Books & Art

The Forgotten Art of Mabini Street: From Tourist Souvenirs to Mainstream Masterpieces

For over 80 years now, the two-kilometer Mabini Street located in once-genteel Ermita has been the nexus of touristy and artistic activities.
IMAGE Alex R. Castro Collection
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For over 80 years now, Mabini Street, the two-kilometer street located in once-genteel Ermita has been the nexus of touristy and artistic activities. In its heyday, it teemed with art galleries and shops, making it Manila’s most colorful alley.

Mabini was known in the late 1800s as Calle Nuevo, and, like Calle Real (now known as  M.H. del Pilar St.) ran straight and parallel to the bay, starting from Wallace Field in the north and ending at the Pasay boundary. Back then, the Ermita-Malate district was peopled with Manila families from the principalia class, along with many Spanish and Spanish mestizo residents. After the 1860s, Ermita expanded as a suburb, along the main calles of Real and Nuevo, which provided Manila with an important link to the Cavite harbors where the galleons landed.

From top: FISHING VILLAGE, by Gabriel Custodio, 1956. OLD COLONIAL CHURCH, by Elias Laxa, 1961. Alex R. Castro Collection.

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When the Americans came, they too were drawn to the quiet dignity and exclusivity of the suburb which characterized the uppity residential streets—Calle Nuevo included. Renamed during the American occupation as A. Mabini St. to memorialize the “brains of the Revolution,” the street slowly began its transition into a shopping destination, along with Escolta and the walled city of Intramuros.

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By the 1930s, as the country opened its doors to the world, Manila’s population swelled to include international residents and visitors. Hotels, serviced apartments, posh homes, and clubs sprouted along the area. Joining the Germans, Dutch, Swiss, and English traders were the Americans and their families—soldiers, teachers, diplomats, government officials, businessmen, adventure seekers, and tourists—whose fascination with our exotic islands stimulated a demand for manufactured cultural souvenirs to send back home as gifts and travel mementos.

From top: TINIKLING, by Mario Casanas, 1956. Casanas often copied works of Fernando Amorsolo. WOMAN IN A BANCA, by Oscar Navarro, 1966. Alex R. Castro Collection.

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Mabini St. and its peripheries became the go-to place for such tourist souvenirs. The Little Home Shop run by the Metcalfs on 676 A. Mabini was one of the first shops to offer “a treasure trove for the seeker of the unusual.” It carried everything from Moro brassware, embroidered piña, and Igorot dresses. Nearby was Philippine Shell-Craft that created stunning remembrances of shell and mother-of-pearl. Also just a walk away, on 620 Mabini, was Manila Art Craft, which carried reptile leather goods, trays, cards, candy boxes, and other novelties.

The war decimated much of Ermita, but when peace settled in the country and rebuilding went underway, the proud district rose from the ashes with a renewed sense of optimism. With the promise of independence fulfilled in 1946, the new country continued its spree of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

MUSLIM COUPLE, by Crispin V. Lopez. Victor B. Velasco Collection, used with permission.

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Mabini St. attracted artists like Paombong-born Miguel Geronimo Galvez Sr., who opened his own visual arts shop in 1949. Galvez had honed his painting skills as a sit-in student of Prof. Teodoro Buenaventura at the U.P. college of Fine Arts along Taft Avenue. Simon Saulog, from Imus, also located his studio cum shop along Mabini.

The early artists who gravitated toward this street painted in the realist tradition—led by such names as Galvez and Saulog, plus Ben Alano, Fermin Sanchez, Cesar Amorsolo, Jose Bumanlag David, Elias Laxa, Romeo Enriquez, and Gabriel Custodio. Like master Fernando Amorsolo, the conservatives painted idyllic pastoral scenes, landscapes, and ruralscapes, nipa huts set against mountain backdrops or rice fields, and other folkloric themes. Abiding by tradition, they painted what they saw—the more real, the better.

