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Gender in Justiniano Asuncion’s Portraitures

Entitled Art & Family: The Asuncion Legacy, Ayala Museum’s latest exhibition features the paintings, illustrations and sculptures of the three artists in the Asuncion family–Mariano, Leoncio, and Justiniano. The exhibition is seemingly poised as an attempt to accentuate the contributions of the brothers to Philippine art history, especially in the so-called academia period–the era upon the establishment of what will be the first academic institution for the arts in Asia. It was a period when artists already practice the depiction of secular images, as a result of the lifting of the rule on painting solely Catholic images, implemented during the earlier centuries of Spanish colonial rule in the country.

With this objective as the lens, the exhibition can be said to have been delivered. Mariano, the oldest, known for his works on religious subjects, was represented by his full-scale paintings, and rare miniature paintings on golden medallions. Leoncio’s reputation as the titular “Father of Modern Religious Sculptures” was embodied by elaborate religious sculptures made from ivory and wood. The youngest, Justiniano, who arguably is the most productive among the three given the sheer number of works in the exhibition, was represented by his secular works–solo portraits of family members and women from influential families, and tipos del pais illustrations, which were meant to be exported souvenirs to foreign travelers. The exhibition covered both painting and sculptural forms, and works depicting religious and secular subjects.

What the exhibition covertly/unconsciously reflected however, is the status of women in the society then. The fact itself that all the artists in the family were men can be seen as a consequence of the hurdles women artists had to surpass to practice art (and thus excel), and possibly, the bias of the agencies and institutions, such as art historians, against foregrounding women artists over their male contemporaries. Moreover, a more critical analysis of selected portraits of the youngest Asuncion, Justiniano, can further this point, although such may necessitate jumping out of the Ayala Museum exhibition (due to the lack of a portrait on a male subject) towards an exhibition from almost 30 years ago.

The 1988 commemorative exhibition of Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo in the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, proffers an interesting case on the study of gender, as it held Justiniano Asuncion’s portraits not only of any male and female subjects, but those of a husband and his wife. These are portraits of Don Marciano Villafranca, Justice of the Court of First Instance, and wife Filomena Asuncion-Villafranca (on-view at the Ayala Museum exhibition), who was the niece of the painter.

The plain difference in the dimensions of the two portraits may reflect the dynamics of the two characters. Don Mariano’s portrait is at 109.2 by 78.7 cm, larger than Filomena’s, which is at 86.4 by 66.05 cm. Aside from that, it is important to note that the portrait of Filomena, a niece of the artist, (completed in 1860) was finished almost two decades prior Don Mariano’s (completed in 1878). With the creation of the latter’s portrait, it must have been thought that it was to be made in association with the former’s earlier portrait given their relationship as husband and wife. However, the artist still decided to depict the latter in a larger canvas; hence, hinting on the superiority of the man over his wife.

This dynamic may also be gleaned through the way the characters were presented. On the one hand, Don Mariano was depicted in his office attire: a black coat with puffed sleeves over a black vest. His gloved left hand holds his black biretta and his other glove. His is an image of simple elegance, accentuated by official decorations pinned on his coat and vest, and a pocket watch implicitly seen through the cord dangling on his chest. On the other, Filomena was adorned with elaborate formal costume and jewelries—two diamond encrusted golden rings, a hair brooch, and a cowl tie pin. Hers is an image of extravagant beauty.

Resonating late theorist John Berger saying “a man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies,” Don Mariano’s stern, somewhat suspicious, countenance, compounded by his attire, elevates his presence to emanate the authority and power his position holds. At first glance, it depicts an image of an influential and accomplished husband as the working breadwinner of the family, presumably in contrast with the vanity of his wife, showing her glamorous attire and accessories (which are further highlighted by miniaturismo, a style of rendering details of costumes elaborately).

However, feminist thought believes that extravagance in women’s clothing and jewelry should not be assumed to be manifestations of mere personal vanity; but rather as the objectification of these women, reduced to being objects of vision—as spectacles. Powerless and passive, depiction of women in the 19th century was limited to being mere public demonstrations of their family’s wealth—in the case of Filomena, her husband’s wealth. Her accessories are simply for physical beautification, in contrast with the practical use of her husband’s watch. Because of this objectification, Berger believes that “a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself”. Being the object of the gaze, the woman is insidiously forced to realize that how she appears to others determines the success of her life; thus, she is obliged to survey herself continually, becoming not only the surveyed, but also her own punitive surveyor. 

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For more about this critical perspective, check out John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and Flaudette May Datuin’s Home, Body, Memory: Filipina Artists in the Visual Arts, 19th Century to the Present.

The exhibition runs from the 8th of August 2017 to the 14th January 2018 at the Ayala Museum in Makati City.

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