Cover "Street Scene" by R. Zablan

As haven of Philippine art after WWII, this two-kilometre street used to be the metro's most colourful destination.

The Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP) revisited the renowned Mabini Art Movement during its 2013 exhibition curated by Pearl E. Tan, PhD. Art collectors flocked to CCP's Bulwagang Juan Luna to get a glimpse of the so-called "forgotten" art that flourished in the 1950s up to the 1990s and had solidified this humble street at the heart of Ermita as an arts and culture hotspot.

In 2020, the art of Mabini Street was exhibited again at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Gallery, featuring the collection of Yolanda Buan and her late husband, Rogelio. Together, they established Yolanda's Art Gallery along the popular street in 1969 and ran for ten years, exhibiting the works of Filipino art luminaries of the 20th Century.

Popularly called the Mabini Art Movement, the distinctive style and form of post-war masterpieces that sprouted from this quaint street at the heart of Ermita, Manila follow the conservative style of National Artist Fernando Amorsolo. When Purita Kalaw-Ledesma's 1955 Art Association of the Philippines (AAP)-Rotary Club Art Competition allegedly favoured the "modernists", artists from Mabini Street walked out to protest against the judges.

Read More: Purita Kalaw-Ledesma: The Woman Who Changed The History Of Philippine Art

Mabini Art was known for its uncredited paintings bought at low prices in the shops along the said street as well as other galleries and shops around the district. For decades, the shift to modernism, expressionism, and abstract, as well as the notion that Mabini paintings are imitations of Amorsolo's world-class classical style, have made these paintings dubbed as "low quality" or "cheap art", according to Dr Tan. However, the CCP exhibition in 2013 gave this local movement a form of redemption, revisiting the visually striking masterpieces and had shed light on its aesthetic progression as a product of popular art. Being a reproduction of how fine art was defined by Amorsolo at his career's height for the general public to appreciate, Mabini Art, indeed, falls to this category.

"This popular art thrives on the congruence of tastes and artistic notions of the Mabini artists and their clients, and by the respective functions or significance of the products to them, namely, as a livelihood to the artists and as decorative objects to the clients," Dr Tan wrote.

A Storied Past

Before Mabini Street earned its name, it was known in the late 1800s as Calle Nuevo, which runs from then Wallace Field in the north and ends at the Pasay boundary of Manila. With the Ermita-Malate district being a haven of the principalia class and the Spanish mestizos, Calle Nuevo was known to be the premier suburb address of the affluent whose businesses thrive at the Cavite harbours.

When the Americans occupied the Philippines at the dawn of the 20th Century, the street was renamed A. Mabini Street, in commemoration of the country's late Prime Minister Apolinario Mabini who was known to be the "Brains of the Revolution". Eventually, Ermita became a shopping destination, swelling with hotels, apartments, lavish homes, and clubs, that expats frequented. The demand for souvenir gifts, cultural items, and mementoes, in turn, highly increased. Mabini Street was one of the firsts to cater for the growing market.

Those who had the privilege of walking along pre-war Mabini Street would remember The Little Home Shop of Messieurs Metcalf that offered "a rare collection of interesting articles from all parts of the archipelago", as it said in its poster. There was also the Realistic Beauty Salon and Supply of Mercedes Meliton Teague. Gourmands might also still remember Nina's Papagayo, a Mexican restaurant and bar on the street that existed up to the '70s.

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An Artist's Haven

Dr Tan identified three generations of Mabini artists who transformed the war-torn street into an artist haven we remember today. "Each group is distinguished by their mode of practice, the dominant characteristics of their works, and their clientele," he wrote in his essay for the exhibition. "The exhibition shows the closer affinity between the first and the third generations and the deviation by the second generation."

Dr Tan clarified in his writeup that because Mabini Art developed its own aesthetic standards based on "craftsmanship, visual appeal, and laboriousness", it is then "inappropriate to apply... the aesthetic criteria that are applied to so-called 'fine arts' such as uniqueness, originality, and authenticity."

Focusing on the third generation of Mabini artists, Dr Tan discovered that most works were based on the following subjects: landscape, still life, portrait, nudes, human interest, street scene, wildlife, religion, abstract, and the Old Masters.

Though most of the artists were active during the '70s, there were some who started painting for a living in the '60s. "The artists paint primarily to earn a living," he wrote. "They enjoy their occupation and the ready market for their works. They have engaged in three modes of art practice: a) freelancing; b) contractual basis; and c) employment by a Mabini art dealer."

