On Presidential Portraits

On Presidential Portraits

by Manuel L. Quezon III

(Winner of the First Prize for the Essay in English, Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, 1997)

THE first thing to bear in mind when dealing with portraits and portraiture, is that it is a highly-developed form of propaganda. Even Oliver Cromwell’s endlessly-quoted entreaty to his portraitist that he should be painted “warts and all,” was calculated to resound to his benefit down the ages (which it has, more or less; today the one thing anyone knows about the Puritan dictator of England was that he was ugly as sin). Portraits were -are- always meant to glorify their subjects, and are, perhaps, the last vestiges of the sycophancy that characterized all art and artists. Today, portraits by Filipino masters such as Fernando Amorsolo are worth less than their other paintings, while artists that specialize in portraiture have less of the luxury of being rude (and otherwise obnoxious) to an adoring public anxious to pander to them. That old baldy-head, arch-unctuous feature of nine administrations, Carlos P. Romulo aside, portraitists are the last assiduous cultivators of the art of being courtiers.

Actually, I am being unfair. I do not mean to cast aspersion on all artists who do portraits, since most modern portraits actually put their subjects’ humor to the test. My target is actually a particular type of artist, and the the work they inflict on us: I mean those who paint official portraits. You see, Don and Doña So-and-so, in the deluded belief that they are patrons of talent, may actually agree (and more importantly, pay for!) portraits that reduce their likenesses to something resembling a victim of the Ebola virus in the final stages. All in the name of Art. But an official! Why, an official would never agree to commissioning a painting unless there were assurances that the final product would put the subject in the best light, for the sake of “generations yet unborn”. Whether the portrait actually resembles the subject is, naturally, beside the point. You cannot expect verisimilitude from people who put such a small premium on the truth in their careers.

Now National Bookstore sells postcards featuring our presidents in vast quantities. One wonders why. Undoubtedly they must sell, otherwise they wouldn’t be printed and reprinted. When I was in short pants, the presidential postcards were produced in glossy color, almost suitable for framing. By the twilight years of the Marcos regime, they were being printed in dull tones, with a hideous border whose origins I would only discover after Edsa. And after the fall of the House of Marcos, the postcards came out in black and white (whether this was a result of the depressed status of our economy, or simply a reflection of the grim attitude of most people at the time, I never did find out).

What people did with these postcards was a mystery. It still is. I know that in some schools the postcards were displayed in order to give students some sort of hazy notion of the regimes that preceded the glorious New Society or the New Jerusalem that was Cory’s administration. Perhaps multiplied several thousand times over, this can account for the print runs of those postcards. It could be that generations of schoolchildren have been condemned by their teachers to spend their parent’s money on these cards for reports and similar garbage, and that I -and the students in the schools I attended- had the good fortune never to be subjected to such a requirement. But after asking around, I have yet to encounter a child who admitted (even under torture) that yes, he bought presidential postcards to please his teacher. Since buying a postcard with a dead president on it isn’t a crime, I have to conclude that there are people who spend money on these postcards of their own volition -but I have no clue as to who they are (a last possibility seems too remote to consider; I am convinced that it is reasonable to think that tourists would prefer to send home postcards of scorching beaches rather than the past tenants of Malacañang).

However, the strangest thing about these postcards is that they exist at all. When volunteers catalogued the contents of Malacañan Palace after the Marcoses fled, it was discovered that the official portraits of Marcos’ predecessors had all been cut down: reduced in size so that they would all be smaller than the Apo’s picture. This revelation accounted for the tasteless border that showed up in National’s postcards -the portraits themselves had gotten smaller. Perhaps it was a symbolic act of protest on the part of some anonymous production designer that resulted in the mutilation of the postcards, to reflect the mutilation undertaken to gratify Ferdinand’s ego. Clearly, Marcos had no love for those who came before him: but then why did he allow the postcards to be printed at all, when in all other aspects he made a strong effort to erase all memory of his predecessors? One wonders. I would hazard a guess that he knew no child with marbles and spiders on his mind would bother to think about the significance of someone on a postcard. He was correct.

But the postcards are there, the portraits are there. They have become part of our national iconography. We see them all the time. And since, as we saw in the beginning, all portraits are a form of propaganda, what can be said about our president’s portraits, and the message they convey to posterity (albeit subliminally, if at all)?

