The painter is dead: Barthes, and Nick Joaquin’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino’

How does the ‘greatest Filipino play’ illustrate our nation?

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A partly-monochrome and partly-colored image of the colonial-styled Casa Manila in Intramuros, Manila City.

The reputation of Nick Joaquin’s 1951 play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, towers over the landscape of Philippine literature. Its achievements demand nothing but superlatives; on the theatrical poster of its 1965 film adaptation is this call to attention:

The film, the stars, the setting, the theme, the story, the director—all the things that make this the motion picture to see if a Filipino can go to the theaters only once in his lifetime!

This year (Nick Joaquin’s birth centennial) will see the release of another cinematic adaptation entitled Ang Larawan. At the end of the teaser trailer for the film is a less self-important, but nevertheless equally grand, assessment of the source material: “The greatest Filipino play, now on film.”

A literary work can variably succeed or fail on different levels. Portrait achieves outstanding success from the outset, at the most basic level: on the plain basis of literal eloquence, the immediate pleasures of language’s rhythm and melody. Joaquin’s mastery of English is a gift that continues to inspire generations of writers, who would study his elaborate sentences, searching for the secrets, the intricate mechanisms by which his prose comes vigorously alive.

But there are more special qualities in Portrait. All its three scenes take place in a single setting, the sala of the Marasigans’ ancestral house in Intramuros. This seeming smallness of the play, its conservative spectacle, disguises its grand project, as Portrait has all the themes of Joaquin’s works: the questions of legacy, the primacy of women characters, the simultaneous reverence for the past and sensitivity to the present. But what sets Portrait apart, is that all these are poured into the intense iconography of the titular Portrait.

A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino is the story of the Marasigan family in late 1941, shortly before the outbreak of war. Their house stands in the middle of a decaying street in Old Manila, and though they are struggling with financial upkeep, the unmarried Marasigan sisters Candida and Paula steadfastly, proudly maintain the house where they live with their esteemed father, Don Lorenzo. The story begins when various members of society come to visit their home, having heard of the news that Don Lorenzo, a renowned artist and figure of the Revolution, had finished a new painting after many decades of silence. This painting, whose title gives the play its name, portrays the painter himself, twice: as a young man first, carrying on his back his second, older self, in a scene that copies the image of Aeneas bearing his father Anchises out of the burning Troy.

In 1967, the critic Roland Barthes famously declared that the Author is dead, that the interpretation of works depends solely upon the reader. But a decade and a half earlier, Joaquin had already dramatized this idea, in the symbol of the Portrait that was itself the frame of Portrait, the play. Across all three scenes, Don Lorenzo the painter is absent. He is merely resting in an adjacent room, but despite the disturbance and drama in the sala, he never makes an appearance, all while various characters declaim and debate the worth or lack thereof of his Portrait, and its very painter.

The first visitor, the young and reasonably well-educated Bitoy Camacho, says of the Portrait:

…how marvelously your father has caught that clear, pure classic simplicity! What flowing lines, what luminous colors, what a calm and spacious atmosphere! One can almost feel the sun shining and the seawinds blowing! Space, light, cleanliness, beauty, grace—and suddenly, there in the foreground, those frightening faces, those darkly smiling faces—like faces in a mirror… And behind them, in the distance, the burning towers of Troy… My God, this is magnificent! This is a masterpiece!

Bitoy is young, but he was raised in the old culture, a culture educated in the classics, and his appreciation of the Portrait reflects this noble tradition. He shows genuine interest in the subject and technique of the Portrait. Contrast this with the visitors whom Candida calls ‘civic society’:

…we explain [the Portrait] to everybody. We tell them: this is Aeneas, and this is his father Anchises. But they just look blankly at us. And then they ask: Who is Aeneas? Was he a Filipino? [Candida laughs.] There were some people here the other day—some kind of civic society—and they were shocked to learn that we had had this painting for a whole year without anybody knowing about it… They were furious with Paula and me for not telling everybody sooner. One of them—a small man with big eyes—he pointed a finger right in my face and he said to me in a very solomn voice: “Miss Marasigan, I shall urge the government to confiscate this painting right away! You and your sister are unworthy to possess it!”