The bulk of the clientele of Mabini artists includes the Filipino urban middle class, interior designers, foreign tourists, the balikbayans and foreign art dealers and collectors. For them, the bucolic paintings of the Philippine daily life serve as souvenir items—a reminder of the country's distant past. Through stereotyping, reproduction, and replication, the third generation of Mabini artists had set itself apart from its predecessors. These methods implied "visual and practical orientation rather than a contemplative attitude toward painting."

As opposed to its grandchild, the first generation of Mabini artists was deemed "conservative". Through them, they have established Mabini in the 1950s as a go-to place when searching for works that exhibit perfect utilisation of light and shadows, and well-done impressions of the Philippines' country life. In other words, works similar to Amorsolo's. But the first generation should not be deemed as mere copycats of the country's premier painter of the time but also geniuses of their own credit. Most had formal training at the University of the Philippines (UP) School of Fine Arts before the war broke out. Some of them were even the founding members of AAP.

Instead of being skewed to Victorio Edades' modernism, these artists adhered to Amorsolo's naturalistic style. Because "the standard academic practice then for fine arts students was to copy 'masterpieces' as an exercise in skills", this generation of artists mastered reproducing the works of the Old Masters and making their own original attempt at the said style, too.

The forerunners of Mabini Art opened the first art shops in Ermita in 1949 and eventually, the practice grew in popularity and propelled the demand for classical fine art at a low cost. The artists were then able to feed their families, exhibit their works locally and internationally, and won prizes in competitions.

Dr Tan listed the links between the first generation of Mabini artists to their revered mentor, Amorsolo, based on their practices and plight:

1) their dominantly “realistic” style; 2) their confinement to figurative paintings; 3) the sweet-scent‐of-the country type of subjects; 4) the Filipino features of the human images in their paintings; 5) their use of painting as a viable means of living, i.e. their practice of combining art and commerce; 6) their repetition of tried and tested formulas as in the last decades of Amorsolo’s career; 7) the traditional use of oil as the medium in painting; and 8) the avoidance of radical departure from the traditional format of a painting, i.e., a framed rectangular two‐dimensional surface, preferably primed canvas.

The second generation of Mabini artists was different mainly because most of them were self-taught artists who entered the Ermita art scene in the early 1960s. There were also a few women who entered the circle like Emy Lopez and Rexi Gonzales.

At the time, there was a continued proliferation of art galleries on display not only along Mabini but also in nearby streets. With the tourism industry booming, the art galleries also made money from providing high-rise buildings with art and souvenir items. With modernism being the "king" of the period, Mabini art was marginalised in the country and so the artists held their exhibitions abroad.

The second generation of artists expanded its themes of subjects and later included street scenes, human interest, wildlife, religion, and abstract, which the third generation later carried on. Out of this generation, Salvador Cabrera became popular for his wide-eyed innocent-looking children, Paco Gorospe for his experimentations with metal bas-reliefs, and Rudy Gonzales with his "oil on velvet". 

Decline And Revival Efforts

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Above The corner of Mabini and Ocampo streets in Ermita, Manila / Google Maps

There were many factors for the gradual decline of Mabini Street's art scene. The political turmoil and economic downfall during and after the People Power Revolution of 1986, and the red-light district image of Ermita later on, to name a few. Pistang Pilipino, the commercial arts and crafts centre along Mabini Street during the '80s continued its business operations in the area until 1995.

Years have passed and the glory of Mabini Street is nothing more but a distant memory. The marvellous works that once hailed on its street were buried deeper in the dust. Fortunately, art aficionados and collectors managed to revive the street from the pages of Philippine art history through the efforts of scholars and the exhibitions mounted by CCP, NCCA, and some collections of the Jorge B. Vargas Museum at UP Diliman.

The works of Gabriel Custodio, Miguel Galvez, Cesar Buenaventura, Serafin Serna, Simon Saulog, Salvador Cabrera, Paco Gorospe, Roger San Miguel, Rudy Enhambre, Tony Leriorato, and a lot more have returned, appreciated for their aesthetic quality and storied past more than they have received when they were first displayed along Ermita's then-thriving art hub. As a matter of fact, Leon Gallery and Salcedo Auctions have been auctioning off some surviving Mabini artworks at exponentially large figures compared to their starting bids. Indeed, they have gained respect in the art world once again and surely, it is here to stay.

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  • ImagesCultural Center of the Philippines - Visual Arts and Museum Division