How Fernando Amorsolo captured Manila’s dark period 2
Fernando Amorsolo in his studio; (right) detail of his painting "Bombing of Intendencia." Photos courtesy of Leon Gallery
Culture

The other side of Amorsolo: How the master of light captured Manila’s dark period

‘The Bombing of the Intendencia,’ up for auction this weekend, proves there was more to the first National Artist beyond his pastoral scenes
EA Sta. Maria | Sep 06 2022

Who would have thought the gentle soul who celebrated the Philippines’ most beautiful rice fields and its nubile maidens would also be able to capture the horrors of war? This only shows that Fernando Amorsolo, the first to be named National Artist, also had range when it came to subject matter—apart from the genius of his strokes and his near otherworldly capacity to record light and its various gradations. 

The Imperial Japanese army would begin the bombing of the Philippines hours after its cunning attack on American soil on December 7th, 1941, a date which the American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt would predict would “live in infamy.” The truth of the matter is that Manila would be called by war historians as “the other Pearl Harbor.”

Bombing of Intendencia by Fernando Amorsolo
"Bombing of Intendencia" by Fernando Amorsolo. Signed and dated Manila, January 1, 1942 (lower left). Oil on canvas. 18" x 28" (46 cm x 71 cm)

As the Americans’ prized jewel in the crown, the Filipino capital city was targeted for destruction. And there was one man on the ground to capture Manila set ablaze, Fernando Amorsolo. 

“My father would paint everyday,” his daughter Sylvia Amorsolo Lazo would recall. “He hated being idle but during the War, he believed that it was important and that he needed to record what was happening around him.”

Mrs. Amorsolo-Lazo continues, “We lived near Azcarraga before the War, but when the Japanese set up a garrison right across the street from our house, my father wanted to keep all the womenfolk safe; so he hired another house, I think it belonged to Mr. Kraut, in Raon. My mother and all the girls were sent there. Papa and the boys stayed in that house on Morayta.”

The architectural drawing for the Intendencia
The architectural drawing for the Intendencia. Courtesy of the National Archives

“Papa had a black and white camera then but I don’t know if he was using it to capture the scenes. I do know he was making pencil sketches. I have a sketch of the ‘Bombing of the Intendencia.’ It has notes of the scene in Spanish, which is what he would do. He would tell us that he would even go up on the roof of the house in Azcarraga to look at the airplanes on their bombing runs.”

The riveting “Bombing of the Intendencia” leads the field of amazing works by Amorsolo at the upcoming León auction. “It is made even more so because it has a date —January 1st, 1942–handwritten in the master’s hand,” notes Jaime Ponce de Leon, director of León Gallery. “It has that immediacy that only a work conceived in plein-air, in the open air, has.” One other work, dated January 15th, is in the Jorge Vargas Collection of the University of the Philippines.

The Intendencia was first constructed in the 1820s by the Spanish colonial government to shelter its custom house. It would be beside the Pasig River, situated to manage the influx of goods.

The Intendencia today
The Intendencia before the War. Courtesy of the National Archives

It would have a stellar history as the first repository of the Philippine Archives, the first home of the Philippine Senate, the Central Bank and later the Commission of Elections.

“My father had a collection of newspapers of every single day of the War,” Mrs. Amorsolo Lazo recalls. It would prove an important resource for this avid documentarian. “He used his works to depict the war crimes and the refugee crisis. These are all, unfortunately, still happening to this day in other war zones. You can see in the painting that there are people fleeing to reach safety. There is a family with a ‘careton’ (large cart). It reminds me of when he told us he had to go to Bulacan to fetch a cavan of rice. Manila was starving. There was little food to be had. It was a terrifying experience and the Japanese kempeitai or military police stopped them and even took a portion of the rice. I am glad that was all they demanded.”

Amorsolo’s “Bombing of the Intendencia” captures the smouldering heat of the scene, from the thick black smoke of an oil-burning fire. His distinctive red skies —no longer the romantic rose-tinted sunrises—is of the city in flames. A boat lists to one side, in the reddish, almost blood-tinted waters, dangerously close to capsizing. It captures the sentiment of impending loss and disaster like no other.

The Intendencia before the War
The Intendencia today

“My father was a quiet man,” said Mrs. Amorsolo-Lazo, “but he was immersed in politics. He was very up to date, very interested in the news. He believed everyone should be.”

“The test of a true artist,” adds Ponce de Leon, director of León Gallery, “is his ability to stay relevant to the times — no matter what he is painting. That is the power of great art. ‘The Bombing of the Intendencia’ is one such example.” 

[Co-presented by ANCX, the urban man’s guide to style and culture, The Magnificent September Auction is happening this September 10, 2022, 2 PM, at León Gallery, Eurovilla 1, Rufino corner Legazpi Streets, Legazpi Village, Makati City. Preview week will be held from September 3 to 9, 2022, 9 AM to 7 PM.

For further inquiries, email info@leon-gallery.com or contact +632 8856-27-81. To browse the catalog, visit www.leon-gallery.com. Follow León Gallery on their social media pages for timely updates: Facebook www.facebook.com/leongallerymakati and Instagram @leongallerymakati.]

Images courtesy of Leon Gallery