Burning Of The Idols by Fernando Amorsolo

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Burning Of The Idols (Fernando Amorsolo)

The Burning of the Idols by Fernando Amorsolo is on exhibit at the Ayala Museum in Makati Avenue, Makati City at the Amorsolo Gallery along with several of his other paintings from different time periods such as his Untitled (Nude) painted in 1919, Planting Rice (1922) and Going to Town on Sunday Morning made in 1958. Like the latter painting mentioned (Going to Town on Sunday Morning), the painting Burning of the Idols was made sometime during 1958. It measures 84 x 128 centimeters and was painted using oil on canvas.

The painting is easily classified as representational art. However, some difficulty is encountered in specifying the kind of representational art in which the painting is made. After much debating, it is classified as classicist with a touch of impressionism and romanticism.

Before discussing the painting more fully, a brief description of its creator’s life is needed. The painter, Fernando Amorsolo, was given the title “Grand Old Man of Philippine Art” on January 23, 1969 when the Manila Hilton inaugurated its art center with an exhibit of a selection of his works. In 1973, he was posthumously awarded as the first National Artist.

Amorsolo was born on May 30, 1892 in Paco, Manila. When he was seven months old, his family moved to Daet, Camarines Norte where he would live for his first thirteen years. In 1905, after the death of his father, the family moved back to Manila and stayed in the house of Don Fabian dela Rosa, a well-known painter and Amorsolo’s mother’s first cousin. It is here at Don Fabian’s studio that Amorsolo learned to mix colors and wield a brush. He enrolled at the Liceo de Manila in 1909 but had to drop out after his third year due to lack of means. However, he refused to be discouraged; through odd jobs such as doing postcard sketches for a shop, he was able to enroll and graduate from the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts in 1914. He says that he found his own style by reacting to the influences of the four men under whom he studied: Don Fabian dela Rosa, Don Rafael Enriquez (the first director of the UP School of Fine Arts), Miguel Zaragoza (from whom he learned the use of color), and Toribio Herrera (who advocated anatomical detail and muscle).

In 1917, Amorsolo was offered a one-year fellowship in Spain, Paris and Rome by Don Enrique Zobel. However, because of the turmoil caused by the recently concluded World War I, he was unable to go to Paris and Rome. Amorsolo stayed in Madrid for seven months, studying at the Escuela de San Fernando. In Spain, he found new mentors in the works of Ignacio Zuloaga, Diego de Silva Velasquez, and Joaquin Sorolla. He spent his winter abroad in New York, where he was exposed to post-war Impressionism and cubism. In the 1920s, he developed the backlighting technique which would become his trademark.

The Burning of the Idols portrays the pre-colonial period in the Philippines but also a time when the Spanish conquerors had already arrived. This is evidenced by the cross that can be seen on the upper-left hand corner of the painting. This scene probably took place immediately right after the Spanish had arrived and converted the natives to Christianity from animism and idolatry.

As mentioned at the start of this paper, the painting was done in 1958 – a crucial time in the Philippines. This was a time of rebuilding the nation after World War II. This was also a period characterized by the attempts of Filipinos to assimilate or adapt what were originally western movements or styles or media to Filipino content, sensibility and tradition. National identity and national consciousness were also important issues at this time. This could explain the theme of historical events in the painting (as well as in other paintings done during the same period such as the Early Sulu Wedding and The First Baptism in the Philippines).

In order to describe the painting better, let us divide it into 3 divisions vertically and start describing from the leftmost section. This upper part of the first section has a shadowy cross set against a slightly dark sky with natives surrounding the cross in a half-circle. The natives’ features and bodies are not that detailed; only the basic outlines and features are shown. The natives, like the cross and the sky, are in shadows. In the lower portion of the first section, we see two men leaning forward, towards the young woman and the fire. The man in the foreground is also holding an idol.

In the second section, we see two men on the upper left-hand side of the woman. One of them is holding a long slender stick in his right hand. The young woman is kneeling in front of the fire, holding up an idol with both of her hands above her head, about to cast the idol into the fiery flames. Above the woman, in shadows, is the silhouette of a Spanish soldier holding a stick, spear, or some other long-handled weapon. I am speculating that it is a Spanish soldier because, looking closely at the silhouette, its arm seems to be clothed in a armor of the Spanish soldiers during that time as depicted in other drawings and paintings.

