Scholars accept that the first Filipino santeros based their carvings of saintly images on printed models: estampas or printed engravings of devotional pictures. The flatness and the frontal orientation characteristic of their work is a direct result of such a practice.
The santeros' untrained eye failed to visualize the images in linear terms. Accustomed as they were to their own traditional low relief carvings where one simply took on the figure and the ground, they lacked the visual judgement that would have enabled them to grasp the spatial volume and dimensionality inherent in the prints. Thus, their work reflected the simplicity of such a perception.
Despite such technical shortcomings, the Filipino carvers were prodigious in their output of distinctly unique sculpture, outstanding for the naive quality of their representation and interpretation.
The contemporary painter Claude Tayag has apparently chosen to follow the image carvers' lead, fascinated as he is with the pictorial elements of their craft. He, however, takes the reverse position from the .santeros. Re-ordering the process of comprehension, he starts from free-standing models and translates them to painterly realities of color, shape, mass and space. The early image makers were limited by their having to copy printed models; so has Tayag restricted himself by documenting extant santos.
The image carvers' products became distinct, original "primitive" renderings, exhibiting a freshness of approach and insight expressed through colors and shapes corresponding to the makers' own ideas of the way things actually were, and not those of the models. By contrast, Tayag's fatal attraction for his subject matter forces him to intrude as little as possible into the order of form and shape and color determined by the original carver. Because he is a skilled artist, he is able to document his subjects with an almost photographic accuracy. However, he has not entireiy abandoned himself to this intention. The artistic instinct so native in his own make-up - as it had been among the first santeros - liberates him from this self-imposed constraint of copying.
The little rope of freedom Tayag allowed himself, he used with adequate skill. Take the tableau of San Isidro Labrador. By shifting the focus to an overview, instead of eye level (the vantage point from which images are seen from the kneeling position), he is able to provide some spatial development to an otherwise static piece.
In Tayag's rendering, the top of the base becomes a stage, on which the tableau is laid out by the positioning of the personae. Left of stage, the bigger-than-life figure of San Isidro is kneeling. To his left, slightly off-center, is the angel with outstretched wings. The plough, placed obliquely at the far end, draws our attention to the foreground, giving the illusion of depth and space by establishing a distance between the figures. The ox presented on all fours is meant to emphasize mass; yet, the hump on its back falling free of intervening objects, does not complete the idea of solidity. Rather, it re-establishes the quality of "flatness" often found in such tableaux.
As it was in the original model, so it is with Tayag's own work. the diminished scale of the three figures reinforces the viewer's awareness of the narrative line inherent in the scene: how it was with San Isidro as a farmer. The saint had spent most of his time on his knees, in prayer, oblivious to the work on hand. It was the team effort of the angel and the cow, using the plough, which got the work done. It is but fitting that all three figures share the same scale of proportion.
In the charming image of Santa Rosa de Lima, the contouring of the entire figure- from the covered head down to the slope of the shoulder, the drop of the sleeves, the tightly-belted waist to the skirt-creates a net impact of energy and volume. The soft pleats of the skirt creasing into vee-folds suggest limbs that could move; even the empty socket where a hand should be does not disturb the totality of the piece. The uneven hemline, boldly outlined in black, continues to hold our attention. It leads the eyes to wander at random on the texture provided by the simulated gesso flaking off and the floral motifs; the pleasant contrast of the reddish hue of her inner veil against the brown.
An off-key note in an otherwise fine composition with a well orchestrated sense for energy and volume is the hand - always a stumbling block to the image makers. Along with the inner sleeves, it is thrust out of the outer robe and appears oddly flat.
What problems Tayag faced in articulating the work of the early craftsmen disappear entirely in his execution of La Virgen Dolorosa because the painting of icons on wood essentially follows the requirements of the medium of painting. Note the clever use of yellow for the aureole, projecting a forward position and the same yellow in the lining of her sleeves seen in recess. This simple interplay emphasizes depth, and deepens our appreciation of a similar situation in the use of red on the Virgin's inner garment and its sleeves. Notice that the colors green, red and yellow their traditional brightness, without any difference in nuance.
The figure of the Virgin is contained within one continuous line with a foreshortening of the left shoulder. The image placed slightly off-center has left more ground to be seen from beyond her shoulder, thus extending farther the illusion of depth. The foreshorlerning of the left shoulder has considerably lessened the distance we see on this side, while the symbolic sword projecting outwards introduces another dimension to the foreground. The frame, of course, is another device which enhances this idea of dimensional perspective.
Claude Tayag, by choosing to re-animate the work of the Filipino image-carvers, has suceeded in catching our attention, persuading us to take a second look at these santos. Through his eyes, we recapture the image carvers' creative impulses. We wonder anew at their perspicacity and talent.
Esperanza Bunag Gatbonton Manila, March 1989