Not only are these people ignorant of the Portrait’s cultural roots, they are also overwhelmingly concerned with the public good—never mind that Don Lorenzo painted the picture expressly for his daughters’ sake.

Then there is Tony, in his own words “a cheap little vaudeville piano-player. Not a pianist—oh no, no—certainly not a pianist!” He detests the Portrait (“The damn thing’s always looking at me… I hate the whole damn thing!”), but he cannot escape it, because of what it’s worth to him: a large sum in the form of bounty, if he manages to convince the sisters to sell the portrait to a wealthy American. His relation to the Portrait, to the work of art, is purely commercial, utilitarian, opportunistic.

There are plenty more visitors, including a couple of vaudeville performers who, regarding the Portrait, could comment barely anything more than “Hm, very pretty”, and a company of high-society women whose main interest in the picture is, quite obscenely, as inspiration for their costume party. But the most interesting clash of perspective comes from between the young, progressive journalists, and Don Perico, the old senator and compatriot of Don Lorenzo’s.

The journalists—Pete, Eddie and Cora—thoroughly mock the Portrait for its conservative affectations, its being pro-Establishment. Cora asks, “What do you say, Pete? Is it Art—or is it baloney?” Pete replies, “Oh, it’s Art all right—but I feel like brushing my teeth.” The question passes to Eddie, and he says, “My thoughts are unprintable.”

While discussing the Portrait, the group throws around discursive phrases: ‘proletariat’, ‘social-consciousness’, ‘Ivory Tower’, and ‘decadent bourgeois imagination’. Eddie, thinking about the article he would write about the Portrait, mumbles, “As I always say, Art is not autonomous; Art should not stand aloof from mundane affairs; Art should be socially significant; Art has a function…” Bitoy chimes in, “Like making people brush their teeth?”

Pete later stands in front of the Portrait and recites:

Well, I’m the Present—and I refuse to be judged by the Past! It is the Past rather that has to be judged by me! If there’s anything wrong with me, then the Past has something to do with it! Afraid? Who’s afraid? I stand here and I face you, Don Lorenzo, and I ask you: What were you and what did you do that you should have the right to judge me?

The most hilarious moment of their critique, and the sharpest shot of satire, comes courtesy of the vaudeville pair. When they arrive, Pete recognizes the irony, and delightfully asks to take a photograph of the Portrait while the vaudeville performers look upon it. “Because you are great and honest artists,” Pete tells them, to spite the decadence of the bourgeois Portrait. Eddie suggests a title for the photograph: “A Portrait of One Dead Artist and Two Live Ones”.

Don Perico arrives in a later scene. Asked if he thinks the Portrait is a great painting, he answers by first acknowledging his bias: that any opinion of his would be ‘merely affectionate and sentimental’ because of his affinity with the picture’s tradition. Then he says, in an unintentional rebuttal to the now-absent band of journalists:

Oh, I am amused when I hear these young critics accusing your father of escaping into the dead world of the past! And I pity these young critics! When we were their age, our minds were not so parochial. The past was not dead for us—certainly not the classic past. We were at home in the world of the hexameter and the Ablative Absolute; it was not a closed world to us—nor an exotic one; it was our intellectual and spiritual atmosphere. We had Homer and Virgil in our bones—as well as St. Augustine and Aquinas, Dante and Cervantes, Lord Byron and Victor Hugo. Aeneas and Bonaparte were equally real to us, and equally contemporary. It was as natural for Pepe Rizal to give his novel a Latin title as for Juan Luna to paint gladiators. Oh, you should have heard us—with our Latin tags and our classical allusions and our scholastic terminology…

The vital lesson from this clash of perspectives is not that one or the other view is superior. Despite their persuasions, both parties are obliged to compromise: the journalists, though despising the work, ask to borrow it for the benefit of a progressive art show; and the senator, aroused by the picture, is wracked by nostalgia and a measure of guilt for the world he had left behind. The only certainty is the very existence of this multitude of perspectives, the differing backgrounds that the individuals bring as they come to interpret a work. The Portrait is a Barthesian text: the visitors to the Marasigans’ are the readers, and the Portrait was not finished when Don Lorenzo had dappled the last dab of pigment on it; rather, the Portrait is painted every time a character witnesses it.

