 36x36 in
The square, a principal obsession of the artist, is developed exclusively in the Rhapsody Square series, which continues the legacy of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square. In the Rhapsody Square series, the artist deals with the same concept of colored square within a square of a different hue, based on the research into color perception begun by Albers and the bauhaus color experiments. – CCP Encyclopedia of Art (Alice G. Guillermo). Image: Constancio Bernardo Rhapsody Square, 1979 Acrylic on Wood 36×36 in. Photo: AngelxMusic Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/7935983@N05/5222710692/in/album-72157625343824525/

For his main interest since 1949, after Picasso-oriented beginnings, was to drive out of painting composition and subjectivity, to liberate the painting from its dependence on pictorial intentions; the painting should become anonymous and neutral, without subjective expression and symbolic meaning, freed from the burden of subjectivity. Consequently, painting could no longer be concerned with the creation of works or the self-expression of a creative subject: paintings could become neutral only by picking up on what already exists (as form and color) and transforming it into a painting , The most difficult problem, therefore, was deciding how, in what material, in which color, in what format the transposition of what was seen (recorded or photographed) should take place, what parameters of transformation of the existing into a painting could be used. And just as a drawing or a painting should no longer be a creative work, it could no longer be beautiful; only to the extent that it could no longer express a creative author, could it show its own, previously unperceived, objective beauty, the beauty of what is already in sight, what is quite obvious, but has not yet been seen or overlooked – and which Bernardo himself soon captured in photographs.

There was a palpable sense of completeness in the way he approached his works, a proof of his great involvement in each piece. He mixed his own paints, diligently worked in his studio, and made his handiwork complete by creating the frames for his art works.

Bernardo tried to dispel the composition and intentionality of painting in a variety of ways: in 1950 he experimented with drawings he made blindfolded, in an automatic hand, or without looking at the page, at the drawn branches or Hanger stapled. On the other hand, he recorded found forms that were created by chance, such as cracks in a window or holes in the road surface. These findings introduced an objective coincidence, which is at work both in the formation of forms and in the finding of forms. In 1951, in connection with his work as a teacher, he tested, partly with his students, the spraying and dribbling of ink; He also used the traces of dirt left behind at work. A dream he described in a letter led to the next step, a systematization of coincidence as well as stroke: “… I would be busy with a large injection work, according to the method of the sixth graders and collleagues, when I suddenly came up with the idea of a truly great work, something that could be linked to architecture … This dream was something I had been waiting for. ” The result was ‘Cité’, a collage of slashed automatic brushstrokes randomly recombined. The so-developed random distributions of collaged ‘grids’ from the fragments of dissected drawings completely destroyed the unity and perceptibility of the painted (or ‘repainted’, found in the world) strokes. Subsequent combinatorial attempts led to a kind of textbook entitled “Form, Line, Color,” which was not published, and which does not show a strictly legal, logical sequence, but rather an increasingly irregular play of simple forms and techniques To dye. For his colors, with which he increasingly worked in 1951, were found colors: he used gummed colored paper, which can be used very well for collages. The specified monochrome color areas (from a palette of about 20 colors) were also defined as shapes by cutting, so that the color field and shape coincide. This work led to the well-known paintings of several monochrome panels hanging side by side on the wall, involving the wall as a negative and articulated space, and in 1955, after returning to New York, to the first curves.

Constancio Bernarco was born on December 22, 1913 in Obando in the province of Bulacan. He studied Fine Arts from 1937 to 1941 and from 1947 to 1948 at the University of the Philippines, where he received lessons from, among others, Fernando Amorsolo and his brother Pablo Amorsolo. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree he left for the United States, where he studied at Yale with a Fullbright scholarship. There he received his bachelor’s degree in 1951 and his master’s degree in 1952. After returning to the Philippines, he worked as a lecturer until 1978 and later as associate professor and assistant dean at the University of the Philippines.

In addition to his work as a teacher, Bernardo was active as an artist. He belonged to the second wave of modernist artists including H. R. Ocampo, Vicente Manansala and Carlos Francisco. Bernardo mainly painted abstract works of art and already held his first individual exhibition on the UP in 1953. Later exhibitions followed in 1956, 1958, 1971 and 1973. In 1978, the Museum of Philippine Art (MOPA) organized a retrospective of his entire career. Although Bernardo was praised early in his career by art critics and other painters, recognition and publicity remained with the general public. In contrast to his modernist contemporaries Ocampo, Manasala and Francisco, he was not appointed a national artist of the Philippines.