In Cory’s time, you could go to Malacañan and poke around the main hallof the Palace and peer at the official portraits hung along its walls. I do not exaggerate when I say you had to peer -squint, more like it. They were strategically hung beneath the balconies Imelda had constructed so as to get musicians out of the way during official functions. they were in the shade, away from the glare of the three Czechoslovak crystal chandeliers that are the pride of the Palace. Out of sight, out of mind -official and tourist, that is. Should you have made a slight effort to look at those portraits, you would immediately have been struck by the observation that they are all so small. One would expect greater grandiloquence from our former presidents. But one has to remember that the Palace was smaller in pre-Marcos times, and Executive hubris was less fully developed than it came to be during the dictatorship.

Quite a few of the portraits betray the photographic style of Amorsolo; a couple show impressionistic influences. The truth is that it’s difficult to figure out which artist painted what ever since the portraits were resized: the signatures are gone. All attempt to present a pleasant and self-consciously dignified face to the viewer. Some succeed better than others; of the eleven portraits there, ten display better artistry than Cory’s picture (the eleventh). They are displayed chronologically, that is, in order of incumbencies.

Aguinaldo’s comes first, to your right as you enter the Hall. Cory’s, the last, is on the other side, to your left (and what about FVR? who knows; the Hall has been off-limits to ordinary citizens since he took occupancy of the place).

So the first Man of Destiny we encounter is Emilio Aguinaldo, portrayed in all his Revolutionary finery. What dapper officers we had then. The First Republic’s military had uniforms unmatched in splendor up to the present (well, at least in the case of the officers). The General is dressed in blue, in a martial version of the Americana cerrada . Not in the rayadillo of the vulgar militia. Hanging from his neck is a revolver discreetly tucked away, as was the habit before the Sam Browne belt, invented during World War I, came to disfigure military uniforms around the world. His epaulets grandiosely proclaim his rank as commander-in-chief, while a South-American-style sash bears the arms of the First Republic: a Masonic, equilateral triangle enclosing the mythical sun and three stars we also find in our flag, the whole surrounded by laurel leaves.

Aguinaldo’s portrait bears the distinction of having been painted after the fact; it was added as something of an afterthought in the 1960’s when, during one of our periodic lapses into nationalism, the great figures of our Revolutionary past were dusted off and held up for public adoration. The painting may be the only one not taken from life but based on a photograph. Fortunately Aguinaldo, like so many other officers, found time during his hectic schedule of national liberation to have many photographs of himself taken.

His face is serene, though perhaps one can detect a certain gloating air and pride in his appearance. And why not? Here we see the small-town politico-turned-soldier-turned-president, a hick who, while he may not have been an ilustrado , was something almost just as good -a member of the principalia . A man to the manor born, though his manor was, in truth, an overgrown nipa hut. His gaze is unflinching, direct; you do not see any hint of the conspiratorial ex-Katipunero . He is every inch the fearless leader and ruthless commander. He is also so very young, the sole youth in a gallery of middle-aged men (and one middle-aged woman). His is a portrait of the Filipino as war hero, something we have had very few of. Few remark on the poetic justice of his portrait hanging first of all, because his connection with the Palace is a sad one. He was held prisoner here, his presidency relinquished, his person in the custody of the Americans. His portrait is the most remote, showing as it does, a man from an era no one today can fully appreciate. It is the representation of a man not yet fully understood and a time impossible to fully recapture. I like Aguinaldo’s portrait. It is good propaganda. Effective; executed with genuine artistry and skill. At his side hangs a saber, surely taken from some incompetent Spanish general on the field of battle. That saber was inspiration enough in fighting against Spanish arms in the degenerate state they were in. But against the Americans’ Remingtons? Not a chance. Stepping back, you see that his figure emerges from a stark, dark background. You wonder how a government led by such a man could have lost. You cannot help but think, ah, I know why: the fates were against him. His portrait’s success, I cannot help thinking, is due to it’s evoking the image of Aguinaldo as the tragic hero. And don’t we love tragic heroes?

