Reuben Ramas Canete, PhD
It is said that human life in this world can be likened to a cycle in which birth, life, and death are intertwined as a circle, in which the beginning and end points are one’s entry and exit from the material plane. This idea dates back to the medieval period under the inspired philosophies of the great scholastics like Saint Albertus Magnus and his pupil, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who took the ancient Greek concepts of mathematical perfection, and human life as formulated and determined by a higher deitical power and Christianized them by putting the Holy Trinity as the guiding “mechanism” that propelled and rationalized this circle of human existence. Utilized by the great medieval poet Francis Petrarch as material for his epic poems concerning man’s journey in this life, the notion of this interconnection between the various phases of life, known either as The Wheel of Life, or the Circle of Life was also magnified in other late medieval literary works like Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which brought universal appeal and popularity of this abstract concept to the masses.
A predominantly Christian philosophy which nonetheless has its comparisons with Hindu concepts of karma and the endless cycles of creation and destruction as manifested in their belief in perpetual reincarnation, the circle of life has been celebrated by many great artists and musicians as a means of deploying the grand scheme of human existence into an easily understandable and precisely calibrated logic of events—helping explain things like good fortune, tragedy, opportunities, accidents, disease, and sickness as originating from a higher power. It can even be deployed to look at human folly and greed, as when the great English satirist and painter William Hogarth produced a set of eight paintings that illustrated the life and death of an 18th Century English dilettante, titled The Rake’s Progress. In the 19th Century, Symbolist painters like William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Dante Gabriel Rosetti and William Homan Hunt utilized elements of the theme of the circle of life to point out to viewers what virtues they were to emulate and which vices they were to avoid. In the mid-1930s, Carl Orff composed Carmina Burana as a modern musical masterpiece that was inspired by the 13th Century German illuminated manuscript of the same title, and recites the cyclic nature of the fate and destiny of all mankind as it revolves around the circle of life, at one moment triumphant, at the next moment defeated, as dramatically shown in the episode titled “0 Fortuna, lmperatrix Mundi,” which has been immortalized in films like Excalibur and Glory.
An artistic theme that is hardly tackled in Philippine Art despite the long period of Christianity introduced by Spanish colonizers, this deeply philosophical concept has been given a rousing contemporary revival by Cebuano painter Fiorentino “Jun” Impas in his current series of works titled, appropriately, The Circle of Life. Taking up this great Western literary and artistic theme, Impas proceeds not only to illustrate the complex totality of human life into ten distilled, highly original works on canvas, but also manages to imprint upon it a distinctly Philippine visuality, historical and cultural identity, and a profoundly Filipino understanding of its pace and color. Heir to the magnificent tradition of Cebuano figurative realism espoused by Martino Abeliana, and championed by his mentor Romulo Galicano. Jun Impas sensitively portrays the life of a Filipino living in the rural countryside, like many of his Visayan compatriots who eke a hard life from the soil and seas of the southern islands. This specifically Visayan interpretation of figurative realism is anchored on two main aesthetic pillars: the need to illustrate in as viscerally lifelike a means as possible the actual circumstances of living in the countryside, replete with its eternal cycles of work, play, life, and love; as well as anchoring this representation within the specific racial, ethnic, social, economic, and material specificities of the rural south that is idealized not only via a return to the academic system of painting, but also by utilizing modern technology (like photography) as devices that aid in the artist’s execution of the work, while preserving the unwritten contract between artist and viewer about the skill and integrity of one’s work resulting from the god-given labour of one’s own hands and eyes.
The result is a dazzling testament to the rich possibilities of combining academic realism with modern visuality, traditional subject matter with contemporary social life, and western philosophy and theology with Filipino syncretism and pragmatic belief in a collective good resulting from individual labour. In Birth, we see the process of delivery by midwife at the couple’s wooden home illuminated only by a kerosene wicker lamp, and bereft of modern medical facilities—an everyday medical reality faced by millions of impoverished Filipinos, especially those who live far from the cities and towns, or who cannot afford the mandatory deposit fee. And yet, this scene of material despondence is uplifted by the ennobled double scene of midwife as satisfied deliverer of a crying but healthy baby, and the concerned husband ministering to his exhausted wife on the floor mattress. Here, nothing is sanitized, for even the blood from the placental sac smears the woman’s bare legs. The whole, however, is rendered with extraordinary calm and dignity, the atmosphere modulated by the light of the lone gasera, resulting in a classical composure in chiaroscuro that would have made the French Baroque master Georges de la Tour proud.