BATHING BEAUTY, by Victor T. Cabrera, 1956. This U.P.-educated artist trained with Vicente Manansala and Antonio Dumlao. His works—landscapes, portraits, historical paintings—were characterized by "a silky, finished quality," evident in this painting. Alex R. Castro Collection.

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The vision of the distant Far East, from a Western perspective, was always imagined as exotic, wild and tropical, an isolated part of the world—with swaying palm trees, bare-breasted island women, mysterious Mohammedans and mountain folk. These conceptions were consistent with the images Mabini artists managed to deftly capture on their canvasses. Tourists, with tastes far different from art connoisseurs, snapped up these artworks, simply as remembrances of their Philippine experience. Not only were these paintings affordable, but the paintings were also portable to hand-carry home.

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WARRIOR PRINCESS, by Cesar Amorsolo, 1956. A gradute of U.P. Fine Arts in 1934, Cesar is the nephew of Fernando Cueto Amorsolo. Alex R. Castro Collection.

“Commercial fine arts,” was a term first used by Fabian de la Rosa to describe art associated with advertising—billboards, illustrations, magazine covers. It would later come to refer as well to the products of the “Mabini School,” meant to be sold and generate money. Anybody with a fairly good hand could churn out paintings of the same style and hackneyed Filipinana themes. As expected, academically trained artists and aficionados of high art thumbed their noses at these creations—hastily done, painted in multiples, and cheaply priced.

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MARANAO FISHERMEN, by Romeo Enriquez, 1953. A much sought after portraitist, Enriquez established his studio-gallery along Mabini Street. Victor B. Velasco Collection, used with permission.

No matter, the demand of tourists for commercial fine arts intensified during this period. Mabini St. assumed a bohemian air of some sort, as classicists and the rising modernists congregated in the area. The convergence would eventually lead to a clash in 1955, when, in a contest mounted by the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP), the modernists won over the conservatives, prompting a walk-out of some 20 realist painters. They also won the support of non-AAP members who joined them in their outdoor shows in front of Manila Hotel, that elicited much attention from the public.

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HARVEST TIME, by Serafin Serna. He trained under professor Teodoro Buenaventura before enrolling at the U.P. Fine Arts. His biggest commission was decorating the Philippine Pavilion at the New York’s World’s Fair with murals and brass sculptures in 1964. Victor B. Velasco Collection, used with permission.

Indeed, times were changing in the city’s landscape, too. By the end of the '50s, the offbeat color of Mabini—often likened to New York's Greenwich Village—was starting to lose its appeal. Alongside residences, quaint souvenir shops and art galleries arose in quick profusion, an amalgam of dress shops, third-rate motels, cocktail lounges, sleazy bars, and unsightly tenement buildings and barong-barongs. But the artists stayed on, both the good, the bad, and the downright phony.

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The output was more commercialized—velvet nude paintings that American servicemen favored, copies of famous European paintings (Da Vinci’s "Mona Lisa," "Last Supper"), his ‘n hers ethnic kitsch (Rajah & Rani, Lakan & Lakambini, Moro & Mora, Igorot & Igorota), and Tiki crafts to decorate American dens and bars. Aesthetic rules could also be broken, based on the dictates of the buying customer. Thanks to the promotion of tourism, Mabini art—despite its reputation as cheap souvenir art for the tourist trade—enjoyed a ready, and steady market.

From left: YOUNG RAJAH, by Jose Bumanlag David, 1955. The works of this Pampanga artist was often featured on the pages of Graphic Magazine in the 1920s. T’BOLI ELDER, by Fortunato Jervoso. Pasay-born Jervoso learned painting through the International Correspondence School in Philadelphia from 1934 to 1937. Alex R. Castro Collection.