After Don Emilio we find Don Manuel. Quezon’s portrait is perhaps the best-documented of all the official portraits. Gratified by his appearance in an issue of Time Magazine published on the eve of the Commonwealth’s inauguration, Quezon later commissioned the artist, a certain Leon Gordon, to paint his official portrait. It is the only presidential portrait painted by a foreigner. It is the most impressionistic, painted in bold strokes, evoking the restlessness of its subject.

Manuel L. Quezon sits in a gilded chair in the splendor of a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. He is flamboyantly dressed, which doesn’t come as a surprise, for this is the man who was called “a Beau Brummel among dictators” by an American journalist. He is in a grey suit, double-breasted, of course, because that cut is more flamboyant. His tie and pocket square (carelessly tucked into his breast pocket) are a vivid purple. But it is this natty sartorial detail that betrays Quezon’s origins as a “penniless parvenu from the sticks,” as Nick Joaquin once put it. For people in the know, fashion-wise, maintain that a pocket square matched to the tie is on the vulgar side. It is too obviously coordinated. But this is a fashion tenet unknown to the vast majority of people who think that a matched tie and handkerchief are the height of fashion.

And so the dramatic color of his tie and the casually-tucked-in handkerchief betray a sense of fashion that is pure show business -effective, but too bold. To top it all off, into his boutonniere he has tucked in a flower. No less than a large, gaudy red rose. A robber baron, a press lord, or an MGM star couldn’t have picked a better flower. This is not the hallmark of a discreet man. Or of a shy, withdrawn man. This is the finishing touch of a man who loves to be the center of attention and makes sure that he is. The total figure is eyecatching, yet slightly pretentious. His outfit is the human male’s equivalent of the plumage of a rooster. Bellicose, proud, dashing and a trifle noisy. Pure Quezon.

MLQ’s head is cocked at a slight angle; he is casually slouched in his gilded chair: both are characteristic of him. One eyebrow is raised as if in provocation. One doesn’t know if looking at him a moment longer won’t provoke a volley of Puñetas. He has a slight smile -almost smug, certainly arrogant. He wants you to challenge him. He wants you to hate him -because he knows you can’t for very long. His is simply too commanding a presence. He will eventually bend you to his will. But his eyes bear a curiously lidded expression. I don’t know whether to describe his eyes as cold and calculating, or supremely self-assured in their disdainfulness. Maybe both. Whatever the attributes they convey, they are the most expressive eyes of all the portraits. They follow you wherever you stand, making you want to give him a campaign contribution.

His right hand rests on his knee and he is holding a cigarette -Quezon’s is the only portrait that makes a president’s vices part of his public persona. This is the picture of a man who glories in luxury, who is proud even of his frailties, and who wants to advertise it to the world. The portrait proclaims Quezon as a pure egotist. One hundred percent showman, from the slicked-back hair, a near pompadour and the Quezonian equivalent of a cock’s comb, to the red lips a little to vivid in their coloration, to his left hand tucked away in his trouser pocket, leading you to wonder what trick he has up his sleeve. Only an American could have painted a portrait that is pure Hollywood. It is a portrait that is all bright lights and big city. The apotheosis of the self-made man.

Quezon’s portrait succeeds for the opposite reasons that Aguinaldo’s does. Aguinaldo’s picture exudes a Spartan dignity; Quezon’s fairly oozes swagger and joie de vivre. One feels awed by the crisply-ironed General; you feel overwhelmed by the splendor of Quezon’s suite. You can’t help but conclude that Quezon must have had a lot of fun. And not just chasing girls -though his portrait makes sure that that thought enters your mind, too. He is the red-hot Latin lover -irresistible to both sexes, the archetypical tempter in our Catholic Garden of Eden.

(Lately I found out that the Gordon portrait, which has hung in the Palace for fifty years, was replaced in a fit of Filipinism with another portrait. I assume the portrait which now hangs in the Main Hall is by a Filipino. I have to admit it is a fine picture. It shows MLQ, his hair gone silver, dressed in a cutaway (but with an incongruously crimson tie) sitting in a simple wooden chair. He is leaning forward, again with one eyebrow raised and with his mouth downturned in a downright hostile manner. It is pure caudillo . The selection of the portrait seems to have coincided with the Ramos administration. This is a picture of the whip-wielding authoritarian leader who, by force of will and artful manipulation of the political situation, engineered the revision of the Constitution to prolong his stay in office. This is Quezon at the peak of his powers as high-handed presidente : and model for Ramos’s rah-rah boys.)