Bernardo died in 2003 at the age of 89 in the Philippine Lung Center from the effects of pneumonia. He was married to Nieves de Guzman and had two sons with her. The exhibition will be on view at Ayala Museum Third Floor Galleries until March 2, 2014.

Further reading

Bernardo, Angelo. Constancio Bernardo: A Life in Sketches. Soumak Collections, Manila. 2013. Softcover / 12 x 5.5 inches / 50 pages / Color

A companion to the monograph on Constancio Bernardo (1913 – 2003) published on the occasion of the artist’s centennial anniversary in 2013, Constancio Bernardo: A Life in Sketches is a personal biography written by the artist’s son, Angelo G. Bernardo. The book includes a selection of rarely seen portraits and figure drawings by the artist who is honored for his contributions to the development of abstraction in the Philippines. A comprehensive curriculum vitae compiled by the author also provides a rich source of information about the artist’s life and career that spans over 60 years.


Yolanda Johnson, Ringo Bunoan and Carina Evangelista, Constancio Bernard. Soumak Collections, Manila. 2013. Softcover/ 12 x 11 inches / 144 pages / Color ISBN: 978-971-94920-1-6

Constancio Bernardo (1913 – 2013) is a pioneering Filipino abstractionist known for his geometric and color-field paintings. He returned to the Philippines in the early 50s after graduating from Yale University where he studied under Josef Albers and pursued a life-long commitment to painting and teaching at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. This monograph accompanies the centennial retrospective held at Ayala Museum in Manila in November 2013 and provides the first opportunity to view the full range of Bernardo’s works, from his critically-acclaimed abstract works to his lesser-known classical drawings and figurative paintings. Includes texts by Yolanda Johnson, Ringo Bunoan and Carina Evangelista.


La Mujer Filipina by Felix Hidalgo

Some doubts have been casts on the authenticity of a Felix Hidalgo painting which was sold by auction recently.

FÉLIX RESURRECCIÓN HIDALGO Y PADILLA (Filipinas, 1855 – España, 1913).
“Nativa Filipina”.
Óleo sobre lienzo.

The most common misgivings are that the painting did not seem to conform to the fashion style of the period when Felix Hidalgo was living, that the painting did not seem to be Filipina, and that the painting is not painted in the style that Hidalgo is known for which is slightly impressionistic.

While the authenticity of the painting is debatable, it would be interesting to speculate on the possibility of Hidalgo painting such a picture. Upon further comparison and closer inspection, one would find out that the style is consistent with his Manila Academy period paintings done before 1879, before he left for further studies in Spain. One can check the paintings posted online and it would be easy to observe that there are two versions of this painting, this one and the other with a lighter tone. Its possible that Felix Hidalgo, painted the same subject twice, once when he was in Manila and the other when he was in Paris shortly after. Artists often revisit former subjects and styles throughout their careers. A portrait without headgear and some décolletage would be daring at any point in Hidalgo’s career and this is probably the point of the painting: an erotic picture, or it could just be about the string of pearls.  Hidalgo started his career as an illustrator and the pearls could be the real subject of this painting. The golden colored pearls give her away, as these have been sourced then and now, in the Philippines. This is definitely a portrait of a Filipina, at least that’s the intention. cf. El Pescador de Sacag painted in 1875 in Manila but is now in the Prado Museum Collection. Hidalgo did not always paint in the impressionist style that he is known for today.

Decolletage was common in Pre-Victorian fashion, also off-shoulder dresses were worn in portraits done by Raden Saleh (cf. Portrait of a lady in Java). Victorian fashion covered the woman’s body, so this picture might be of a woman wearing a dress that has been out of fashion or the painting is a “throwback”. That or this is a pleated undergarment. Filipinas were hardly in-step with fashion trends in Europe, it is after all a portrait of a “Mujer Filipina” and didn’t wear corsets (consistent with this painting) as noted by a Dutch traveller to the Philippines in the 1880s. Fashion styles vary from places and times, but French paintings definitely showed cleavage during this period. I wouldn’t be shocked of bare breasts or a Filipina wearing an outdated European style of clothing. The skintone and her look may appear severe to some but this could be the result of limitations in pigment available at that time. Consistent with other paintings Hidalgo painted before 1879 and the fact that the painting is owned by a Governor General who was assigned in Manila, I am lead to believe that the painting could be a copy painted in his Paris studio of a previous painting , hence the peculiar signature. It is not surprising to have exemptions to a particular style for a particular period in an artistic career. A “remix”, painted for another collector who wanted the same painting.