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True talent, in the persons of Paco Gorospe, Salvador Cabrera (Bencab’s brother), Roger San Miguel, and Leonardo Zablan, emerged in the '60s, representing the second generation of Mabini painters with exceptional skills that were yet to be recognized. Galleries continued to proliferate in the area—Gorospe, Zablan, and Lopez had theirs along Mabini—and gained major patronage from hotels, embassies, and corporate buildings in need of interior decoration.

Pistang Pilipino (later, Sining Pilipino), a one-stop commercial arts and crafts center with 200 stalls, was put up along Mabini in the '80s, and carried many souvenir paintings of Filipino artists, in varying grades of finish and quality. These artists, many of whom remained nameless, constituted the third wave of Mabini painters who began painting in the '70s through the '90s.

ISLAND GIRL, by Ben Alano, 1952. Alano maintained a studio in Ermita for over 20 years. Victor B. Velasco Collection, used with permission.

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The political turmoil and the economic instability of the mid-'80s dealt a severe blow to Philippine tourism, and Malate-Ermita businesses felt the impact more than any other. Alternative commercial centers like Greenhills and Makati drew more “quality” crowds as opposed to Mabini, which suffered from its ‘red light district’ image. Regular crackdowns on illicit trades didn’t help in hastening Mabini’s decline. Many art galleries closed, and while Pistang Pilipino remained open until 1995 and then relocated, its business was never the same again.

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MANOBO ELDER, by Crispin Agno, 1955. Alex R. Castro Collection.

But just when everyone thought that Mabini art was on its way out, a new breed of art aficionados began rediscovering them in other parts of the world thanks to the advent of the the Internet in the mid-1990s. Filipiniana paintings from the mid-century and older began appearing in online museums as well as international selling sites, gaining a core group of patrons, mostly overseas Filipinos.

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It must be recalled that in the course of 50 or so years, thousands of these Mabini paintings made their way to other countries, especially the United States, where they were either hung in homes or stashed away for keeping, passed on to descendants, to be recovered in estate, garage sales, auctions, and flea markets.  

GRAND OLD LADY, by Miguel Galvez, 1937. Miguel left Paombong to work in the household of his uncle-artist professor Teodoro Buenaventura, who enolled him at the U.P. Fine Arts. He was the first artist to open a studio on Mabini St. in 1949.

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As early as the late '80s, international online selling sites like ebay.com and liveauctioneers.com regularly offered vintage Philippine paintings posted by sellers, who picked up such pieces from rummage and yard sales and sold them outright or through bidding.

From a few dollars, the prices for these Philippine works quickly escalated to hundreds, even up to thousands of dollars. A quick check on e-bay’s current inventory (as of July 2018), features a 24” x 20” Simon Saulog 1959 painting of a Filipina gathering palay that is priced for sale at $1,650. Two Crispin V. Lopez portraits are more realistically priced at $299 each.

From left: SAN MIGUEL ARCANGEL, by Antonio Dumlao, 1955. The painting copied from Sanzio Raphael is signed "Rafael Sanzio por Dumlao." ORACION EN EL HUERTO, by Domingo Celis, 1951. He is one of the first graduates of the U.P. Fine Arts in 1914.

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American museums, like the Field Museum of History in Chicago, keep many good examples of this kind of genre paintings. Since 1989, Geringer Art based in Honolulu, Hawaii has also been studying and marketing fine Southeast Asian paintings, including Filipino works wrought by artist who began their careers in Mabini.

In 1992, a book based on the art collection of Jorge B. Vargas, the former executive secretary of President Manuel L. Quezon, was written by professor Santiago Pilar Albano on the occasion of the Vargas Centennial Celebrations. The book, PAMANA, featured write-ups and photos of paintings of many Mabini luminaries, raising further awareness for Vargas’ vintage paintings, which he bequeathed to the University of the Philippines, where they are now housed at the school’s Filipiniana section.

LAPU-LAPU AND BULAKNA, by Rodolfo Pasno, 1960s. The noted Mabini painter was active from the '50s through the '70s.