The third segment shows the glowing fire and the child sitting to the right of the young woman. The fire is no ordinary fire; it is huge, like a bonfire. It crackles and sizzles and radiates warmth and heat. It is possible that a few idols may have already been cast into the fire and burned prior to this scene. Above the fire is darkness, as if wherever the painting took place is pitch-black. The child, unlike the other men described in the other two parts of the painting who are all positioned sideways, sits with his back to the audience and, like the woman, wears nothing on the upper half of his body.

Through their positioning in the painting, one can determine the way the artist wanted them to look or to seem to the observer. The men, with their bodies leaning forward and arms outstretched, show activity and motion. There is an energy and passion or emotion in their stance which is heightened even further with the somewhat fierce expression in their faces. The child seems to be a passive participant or a mere observer in the gathering with his relaxed sitting position and detachment from the others (the child sits apart from the rest and is the only one depicted on that side of the fire and woman). The Spanish soldier exudes a dignified aura despite the fact that he is a mere silhouette or shadow and has the appearance of a watchful observer. This is probably because he is painted with his body straight, hovering over the fire and everyone else. Meanwhile, from the woman emanates grace, femininity, sensuality, poise and strength. Her grace, sensuality and femininity are derived through the use of curves outlining her body – the curve of her waist and hips, the gentle swell of her breast, and the arch of her arms. At the same time, she appears poised and strong because of the vertical alignment of her body, the erect way she held herself.

The central focus of the painting is the young woman kneeling before the fire and holding up an idol in her hands. We can establish this in several ways. First, the woman is the only figure in the painting depicted with a solid outline and light colors. The rest of the figures are cast in shadow and less solidly formed. Second, the woman’s figure is surrounded by the glow of the fire. She seems to be bathed in a warm glow. Lastly, the hands and feet of the men on her left point towards her when you draw an imaginary line from where their hands and feet end. The same is true for the man above her and the fire as well as the child sitting on the woman’s left.

The painting very much reveals the style of Amorsolo – he was a classicist with a dash of impressionism and romanticism. He revelled in the use of warm tones in his paintings and made personal use of color. His personal use of color expressed the feelings and emotions of the subject and the painting itself as well as the feelings and emotions of the artist himself. Amorsolo’s trademark technique of backlighting is seen here; backlighting is a technique employed in which the figures are situated against the light, thus outlining them with a golden glow. In the case of Burning of the Idols, the backlighting technique was used in the painting of the young woman.

Some critics have tagged Amorsolo’s work to be that of an Impressionist; however, this would be a hasty and false generalization. Though Amorsolo made use of bright colors and had the style of blurring details outside the central area, he never truly deviated from the style he learned from Don Fabian dela Rosa, his mother’s first cousin and mentor during his younger days. Amorsolo, as in this painting, did not use the Impressionists’ “spectrum palette” of bright, prismatic colors and still made use of the color black. Amorsolo merely took from the Impressionists’ theory and practice what he needed and blended them together with his other styles to form a unique technique that was purely Amorsolo. Amorsolo never conformed to one particular art technique or movement such as Expressionism or Magic Realism; he combined elements of several techniques – those he found suitable for his work and his tastes – and came up with a style totally his own that would be his trademark and that would distinguish him from other artists and set him apart. A touch of romanticism is apparent in his adjustment in the light to create an appropriate mood and the portrayal of a woman half-naked.

Amorsolo painted using the direct method or alla prima (i.e., paint is applied directly on the surface with a brush as it would look in the finished figure). He also made use of contour lines to set one figure apart from another or from the background. Contour lines, as defined in Art and Society, define the borders or outer limits of a figure, modeled or shaded to give the illusion of three-dimensionality, as viewed from a particular angle. It is clear while looking at the painting that he never solidly outlined the forms with black lines; rather, the forms were set apart with the use of contour lines.

