My family spent two hours at the Blanco Family Museum on Sunday afternoon. My younger daughter Alex had been there before; one of the Blanco grandchildren is her classmate. It was an enriching experience. Art as I like it. No pretentiousness, no false profoundness, no gimmickry.
The patriarch of the family, Jose Blanco, a Filipino painter known for his paintings tagged as “folk realism,” died last month. He left behind a legacy that few can rival. A fine arts graduate, he mentored his children in the art of painting. Although none of his children received formal professional training in painting, they became prolific painters themselves, their works exhibited around the world.
“Folk realism”? Alice Guillermo used the term to describe Blanco’s paintings but it is unclear whether she was the first to apply the term in art. Folk realism was originally a socio-political term used to convince the public that responses in opinion polls, or surveys, are based on the “intuitive realism” of the common folk. Some have debunked this notion by pointing out that the “intuitive realism” of ordinary folk is neither based on real experience nor empirical data but is, rather, shaped by mass media and people they look up to as authoritative in certain subject matters.
To better appreciate the position of those who deny the validity of intuitive or folk realism, consider the response made by a lot of people when asked if they believed former President Joseph Estrada was guilty right after his conviction by the Sandiganbayan. Except for the lawyers and political watchers, most people based their opinion not on the evidence presented but on their perception of Estrada as a man of good —or bad—character, from how he was represented both in the news and in movies.
Realism as a technique in painting has been around for centuries. Perhaps, the addition of “folk” was intended to describe the Blancos’ favorite subjects— the common folk—not knowing that “folk realism” already had a distinct meaning in another discipline.
Rather than be biased by labels like “folk realism,” I tried to view the Blancos’ paintings without associating them with any distinct style or interpretation. I spent two hours looking at them. My best description is that they are an intent to freeze moments in real life and capture facets of real emotions. If the Blancos were writers rather than painters and their paintings were their writings, then they speak in plain language. Not because they are short on highfalutin words but because they have this honest intention to convey their message and they do not want their audience to miss the substance because they got lost in the form. That’s how their art is—profound in their simplicity yet rich with vibrant details. Triumph, tragedy, perseverance and innocence reproduced with colors and brush strokes.
Does the word realism apply to them? All the figures in the paintings look real— people are people, water is water, fire is fire, land is land. In terms of technique, therefore, the answer would be yes. But in terms of substance, we have to remember that a painting—any painting —is an artist’s interpretation of something, whether that something is a face, an occurrence or an emotion. That detracts from realism in any piece of art. Anything, except during the moment that an event is unfolding, is someone’s interpretation. A tearful face is as real as it can be but captured by an artist’s pen or brush, its reality is mixed with the artist’s own reality—the reality of his own experiences which determine the emotions and thoughts elicited at the moment he sees that tearful face. All of that are conveyed in his art.
Come to think of it, this is true even in photography. A tearful face, captured in a photograph, is the photographer’s interpretation because the photograph is a totality of the subject, lighting, hues, saturation, composition and background. These depend on the photographer, rather than on the subject.
An illustration. There was this decrepit gasoline station near the Taytay market. I took a photo from across the street, setting my digital camera on black and white mode. To get the composition I wanted, I waited patiently so that the only figures in the frame were the gasoline station, the gasoline attendants, some passers-by and a lone cyclist. No cars, no jeepneys, no bumper-to-bumper traffic that could clearly mark it as post-2000. I posted the photo on my Web log and asked the readers to guess when the photo was taken. Most said the 1950s.
Back to the Blancos’ paintings. The labels heaped on them were irrelevant. I stood there, gazing and gaping with awe at the wonderful play of colors and lines, brilliance and shadows. But what makes the exhibit even more special is that they form a chronicle of the Blanco family’s life as artists. Paintings of the Blanco children, including crayon scratches by 11-month-old Peter Paul, were there as an integral part of the collection. The exhibit is a testament to an evolution and the reality of that evolution is more profound and striking than any debate as to the realism in any work of art.
Even more significant is the clear message that formal training and education is not essential to be good at any discipline. None of Blanco’s children went to art school. Neither is age relevant. One of Blanco’s daughters-in-law took up painting at the age of 48, learned and became good at it.
To call the experience inspiring would be an understatement. It was so inspiring and heart-warming that I finally decided to do what I’ve been wanting to do for years—paint. Who knows? In a few years, I might be inviting you to my own art exhibit.