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Suddenly, collectors and critics from here and abroad began taking a more serious look at these artworks and the painters who created them, finally acknowledging their significance and their place in the development of Philippine art history.

In June 2013, Filipino expatriate Victor B. Velasco assembled Filipiniana paintings found in the U.S. in a representational exhibit in Chicago titled Balik-Tanaw: Philippine Images Beyond Nostalgia. The exhibit featured the paintings of Mabini artists and others who worked in the same style like Serafin Serna, C.V. Lopez, Hernando Ocampo, Crispin Agno, and Isidro Ancheta.

Art collector Jack Nasser, founder of Philexcel Business Park and a pioneering investor in Clark Field, Pampanga, began amassing Mabini art paintings beginning in the 1960s. When he passed away, his widow, Ariella Nasssr-Moskovitz, organized the Jack Nasser Collection and put the artworks on permanent display at the Philexcel Art Center, inaugurated in 2016. The paintings on exhibit, many done by Oscar Navarro and Paco Gorospe, is open to the viewing public.

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WEDDING GIFTS, by Simon Saulog, 1954. Commissioned by Heacock’s Department Store in Escolta. Alex R. Castro Collection.

Perhaps, the most convincing proof that Mabini Art has indeed gained mainstream status as well as respectability in the art world is the inclusion of paintings in the two premiere auction houses in the Philippines—Salcedo Auctions and the Leon Gallery. Along with the like of Amorsolo, Bencab, and Manansala, examples of Mabini Art are now being offered on regular basis by the prestigious auction houses—and are doing very well.

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For example, Cesar Buevantura’s “Planting Rice” had an ending price of P303,680 from a starting bid of P120,000. The “Barrio Scene” painting of Romeo Enriquez sold at P163,520, more that quadruple its initial P40,000 bid. Oscar Navarro’s “Sailboat,” which had a starting price of P16,000, was snapped up for P46,700. Simon Saulog’s “Nude,” had a tag price of P30,000, but sold at P327,040. Finally, Antonio Dumlao’s painting, “Bountiful,” with a starting bid of P400,000, ended with a realized price of P759,200. The prices are still far away from the millions people pay shell out for a Manansala or a BenCab, but selling is brisk and the demand remains strong.

BAHAY KUBO BY THE BANKS, by Felix Gonzales, 1955. Gonzales owned a gallery at the Manila Hotel then moved to Mabini. Many of his children became artists like him.

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The popular art form persists and endures today, although slowed down by the vagaries of tourism industry and fads of taste. In some nooks and crannies of Mabini and neighboring M.H. del Pilar, there are still a handful of studios that continue to churn out canvas after canvas of nipa huts, tinikling dancers, grazing carabaos, and toiling farmers—objects of beauty that have also become idealized expressions of our culture. In those holes-in-the-wall may yet arise another Amorsolo, de la Rosa, or Manansala, but what is clear is that Mabini Art, once disparaged by local patrons, is finally receiving the appreciation it deserves.

Wall-to-wall art: Filipinana paintings done in the so-called Mabini School style fill the walls of a collector’s house. Alex R. Castro Collection.

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References:

Mabini’s Arty Street, Sunday Times Magazine,  6 January 1957, pp. 14-15, photos by Ben Santos

Castañeda, Dominador C., Trends and Influences in Fine Arts, PROGRESS 1955. Pp. 26-34

Quingco II, Oliver, Hartung III, Klaus W. Revisiting Mabini Art, Transwing ® Jane Hartung, e.k., 2013

Albano, Santiago Pilar, Pamana: The Jorge B. Vargas Art Collection, Committee on Arts and Culture, Vargas Centennial Celebrations, U.P. Vargas Museum, 1992

Balik-Tanaw: Philippine Image Beyond Nostalgia, exhibit catalog 2013

Castaneda, Dominador, Trends and Influences in Fine Arts, Progress 1955. Pp. 27-33

ERMITA Magazine, 1976 issue

The Dynamics of Change in Tourist Arts

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