Tragedies and Trajectories: Reading Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s ‘La Tragedia de Gobernador Bustamante’ (The Assassination of Governor Bustamante)

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Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s “The Assassination of Governor Bustamante” (Photo taken from s595.photobucket.com)

When I was in high school, my history teacher told me once that Juan Luna’s Spoliarium is a huge work of art. I had never seen the much-celebrated Spoliarium face to face until our class visited the National Museum last Thursday, 7 March. My history teacher was true to his word; it was really an enormous painting. Before finally setting my eyes on it, I thought that Spoliarium is framed like the usual paintings I see during exhibits. Never did I think that it would be as gigantic as I had ever imagined.

The painting’s size struck me but the grandeur of Luna’s masterpiece stunned me all the more. Regarded as one of the great Filipino painters of the Spanish Period, Juan Novicio Luna was known for his delicate style in putting his subjects on canvass. With his intricate brushstrokes, lifeless objects seemed to gain life. Art ran in Luna’s veins.

We discussed the Spoliarium in length. We identified the material aspects of the work and examined every detail which contributes to the beauty and magnificence of the painting. Luna’s illustration of a dark and dreary place where dead (and even half-dead) Roman gladiators are dragged away from the arena was exquisite. With its predominant use of red and dark colors, coupled with a foreground of the gladiatorial carcasses and apathetic spectators, Luna successfully portrayed the thirst of the Romans to blood and flesh as exemplified by these appalling matches. As I found out later on, Luna spent eight months to finish this grand masterpiece.

Aside from Luna’s Spoliarium, another painting struck me in awe. Facing the massive painting is also a painting illustrated on a huge canvass but relatively smaller than Spoliarium’s. This one was by Luna’s contemporary, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo. The oil painting, entitled “La Tragedia de Gobernador Bustamanate” (“The Assassination of Governor Bustamante”, hereinafter referred as La Tragedia), depicts the murder of Governor General Bustamante set in a foreground of friar-led tumult.  This painting is a historical one as it portrays the tragic death of Governor General Bustamante in the hands of his adversaries on the year 1717. The dreadful event is narrated by historians Emma Blair and Alexander Robertson in the 44th Volume of their book, “Philippine Islands”. We will further delve to the story behind this assassination later. But for now, the material and immaterial aspects of the painting are worth discussing.

Hidalgo’s said painting will be analyzed using the four planes of art analysis: the basic semiotic, iconic, contextual and the evaluative.

THE BASIC SEMIOTIC PLANE

According to the acclaimed art critic Alice Guillermo, the basic semiotic plane covers “the elements and the general technical and physical aspects of the work with their semantic (meaning-conveying potential).” The term “semiotic” has something to do with signs. In this case, the painting is the sign – a pictorial sign. Just like a body which is comprised of many parts, a sign is composed of elements which connote meaning and significance.

A painting is governed by principles of organization. Namely, these are balance, contrast, gradation, harmony, alternation, variation and dominance. Also, it is embodied by elements of design such as the line, shape, color, value, texture, direction and size, among others. When put altogether, these factors constitute the physical appearance of the work. These elements determine the impact of the work to the one who gazes at it.

Hidalgo’s La Tragedia is an interesting painting as far as how lines and colors are used. The scene is set in a stairway. As such, horizontal and vertical lines are evident. The windows and banners accentuate the lines all the more. However, oblique lines dominate the upper, central and lower parts of the painting as depicted by the bending human figures – friars and guards alike – caught in a chaotic situation. Oblique lines are also shown by the thick, diagonally-oriented stair railings and risers illustrated in the right portion of the painting. Tilted lines are also seen through the spears of the guards.

As for the colors, the chrome is predominantly bright. This entails that the scene happened in broad daylight. This is highlighted by the light which the window emits and the white robes of some friars. The stair treads and railings are also painted using the same value. Despite the brightness, darkness is conspicuous as most of the friars wear black robes. These black-clad friars can be found in the upper and lower parts of the painting. The color red is also striking as this is the color of Governor Bustamante’s robe, shown in the work as stabbed and seriously wounded. The soldiers found in the lower section of the painting wear red uniforms.