From the plushiness of Quezon, you move on to the restrained image of Jose P. Laurel. He is in white tie and tails, mercifully bereft of the sash of the Order of the Rising Sun which disfigures his other portraits. This painting is obviously by Amorsolo. The background is stark, almost gaseous; brownish, evocative of the dirty petroleum-laden smoke of war. Laurel’s face is probably the most heavily made-over of the presidential visages: no sign here of the pock-marked complexion he had in life. Laurel is the only president shown wearing glasses -spectacles, actually, because of their old-fashioned shape. This is the image of a man who prided himself on being a scholar and not just a politician; in truth the painting of Laurel is the least political of all. Since he was a man installed in the Palace courtesy of force majeure in the guise of the Imperial Japanese Army, the need for understatement is understandable.

The portrait leaves me cold. It may be that had I met Laurel in person, he would have left me cold, too. There is no hint here of the hard-drinking Batangueño who turned scarlet when he was tipsy. The gold-tipped walking stick he clutches along with a pair of white formal gloves is too reminiscent of a field marshal’s baton. He is too stiff, too formal. He doesn’t look comfortable. It seems as if he is consciously trying to make you realize he is stuck in a thankless job which he never wanted. His formal finery aside, Laurel comes across as too puritanical. And if there’s one thing I don’t like (and which I think most people don’t like, either) it’s puritanical people. Then again, this may be exactly what the artist wanted to convey. In which case the portrait succeeds in its aim: little wonder, though, that his administration is one of the least-remembered by the public. Never mind that the street of Malacañan, formerly Aviles, was renamed in his honor. His enduring image is of a grim man doing a grim job: a sight most prefer to sweep under the rug along with other memories of the war.

I move on and transfer my attentions to the portrait of Manuel A. Roxas, the Second Don Manuel, according to the Press of his day. Roxas, his portrait shows us, must have led a very cluttered life. He is the only president who didn’t bother to clear his desk when the painter came. Actually, he didn’t bother to even leave his desk and transfer to a chair by the window. This is a man who wants you to know he is a workaholic.Thanks to this conscious attempt to drum into posterity Roxas’s devotion to paper-pushing, we have the opportunity to see Amorsolo’s abilities as a painter of office supplies besides people, too. There is something that resembles a roll of toilet paper but which turns out to be (upon closer inspection) one of those portable blotters used in the days before ballpens became ubiquitous. There is an inkwell. And piles of surely important papers. We also see that Roxas is a dapper man. His shirt has French cuffs. He is in an executive-grey suit. No wonder he was called Don Manuel II: from his lapel peeps a little flower which might be a carnation. Nothing as -pardon the term- flowery as MLQ’s rose, but just as dashing.

Roxas is strangely expressionless. His picture radiates none of the charisma that accounted for his political success. It is as if once in power, the burdens of office wiped out his phenomenal energy. He looks weak. I wonder if the painting was done shortly before he dropped dead of a heart attack. Looking at his picture is almost like peeking into his office and catching him looking up to see who has intruded into his room. You want to mutter an apology and hurry off, red-faced, feeling inferior because the Chief Executive is so obviously such an industrious man.

Having moved on, I am before Elpidio Quirino’s picture. Another Amorsolo, and just as bereft of fire as Roxas’s. Quirino is fat. But not repulsively so. It is a genial, comfortable sort of overweightness. His suit is double-breasted, with the generous lapels characteristic of the late 1940’s. His tie is subdued, but richly patterned. His pocket square is of a color chosen to complement -not match- his tie. He is elegant in the manner elegance was understood in his time; that is, Fifth-Avenue-spic-and-span. He is shown as the last of the pre-war fashion plates. The sharkskin suit’s last hurrah. This is the portrait of a man who belongs to a rapidly-vanishing age.