In other scenes, the reality of survival, intermingled with the joy of living, are laid out as vignettes of an emerging life that tracks the developing child from the confines of their parents’ humble payag (as the Visayans would call the nipa hut) set in the mountainous countryside; or for that matter, the more materially-endowed and empowered space of the town and city, with its rich accessories of interiors and urban social places. Breast Feeding connects the material environment from Birth to this next stage, as the mother feeds her child with the life-giving milk that doctors now recommend to all toddlers as a means of strengthening the immune system—as well as emotionally bonding mother and child together. Set in the outdoor kitchen of the payag, the scene is redolent with the mountainous rurality that has been mastered by Impas in his previous genre scenes of upland Visayan farms lit by a clear-skied limpid sharpness typical of the atmosphere of the south.
From here, the scene shifts to the progressive town and city that also demarcates the reality of Visayan contemporary life. This life, however, still observes the rituals of tradition dictated by faith and conservative social norms. Baptism inducts the child into a community of believers through the rite of inclusion offered by the priest’s baptism, as witnessed by the sacristan, the institution of faith that is the Church again flagged by lmpas as prototypically Visayan for its coralstone blocks that make up the retaining wall, and the use of an opened half-shell from the Tridacna gigas as typical baptismal font in many seaside churches. First Walk emphasizes the triadic unity that now weaves together the family as a nuclear social group: the toddler, uncertainly standing on his feet, waddles toward the waiting arms of his father, while his umbrella-carrying mother squats protectively behind him, a moment that every parent always yearns for, and one that has appealed artists for centuries—Rembrandt and Van Gogh being among those who also depicts this key momentary scene from life.
First Teacher also cues us to the innate strength and necessity of the nuclear household as the child’s primary social formulator and primary pedagogical space. In a well-tended garden. a child learns her first ABCs from her mother, a lap dog following their lessons intently on the bench beside her. This normal household scene has many antecedents in Philippine Art, most famously, the 1890 painting by Simon Flores titled Letras Primeras, which shows mother reading to daughter while on her lap, and also another lap dog, though the dog is now lying on the bamboo-slatted floor, and not seated on the bench next to the child. Graduation symbolizes the academic growth of the individual as they begin to take on the tasks of life. First Communion reinforces the social integration made at Baptism, as the now socially aware child receives the host as completion of her pledge as a Christian. But in Suyuan, the gears change from an emphasis on primary familial bonding to that of the more adult pursuits of courtship and marriage, as the daughter, now a teenager, receives her suitor (who is suitably “armed” with a bouquet of flowers) at a garden patio, the strict rules of courtship governed by gesture, fan, and eloquent space between suitor and prospective bride. The flowers in the garden, as well as those in the bouquet, also hint at what is to be expected, the floral buntings of a prospective marriage, as well as the anticipation of female fertility that will carry the family name—or genes—forward into the next generation. Marriage is the climax of adulthood, as two people bond in matrimony to persevere and love one another till the end of their days. Finally, Old Age finds our protagonist as a grandmother being carefully chaperoned by her relatives, Cebu’s iconic Magellan’s Cross kiosk behind them.
The Circle of Life stands as a singular achievement in thematically rearranging Philippine figurative art in the contemporary period into a recognizable, serially consistent, and ineffably specific manner of encoding social reality, material depiction, and the pursuit of a life worth living as set in the Visayan environment. Jun lmpas’ ability to deliver this representation of a universal cycle from beginning to end, along with his famed portraits, also cues us to the rich possibilities of looking beyond the straight-jacketed confines of metropolitan art as “the only one that matters.” Indeed, by invoking both the traditions of the past while situating it in the spaces and visualities of the present, Jun lmpas assures us that the transfer of modernity from city to country is not one-sided and passive from the ruralite’s viewpoint. For if we do have to take a look at how art fares as the seasons change, we cannot but look elsewhere when the center decays, and the country blooms. That in itself is a realization that the life of art, like that of human existence, also follows a cycle.