Juan Flores, once and future national artist?-A A +A
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
THE story goes that in 1986, Imelda Marcos was already preparing a Juan Flores exhibit in Malacañang in anticipation of his being declared a National Artist, when Edsa Revolution broke out and forced the Marcoses out of the country.
Left behind in the Palace, along with Imelda’s shoes and Marcos’ dialysis machine, were Flores’ magnificent wood sculptures – the famous wood chandeliers, the rosette woodcarving on walls, ceilings and doors in the Marcoses’ private library (now Visayas Room), private chapel (now Mindanao Room) and bedroom (now Guest Room), as well as several more art works in the Presidential Museum.
It is these art works from the Presidential Museum that the family of Juan Flores has recently retrieved and are showing to the Kapampangan public for the first time on September 29, when the Holy Angel University Center for Kapampangan Studies opens the exhibit “Juan Flores: Carving a Niche in History.”
The exhibit is a way of introducing, or reintroducing, this great artist to Kapampangans, especially to those who confuse him with Simon Flores, the famous painter whom many think was a Kapampangan (he only lived in Pampanga, painted a lot of Kapampangan subjects, and married a Kapampangan, but was not a Kapampangan himself).
The exhibit is also a way of reviving the aborted bid to make Juan Flores a National Artist. The Guagua municipal council has already passed a resolution endorsing Juan Flores’ nomination to the Order of National Artists. According to the rules, artists who died after 1972, the year the awards started, are qualified posthumously (Flores died in 1992, at age 92).
Just to show how big Juan Flores used to be: In 1983, Gov. Estelito Mendoza awarded him the Outstanding Kapampangan Award (today’s MOKA). Five years later, in 1988, Gov. Bren Z. Guiao gave him the exact same award!
The Aranetas, the Zobels, the Tantocos, the Madrigals and the Sorianos all own Juan Flores masterpieces, but his No. 1 fan was Imelda Marcos. Aside from Malacañang, she also commissioned Apung Juan to design the Marcoses’ ancestral house in Ilocos Norte and her own mansion in Leyte. Other artists would have taken advantage of the First Lady’s generosity, but Flores only charged her the same fees he would have charged an ordinary client.
It was while preparing the Palace for the Marcoses’ silver wedding anniversary that Flores fell down from a ladder and suffered a stroke. He never recovered from it.
But his art has since passed on to the barrio folk of Betis, one of the country’s two woodcarving capitals (the other being Paete, Laguna).
Actually, he did not start the tradition; he revived it. Kapampangans have been into woodcarving since colonial times, maybe even before that.
The Kapampangan dictionary compiled by Fray Diego Bergaño in 1732 is littered with ancient terms pertaining to a woodcarving tradition in Pampanga. Examples: aglit (to carve with knife), minigguas (to carve designs on wood), lingguit (wood mould), utap (sawdust), pat (chisel), daras (adze), licup and lucub (centering chisels), bucsi and catam (wood blades), lagari (saw), balibol (drill), palacol and atac (axes), etc.
The Betis that the Spaniards first saw in 1571 included lands beyond the borders of modern-day Betis, large enough to contain the 3,500 Muslim settlers (only those who paid taxes were counted) mentioned by Spanish chroniclers at the time. According to their accounts, Betis was as big as old Cebu and bigger than Vigan, Tondo and Malolos combined.
They were riverbanks dwellers, clustered around the Betis River (beside the present-day church) and the Labuan River (at the back of Sta. Ursula, which used to be called Paglalabuan). Both rivers used to be wide and deep enough for Spanish ships to pass through.
The old Betis probably included all the areas on both sides of these two rivers, including Minalin, Bacolor (Cabetican is actually Cabetisan) and Sta. Rita, where 19th-century polychromatic wood figurines now displayed in a Madrid museum were found—proof of an old woodcarving tradition in the Betis area.
The Spaniards Christianized Betis and built a most beautiful church, which has inspired religious vocations and given Betis the reputation of having produced the most number of priests in the Philippines. Thus, the old saying: “Ding taga-Betis, nung ali la karpintero, pari la” (Betis folks are either carpenters or priests).
However, by the time the Spanish colonial period ended in 1899, Betis had deteriorated into just a fishing village so that in 1904, the Americans demoted it into a mere barrio of Guagua.
It was the poverty of his village, Sta. Ursula, and the prospect of ending up a fisherman like his father and most other village folks, that prompted Juan Flores to take a boat in 1918 and try his luck in Quiapo, Manila, where he apprenticed in Maximo Vicente’s atelier and worked for master sculptors like Isabelo Tampingco, Eulogio Garcia and Graciano Nepomuceno.
After 10 years, he returned to Sta. Ursula, opened his shop and hired local hands. As his reputation grew, so did the number of barrio folks working for him. There was a time when Sta. Ursula registered zero unemployment because everyone was working in shops to meet the demand.
Thus did Juan Flores gradually help Betis regain its old prosperity. The thriving woodcarving, furniture-making, and ecclesiastical art industries for which Betis is known today can be directly attributed to Juan Flores.
Juan Flores should also be credited for updating the Betis woodcarving tradition, from the folksy style evident in the 19th-century polychromatic wood figurines the Spaniards saw in the area, to the Classical French, rococo, neo-Classical and Academic styles that Juan Flores acquired from Maximo Vicente’s atelier, which were in demand at the time.
Critics say that Betis woodcarvers seem forever stuck with Juan Flores’ European style, unlike the Paete woodcarvers whose style is distinctly Filipino.
Clients are also dismayed that copycats are forging his signature on their works and passing them off as original Juan Flores creations. The only way to establish authenticity is to follow a paper trail of the works as they passed on from buyer to buyer and from one exhibit to another, from the Presidential Museum in Malacañang, to the National Museum, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the House of Representatives, and the Development Bank of the Philippines.
Another way is to look for secret woodcarving codes and details that are unique to Juan Flores. The bas relief on the Betis church main entrance is a certified Juan Flores original.
But the new generation of Betis wood sculptors and furniture makers led by Willy Layug and Myrna Bituin are determined to not just preserve the legacy of Juan Flores but to also enhance and update it. Aside from training apprentices, they conduct workshops to promote a truly distinct and original Betis style, and to elevate woodcarving to an art form as well as to blur the line between artisan and artist.
Thus, the Betis tradition of woodcarving, from folksy during colonial times to Neo-classical of Juan Flores to Post-modernism today, is in a continuous state of updating and upgrading.
Maestro Apung Juan himself will be happy to see that his legacy has not just stayed alive, but is in fact constantly evolving and on the verge of full flowering.
Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on September 18, 2012.