Once, in a fit of pique, Quirino thundered that the Mambo craze sweeping the Philippines (and indeed the globe), was a “national calamity” -a remark that made it to the papers in the U.S.A., and which is still quoted in liner notes for Perez Prado records. I can easily understand why Quirino said that, considering that his administration ended up swept from office to the accompaniment of the Mambo beat, courtesy of Ramon Magsaysay by way of Raul Manglapus. Quirino placidly gazes at you with the sort of content look that characterized the self-made patrician. The sort of patrician who develops high-blood pressure when their dignity is punctured by snide remarks about golden chamber-pots. The kind of leader whose idea of being presidential is waving indulgently from a balcony at the adoring masses outside -but alas, his idea of being presidential simply didn’t catch on with a people who now expected their leaders to lunge into their midst in order to pump every proffered hand. I look at Quirino and see a man who relishes his position, though the chubby hands poised on the arms of of his chair betray anxiousness. He is trying to look calm while worrying that someone might try to shove him out of his seat.

Of course he was shoved out of his seat. He was replaced by a man who gladly junked the era of Spanish-speaking politicians who viewed the rigodon with every bit as much attention as they did governance, and replaced it with the era of the Hawaiian shirt and the bakya. I am referring, if course, to Ramon Magsaysay, the first president to be portrayed in a barong Tagalog.

The Guy’s portrait is done in an impressionistic style, an echo of Quezon’s. The artist was one Garcia Llamas. Our second Ilocano president gazes off into the distance, his mind set on some anti-Huk operation. His collar is open at the throat; this is a man too busy to be fussing around with neckties. His only concession to elegance are the French cuffs of his barong. The area around his head is illuminated by an ethereal light -the artist’s secular equivalent of a halo, I would guess: and a detail about as subtle as Quezon’s ostentatious elegance.

There is much that reminds me of Quezon’s portrait, which isn’t surprising considering how much Magsaysay consciously modelled himself after MLQ. Other than him, Magsaysay was the only Chief Executive who had a fondness for pseudomilitary riding togs, though in The Guy’s case, he eschewed jodhpurs preferring to wear more conventional riding boots instead. The portrait tells us that RM was a man bursting with energy. His right hand is raised, almost clenched in a fist. You expect him to leap up out of his chair in order to assault a thieving official. His left hand catches your attention, too: it is large, heavily veined, a mechanic’s hand -part of the Magsaysay legend, after all, and don’t you forget it. This is a painting that is pure propaganda, though with more home-grown touches than the Gordon portrait. It is reassuring to know that, as far as self-conscious promotion is concerned, Yes, the Filipino portraitist can! Now I know why an entire generation yelled “Magsaysay is my guy”: this is a president man enough to punch wrongdoers in the face. It reminds me of what Nietzsche said -“pure will without the confusions of intellect… how happy! how free!” I can almost hear Sylvia de la Torre crooning the Mambo Magsaysay in the background.

Of course he was shoved out of his seat. He was replaced by a man who gladly junked the era of Spanish-speaking politicians who viewed the rigodon with every bit as much attention as they did governance, and replaced it with the era of the Hawaiian shirt and the bakya. I am referring, if course, to Ramon Magsaysay, the first president to be portrayed in a barong Tagalog.

The Guy’s portrait is done in an impressionistic style, an echo of Quezon’s. The artist was one Garcia Llamas. Our second Ilocano president gazes off into the distance, his mind set on some anti-Huk operation. His collar is open at the throat; this is a man too busy to be fussing around with neckties. His only concession to elegance are the French cuffs of his barong. The area around his head is illuminated by an ethereal light -the artist’s secular equivalent of a halo, I would guess: and a detail about as subtle as Quezon’s ostentatious elegance.

Alas, from the Olympian grandeur of Magsaysay I find myself reduced to staring at the portrait of Carlos P. Garcia. A frumpy man in a frumpy chair with the presidential flag as a not-so-subtle backdrop. Garcia is the first president to make use of such an obvious prop. You would think he felt the need to remind people that he was president. What an incongruous sign of insecurity considering that he wasn’t an insecure man at all. Garcia also gazes into the distance with a sleepy expression. This is the way he probably looked preparatory to taking the National Nap. He is the last of our presidents to be portrayed wearing a suit: one of those shiny, narrow-lapeled, earth-colored Americanas in fashion in the sixties. No newfangled barong for him. This is a picture of a quiet man who liked quiet things, a master manipulator of the machine who has better things to do than grin for the hoi polloi. Anyway he is the president (don’t forget the flag) and if you don’t care about him, well, no pork barrel for you. The only thing to add is that his portrait is a triumph of the painter’s ability to present a distorted picture for posterity. This, the darkest of our presidents, has been immortalized as possessing a complexion every bit as pink and rosy as any Spanish hidalgo. I suspect he has been given a nose-lift as well.