A first result of this is that Portrait, the play, insures itself against criticism, against dismissive scrutiny, by thus embodying a self-referential symbol. Portrait, the play, is like its own fictional Portrait, vulnerable to opposing opinions, to acceptance and to rejection, and it denies any judgment as the product of its own worth. It is what the readers (you) bring to the act of reading or witnessing this play, that gives it value. If you do not see anything worthwhile in it, then it is your own failure to bring any idea of value to it. If you dismiss it as old-fashioned, traditional, even boring—then the joke is on you, you would be like the journalists who fail to see where the work is coming from. And yet, if you lavish too much praise on this work, then you must know that you run the risk of being a Don Perico—too affectionate, sentimental. A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino resists both definitive criticism, and decisive praise.

On a more grandiose level, Portrait illuminates a thesis regarding the Filipino nation that, indeed, mirrors Barthes’ idea. The picture of Aeneas and Anchises is the picture of a meeting of generations; and its depiction as Filipino is to depict the confluence of cultures that is the Filipino nation. The viewers of the Portrait come from contrasting generations, contrasting sectors of society, together representing the violent tapestry of Filipino society, from the refined to the vernacular to the gaudy. Each brings its own choice of ideals, interests, compromises and sacrifices. The clash is chaotic, yet splendid. The result is a deep and complex narrative that resists single, authoritative interpretation.

Joaquin is relentlessly, romantically nostalgic, but he is subversively so. While our Hispanic heritage provides his works a traditional flavor, it must not be mistaken for submission: his interpretation of what defines the Filipino both embraces and rejects the Hispanic in us. Joaquin understands that our nation was forged out of the clash of East and West, a culture continually reconfiguring, always caught in between currents of history. The elements of our nation are not unique, they are traceable to more ancient cultures, like how Don Lorenzo’s Portrait takes from classical Greek mythology—but out of their blending comes something definite, whole, new. The Western ingredients are just as important as the Eastern elements; we are children of Europe as much as we are descendants of Asia. And just as this archipelago was the entry point into Asia from the Old World, so is the Marasigan house and the iconic Portrait it houses artifacts about to be shattered by global war, objects built in the style of an old Western empire but fated to be destroyed by the forces of a different, Eastern imperial power.

Now, to take a step back: isn’t all this merely another reading? Another interpretation, one valid from certain perspectives, but not unassailable from others. Portrait itself, the play, after all is a text. And its author is dead, figuratively and literally—may God bless Nick Joaquin’s magnanimous soul.

That is why it is interesting to know what Joaquin would have talked about with Barthes, perhaps over bottles of his favorite beer, San Miguel. “Every text is eternally written here and now,” Barthes said. “[Both] the reader [and] the author, is a function of the text, is without history, biography and psychology.” There is a certain malleability to Portrait the play, of course. It has enough complexity, enough layers to warrant differing opinions, different focii of analysis.

And yet all of Joaquin’s works are nothing if not about histories and biographies and psychologies. To view his texts through any other lens is to diminish their brilliance. Without the luminance of the great Filipino nation’s soul, Portrait fades, and what is left is a scene of bickering characters in a dim, old mansion; a scene that will soon be forgotten, lost in small-mindedness.

It does not have to be this way. Don Lorenzo the fictional painter is dying, Nick Joaquin his author now rests in peace, but the play lives on, deathless, continually revisited. Likewise, our nation’s forefathers have been forgotten, our national heroes have been martyred, and yet the nation lives on. And so we must read and watch A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, but not without the definite history of the Filipino nation in mind, not without the context of Joaquin’s biography as a Filipino in the 20th century, regardless of what Barthes has said.

Because Portrait has a legitimate claim as the greatest Filipino play, the one essential motion picture for Filipinos, only when it is understood with the force and weight of history—and then, it becomes the story of the Filipino nation itself. To read it, to watch it in its many forms of rebirth, is to question and challenge our identity. Whatever comes out of it—defiance, tragedy, submission, violence—matters less than the very act of acknowledging the past. The very act of—to take words from the play’s closing speech—continuing, preserving, remembering.

The featured image (of Casa Manila, Intramuros) is a manipulated version of the original by user ‘xiquinhosilva’ on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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