Slightly vigorous brushwork was also employed by Amorsolo. The fire, in particular, was made with short, energetic strokes to create the illusion of a real fire – the white smoke emanating from the fire, the flames that licked and danced and crackled. The texture of the painting varies from smooth to slightly rough. For instance, the young woman’s body gives the appearance of being smooth, and nubile. The child’s body, as well, appears smooth. Meanwhile, the clothes of the various figures have the texture of being quite rough, yet also quite soft, and the folds and wrinkles are realistically shown. The men’s bodies, though also a bit smooth, appear rougher than that of the woman’s and child’s, making a distinction between the bodies of the two opposite sex, and that of bodies between two different ages.

The fire takes on the shape of a circle, with blackness surrounding it on the top right corner. This could signify closure – the natives are burning their idols and turning their back on paganism forever and embracing the new religion of Christianity.

There is a balance in transition in the painting. From the leftmost corner, there are several lines of movement (from the men leaning forward) leading the viewer’s eye from one part of the canvas to another, until it comes to rest on the young woman, the fire and the child. Proportion is also utilized in the painting. The young woman looms as a larger figure among the rest, in connection with its being the central focus of the painting.

The dominant element in the painting is that of value. In line with this is the technique Amorsolo employed called backlighting which was discussed earlier. Through this technique and use of the element value, the mood of the painting is produced. The painting, with its dark tones almost throughout the entire canvas and sudden burst of light in the area of the fire and the young woman, conveys a mystery and drama in the portrayal of such an intense time in the history of the Philippines.

The darkness enveloping most of the canvas could be taken to mean the “dark times” of barbarism and supposedly crude civilization before the arrival of the Spanish. The fire and the woman burning the idol would then signify the “light” of Christianity and of an enlightened people because of the arrival of a more “civilized” religion and a more “civilized” culture. The cross in the upper-left hand corner of the painting perhaps symbolizes the pending dominion of the Catholic faith and its emissaries (the friars and priests) over the native Filipinos in the years to come. Likewise, the watchful Spanish soldier above the fire could represent the Spanish government which would rule over the Philippines for more than 300 years, as well as the sovereignty and control they would exercise over the natives in the centuries to come.

The men, with their apparent movement and emotions, could be taken to symbolize the Filipinos of olden times – fierce warriors such as Lapu-Lapu, Rajah Soliman and Lakandula who would fight for what they thought was best. The child, as a passive observer in the gathering, could represent the new breed of Filipinos who would keep quiet and submissive for more than 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. The woman probably stands on the middle ground between the fierce warriors of long ago and Filipinos of colonial rule – the Filipino who was immediately drawn to something foreign, something new. Indeed, at any period, we Filipinos have always been receptive of new ideas.

The gathering of numerous natives around the cross could signify the zeal of Christian Filipinos. Ever since the Filipinos had been converted to Christianity, they had been fervent and passionate in their new religion. For instance, Rajah Humabon of Cebu went so far as to go against his own kind – that of Lapu-Lapu and Lapu-Lapu’s kingdom – because Lapu-Lapu refused to submit under the Spanish. During the Spanish colonial rule, we see this zeal and passion in Filipinos among the manangs and manongs in the churches. They are portrayed in Rizal’s novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo as those who help out in the Church and during the masses and other services, weighted down with many rosaries and scapulars, and primary buyers of the priests’ indulgences. The Filipinos would go out of their way to ignore an excommunicated person because it is strictly forbidden by the Church even if the person is innocent and someone of their own blood. They would rather keep quiet rather than bear the wrath of God and of the priests (actually, they didn’t even make a distinction between God and the priests). They were blind followers of a religion and of that religion’s emissaries who abused this ignorant discipleship.

The Burning of the Idols is a powerful and moving piece of art fraught with symbolisms and hidden meanings. Its theme and subject matter is unique because it deviates from the usual scenes of rural life (such as planting rice, young maidens in the field, bayanihan, etc.). Amorsolo’s choice of a subject is commendable and I wish that many more artists would be inspired to paint such scenes from our history. It is important for everyone to be more familiar with our culture, our history, and to be proud of it. Indeed, when I walked the entire length of the Amorsolo Gallery, this painting was the only one that stopped me in my tracks and arrested my attention. Amorsolo is truly a maestro who has created not just one, but many, masterpieces. He is certainly deserving of his National Artist title and most especially, to be the first recipient of such a distinction.

Article name: Burning Of The Idols by Fernando Amorsolo essay, research paper, dissertation