Now comes another president who simply couldn’t resist having the presidential flag as a backdrop: Diosdado Macapagal, alias Cong Dadong, also known as the Poor Boy from Lubao. Capangpangan that he is (and thus heir to the cultivated sophistication of the people of his province), Macapagal wears a barong correctly buttoned at the throat, and with gold cufflinks to boot. He sits in one of those stiff, ornate wooden chairs he could only have dreamed of sitting on when he was a poor student. He gazes at you intently. The light is reflected from his pomaded hair, proclaiming him to be a Three Flowers sort of guy. His hands rest limply on the arms of his chair, giving the same sort of grasping impression that Quirino’s portrait gives. Either that, or he is obsessively fondling the chair’s arms as though he can’t quite believe that he is indeed the Pangulo. I certainly hope he gradually got used to being where he was, since he didn’t last all that long. He would soon enough be replaced by another man who made sure that an entire generation grew up knowing nothing about him. Macapagal’s portrait is just as devoid of character as Laurel’s, and I leave it after a cursory inspection.

The nation lost what could have been a fantastic Colgate model when it gained a politician in the form of Ferdinand E. Marcos, whose portrait I am looking at now. He is the only president to be shown grinning. Big, white teeth exposed to the world, in the manner of the cat that ate the Constitutional canary. No need of a flag in the background for him. Everyone knows he is the boss -most of all himself. he is sitting in a comfy chair, leaning forward, so terribly pleased with himself you want to smile back. He is also in a barong, and it’s interesting to notice that while his collar is open at the throat, by now a traditional sign of dynamism, he has also chosen a pair of exceedingly large and eye-catching cufflinks. I am inclined to believe that all the talk of Marcos’s austere personality are false. This is a man who likes the good life. If he was anywhere near the Spartan character people said he was, he would have chosen simple buttons and seated himself on a rattan-backed chair.

This is Marcos the ham. Ferdinand the swashbuckler. His right hand is hidden from view (I want to know what he has concealed), his left clenched in a fist, foreshadowing the strongman-in-waiting. This portrait shows, in no uncertain terms, the man whose campaign biography proclaimed would achieve a victory for every tear; this is the image of the champion campaigner who loves every minute of the presidential day. This picture is also the most complete, having been spared Imelda’s scissors.

there are other, more psychologically revealing portraits of Marcos. A particularly fine one by Manansala comes to mind. I suppose Marcos chose this painting to be his official portrait because it shows Marcos, the winner. His statement to history being, it’s not how you play the game: it’s the winning that counts. Gazing at his face, I seem to detect a steely glint in his eyes; and his grin, though broad, is lopsided. Am I imagining it, or is his picture really meant to give the impression that in the back of his mind he considers everyone else an imbecile?

But all things must come to an end. Everything after Marcos’s portrait is an anticlimax. Cory Aquino’s portrait was done at a time when portraits had passed from fashion. She should have settled for a photograph. The almost watercolor-like pastel hues of her picture are irritating. I’m not interested in Cory the convent-school product, the cultivated belle of Hacienda Luisita. I want to see signs of Cory the crusader, the woman who was catapulted into power and who survived the best efforts of macho men to bring her down. None of this shows in her portrait. It is worthless as far as propaganda is concerned. I can imagine that she meant it to be this way. But it is a pity.

I shake my head. The tour is done. Time to step back out in the sunlight, where, eyes blinking, my brain will churn away, digesting all the visual information -or disinformation, if you will- coming from the paintings. So strange to reflect on the fact that power is so fleeting -here today, gone tomorrow, with only a canvas in oils left as a testament to an entire administration. How futile to leave, as a legacy, a portrait which tries to cram in all the visual cues with which to evoke the image you want to leave behind. It’s almost silly. To have placed so much faith in a picture destined to come out on postcards hawked along with ballpens. If there is a sure antidote to delusions of grandeur, it is the sight of a little boy picking his nose, blankly browsing among postcards earmarked for a report quickly corrected -and just as quickly forgotten.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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