Images of lost time

Justiniano and Mariano Asuncion were Filipino artists active in the mid-19th century in Manila. Mariano (1802-1885) specialized in religious paintings, while his younger brother Justiniano (1816-1901) made a living, like his teacher Damian Domingo, painting delicate works on paper depicting Filipino costumes and customs for tourist trade. Justiniano Asuncion’s costume albums were in such high demand that, according to a recent study by Florina Capistrano Baker, they were copied by a Chinese workshop in Canton.

Fortunately for art historians, Chinese copyists have omitted the artist’s signature, which simplifies authentication. Likewise, copies of Mariano Asuncion’s paintings of the Virgin Mary by artists from Manila and Laguna now floating in the overheated Manila art market cannot be attributed at best, as there are only ‘a handful of authentic and signed works.

Auctioned last weekend at the Leon Gallery, 16 Asuncion watercolors bought in Manila on December 31, 1843 and repatriated a century later by the late historian Benito Legarda Jr. Documenting the collection before the sale reminded me of an album of Filipino costumes in the New York Public Library which I saw for the first time in the 1980s. Acquired by a certain Mr. Soden of Bath in 1841, it consists of 13 plates, four of which were made “by an inferior artist, the first being ill ”. This album is unique for its many handwritten notes that complement the images with detail and context.

On the first plate: “An exact representation of a rich mestizo. The complexion is admirably painted and so is the dress. He’s a big dandy and he likes to emulate Europeans, as evidenced by his hat and umbrella. Nothing better than this costume in a hot country for its freshness. Three things are reversed from what we are used to, for example; the shirt being worn outside the pants. The shirt is made of some kind of grass cloth, the front, collar and cuffs are beautifully embroidered which is very well illustrated in the painting; the cost depends entirely on the amount of work on it. This man wouldn’t think of wearing a shirt worth less than $ 10 to $ 12. The pants are made of sturdy silk of their own making; stockings they never care about; the shoes are in imitation of ours and made by the Chinese who are numerous in Manila. The hat, umbrella and handkerchief are made in Europe. The umbrella is used to preserve its complexion from the sun: most people use it when they go for a walk in the heat of the day; for Europeans, they are absolutely essential. This man leads a very idle life; he spends his day playing and fighting cocks; his evening playing and singing on his guitar; the songs are limited to a very few, and a very common one that is a big favorite, and that everyone sings, even all the boys in your own house, is “Chiquitito muerte es muy dulce a probar.” [Chiquitito, death is very sweet to try.]. At the end of the gold chain around his neck hangs a scapular: the Spaniards having made them all strict Catholics.

A half-breed costume is described as follows: “The blue stripe is a little jacket made of the same material as the man’s shirt; there is not so much work on it, the cuffs are only embroidered. It reaches the waist and is very ample; underneath is tied the red and yellow checkered petticoat, on which is the “Cabaza”; a long piece of silk or cotton depending on the wearer’s means, which is wrapped tightly around the body and the end tucked in; which, if well done, never comes off; this so tight on the hips that it seems to hinder the free movement of the limbs. These ladies never lose their shape by wearing “bustles”; nothing is more beautiful than their natural form. Their slippers, very small, just enough to cover the foot, are very nicely embroidered with gold, usually made by themselves. They are so small that the little toe is always on the outside which helps keep them in place. They are never worn outside in dirty weather, but are carried by the hand and when the Señorita arrives at her destination, she finds a pot of water at the door which she plunges her feet in before putting on the slippers. The handkerchief on his shoulders is in piña fabric, or pineapple fiber fabric; it’s peculiar to Manila, in no other part of the world has it ever been done. It is as fine or finer than the finest cambric, and beautifully embroidered, all the señoritas excelling in this kind of work, and on which they spend a great deal of their time. The most beautiful (it is not necessary to laugh, for some half-breeds are as beautiful as if they had been raised and born in England) boast a lot of their hair, of which their head is the most luxuriously covered; if we saw them in this country, it would excite envy although it is not as beautiful as what European ladies can boast; but in color and length it greatly surpasses them. The color is jet black and shiny, which must be attributed to the coconut oil which they do not spare and which also explains its great length; for it invariably extends to the knees, and very frequently to the heels; as we will see in another table. Everything is combed to the back of the head where he is dressed; braided or not according to fancy; but it is always particularly neat.

Images and texts from a lost time, long before smartphone selfies.


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