Every time I visit the National Museum (NM), I am reminded of how rich my country is in culture, how much history it has, and how many works of art there are by Filipinos.
One other thing that happens to me during every visit: I get overwhelmed by what I see. Color after color, style after style, form after form—it’s like an endless parade of masterpieces, studies, and relics. So, when I was there last time, I decided to focus on the figures made from stone, wood, concrete, and other strong materials.
It is with that decision that I noticed that the first artwork that greets all visitors is not a painting but a statue of no less than that of Manuel Acuña Roxas by National Artist Guillermo Tolentino. The President Manuel Roxas Foundation presented it to the NM on April 15, 2016. Who is Manuel Roxas? He was the president of the Philippines post-WWII. He had the heavy duty of getting the country to rise again after the terrible destruction brought by the invasion and occupation of the Japanese and the destruction of Intramuros, the heart of Manila.
From the quick audience with the president, I entered the room of the giants—but not before gazing upon the unearthly beauty that is the Diwata, also by Tolentino. The creature was formed from reinforced concrete and originally meant as mortuary statue. Look closer and you will notice that it bears resemblance to another famous being: the angel at the top of Andres Bonifacio’s monument at Monumento, Caloocan City.
Going further inside the room, I came face to face with the titans of Philippine fine arts: the Spoliarium by Juan Luna and El Asasinato del Gobernador Bustamante (The Assassination of Governor Bustamante) by Felix Resurrection Hidalgo. In between them is a bust of Arthur Walsh Fergusson by Spanish sculptor Mariano Gil Benlliure, which was created in 1912. From Washington, USA, he went here and took the post of secretary of the Taft Commission in 1900 then became the first executive secretary for the Philippine Islands from 1901 until his death in Manila in 1908. The bust of Fergusson by Benlliure is the first monument of an American to have stood on Philippine soil.
Exiting from that room, I turned right and entered the blue room where I found statuettes, busts of national heroes and former presidents, and models for an arch. In another blue room but of a lighter shade, I found stained glass windows that reminded me of those from grand and ancient cathedrals.
The halls are sometimes lined with statues and statuettes. Sometimes, they have their own pedestals. Sometimes, they share a shelf with other carvings.
In the green room are works that pay homage to the horror and atrocities of WWII. The ones that stood out most for me were Bataan Death Marcher by Gene Cabrera and A Plea for Freedom from Fear by Fermin Gomez. Cabrera also painted a piece called A Tragic Lesson (The Fall of Bataan), which was both macabre and charming.
Sometimes, statuettes give way to life-sized statues, mostly works by Isabelo Lacandola Tampinco.
While I did try to focus on carved figures, there were moments when I was helplessly drawn to painted figures, like the controversial and rumored to be cursed Portrait of a Lady (a.k.a Mi Novia or Portrait of Paz Pardo de Tavera)by Luna and La Barca de Aqueronte (The Boat of Charon)by Hidalgo.
National hero Jose Rizal also sculpted some pieces, like La Venganza de la Madre (The Mother’s Revenge), which was made from clay. It was a statement about the condition of the country and the people while under Spanish rule, with the motherland and the patriots standing for the mother dog, the crocodile the Spaniards, and the defenseless pup for the people.
Sacred statues could also be found along the halls and in some of the red-themed rooms dedicated to such.
At the fourth floor, there are busts of national heroes, like Gen. Antonio Luna by Tampinco. The general is the brother of the painter. On the same floor, I entered the room that led to the upper deck of the old senate hall where a bust of the late president Manuel Quezon could be found. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say who created it.
Don’t make the mistake of walking away from that room without gazing upwards. Crowning that hall is a collection of figures from history and myth. I tried guessing who they are but I failed. I could only point out a couple: Hermes and Moses. There’s a pharaoh, some popes and saints, scientists, and philosophers. There may even a statue of the motherland there. But I cannot be sure.
At the back of the hall are wooden carvings about women.
Exit out front and there is the goddess Venus by Tolentino. It instantly reminded me of the painting The Birth of Venus by Italian painter Sandro Botticelli.
The NM is open Tuesdays to Sundays, from 10 AM to 5 PM. Entrance is permanently free.
Padre Burgos Ave, Ermita, Manila