Perspective and depth are salient features which the painting successfully incorporated. The direction of the painting is predominantly oblique as depicted by the bending human figures and significantly horizontal as shown by the lines of the staircase. As this is a painting which is historically themed, the domination of human figures is inevitable. The upper section of the painting outnumbers the lower section in terms of human figures. This, in turn, makes it seemingly imbalanced. How the elements contrast to each other is remarkable. The use of light and dark colors is appropriate for the setting as much as the use of rectangular and curvilinear shapes is apt for the illustration.
 
THE ICONIC PLANE

According to Guillermo, while the semiotic plane deals with the material elements of the image, the iconic plane is concerned with its particular aspects and features. In this plane, the subjects and objects of the painting and their interrelationship with each other are scrutinized in detail. How the subjects are chosen and the figure relates to the viewer is analyzed in the iconic plane.

As I have said, the La Tragedia is an interesting, if not complicated, painting to study with. The painting does not only render a homogenous subject. That is to say, it is not a portraiture which depicts a sole facially profiled subject. Rather, it is a painting of profound heterogeneity. It means that the subjects are doing so many things simultaneously, not to mention that a number of them are present in the scenario. The La Tragedia is a good example of this type of painting.

The painting has three main subjects: the friars, the guards and, of course, Governor Bustamante. Hidalgo is wise enough to place these subjects strategically. There are guards and friars fighting down the stairwell, there are some others barricading at the upper landing and there are friars which surround the Governor. With all these things combined into a single portrayal, Hidalgo perfectly illustrates a scenario of a class-led mayhem.

This scene is indeed a stark image of disarray and commotion. There are conflicts everywhere. All the spears of the guards point to their new-found foes. No spear is pointed in other directions. The friars are in the defensive while the guards take the offensive. The friar who attempts to stab the Governor holds a pointed object in suspension (not sure if it is a dagger) is accompanied by two friars who twist the Governor’s both arms. Unfortunately, no guard is swarming to protect the Governor. Helpless and unprotected, the Governor stumbles upon the hands of his assassins.

The subjects can be identified distinctly. All the friars share common characteristics. All of them are bald and clad in long priestly robes. The guards hold a spear and clad in knightly uniforms. Governor Bustamante is clad in red, bourgeois type of outfit. The painting also depicts some servants of the clergymen. They are seen carrying symbols and artifacts related to the Church.
Hostility characterizes the relationship among the subjects. Since this is a picture of assassination, one cannot expect a cordial relationship emanating among these figures. The hostile relationship is underscored by the gaze of the subjects to one another. No one is smiling as no one is comfortable to the present situation. Their faces tell us that they are uneasy and perplexed by the incident. How they look at each other implies that they just want to do what they should do; and by all means, they want to accomplish it, may it be success or failure. In other words, the hostility to one another is induced by the vendetta which a particular class wants to materialize. In this scene, it is obvious that the friars are begrudged and the ones who want to seek vengeance.
 
THE CONTEXTUAL PLANE

For Guillermo, “resituating the work in its context will bring out the meaning of the work in terms of its human and social implications”. This is where the contextual plane comes into the picture. This plane brings to fore the socio-political implications of the work. It drags out the relationship between the art and society. Further, it makes art in-touched with reality.

To restate, the La Tragedia is a portrayal of a historical event. Needless to say, the time when and place where an event occurred are an essential part of history. Also, the people who were involved with the event is equally essential. These elements make a historical event historical. History and the said elements are inseparable as much as art and society cannot be bifurcated.
The setting of the painting is the 17th-century Philippines. The power of the Church during this period is immense. It is felt in every corner of the Philippine society. The Church and State dichotomy is almost non-existent during this time. In fact, the Church and State seem to parallel each other in terms of power, wealth and influence. Hidalgo was born a century after this incident occurred yet somehow, the status quo has not changed.

As it was said earlier, the painting depicts the tragic death of Governor General Bustamante in the hands of outraged friars and citizens. We cannot be sure if this happened in the Governor’s place of residence or somewhere else, at least when we set aside historical accounts. By just looking into the painting, we can say that the incident occurred in the governor’s office. Though the painting does not explicitly say so, the figures and images tell us otherwise. The guards, clad in their darkly colored uniforms, imply that the fateful incident happened where guards can usually be found. As a Governor, he is entitled for an office. The grandiose stairway is a veritable proof for this logical assumption. Be that as it may, the incident takes place in the Governor’s palacio or office.

It is strange that on early morning, friars arrive at the doors of the Governor’s office, swarm the place like locusts at a rice field and attack the Governor helplessly. The sun shines in resplendence yet blood was shed inside the hall. It is also strange that the guards are unprepared for these assaults. Maybe, they are caught off guard; or maybe, they are just so stunned by the multitude of friars entering the hall as if there is a great deluge happening outside. This is not the case. The friars entered the hall with a purpose in mind.
A further reading about this incident will be helpful. Governor Bustamante, as Blair and Robertson narrate, was one of the progressive governors-general of the country. He found out, one day, that some friars are involved in corruption and smuggling. As a member of the Royal Audiencia (Royal Court), he arrested and prosecuted these clergymen, one of whom is the Archbishop. Furious, the Archbishop excommunicated Bustamante but the latter remained unmoved and threw other Church leaders to jail. The friars went to Bustamante’s palace and assassinated him. There are no records which can determine who stabbed Bustamante as there is no investigation conducted. The accounts of the incident are all written by the friars. Some of these accounts say that Bustamante deserved what he got as he is “a mortal enemy of the Church”. Eventually, the incident had been forgotten.

The account by Blair and Robertson narrates the story behind the painting. This endows us with more complete picture of what has happened and is happening to Governor Bustamante. While the semiotic plane provides an imagery of chaos and the iconic plane presents an imagery of organization and distinction, the contextual plane gives an imagery of power and domination as personified by the friars.
 
THE EVALUATIVE PLANE

This is the last plane of analysis. To quote Guillermo, “the axiological [or evaluative] plane has to do with analyzing the values of work. After the understanding of the work is the difficult task of evaluating it.” It is truly a difficult task. What should be the bases of valuation? Should the bases include the properties of medium used or standards of excellence in the use of medium and other techniques? Unfortunately, I am not a master of art. I am not even a good illustrator myself. Much more, I am not a painter. I cannot determine if pigments are used with an excellent degree of skill or if certain properties are combined flawlessly. I do not have the credence to do so.

What should be the bases then? It is said that art and society hold a dialogic relationship. No matter how you detach yourself from the society and how abstract your works are, incorporating art with societal elements is inevitable. The artist does not exist in a vacuum. He or she is not suspended in mid-air. He interacts and moves in the framework of what we call society. Therefore, in every work that an artist makes, social, if not socio-political, values are deemed present. These values will be used as the basis for valuation.

Hidalgo has his own value system as I have mine. These value systems can repel each other or can harmonize. In his painting, it is evident that his purpose is not just mere portrayal of the incident. It is somehow a critique to the status quo. Hidalgo wants to emphasize the unreasonable domination of the Church in all the country’s affairs during his time. He implicitly wants to influence viewers by showing how atrocities can be done for the purpose of self-preservation.

Though I never had the chance to meet Hidalgo face to face (it will give me creeps if that happens), I can assume that Hidalgo and I’s value systems do not oppose each other; they coincide. This painting is made a century ago yet the theme still reverberates in the present. The scenario today may not be as atrocious as the one immortalized by Hidalgo yet still reflective of the Church’s potency. The Philippine Constitution guarantees the separation of Church from the affairs of the State. This provision, however, is being overlooked. The Church remains to be powerful in swaying minds for the attainment of its institutional interests. This is evident during the time when the Reproductive Health Law was still a bill. Church leaders campaigned vigorously for the abolition of the bill as this can be detrimental to the Philippine society. Despite the efforts, the RH Law was eventually ratified.

Still, valuation depends on how one views the work. It also lies on what value system one has. Whether we like it or not, our subjective views will dictate what this work tells us or what makes up the values of this work.

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Hidalgo’s La Tragedia is more than a spectacle to one’s eyes. It is more than a combination of colors and properties. It is more than a feast of grandeur and brilliance. As a saying goes, “there is more to this than meets the eye”. As esthetics is subjective and beauty is relative, I can say that this painting does not only exemplify exquisiteness. More importantly, it epitomizes social relevance. Hidalgo has truly the capacity to influence and transform society through his art.

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