Accidental propaganda and the Basi Revolt paintings


Do paintings have the power that photographs could never replicate? In some cases, this is true. Throughout history there have been paintings that have captured the imagination and awakened intense feelings of social and political awareness. It was not only through the scenes or images the paintings portrayed or utilized, but also because of how the same were rendered. The texture of the paint, the colors used, the way the elements are arranged and how they appear in the light or its absence, all this contributes to the over-all effect of a painting on its viewer.

According to the literary critic Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin, a painting elicits emotions that cannot be felt when one looks at a photograph. A painting displays originality, while a photograph is like a replica of an image. Mechanical reproduction removes the “aura” of a work of art, and makes images void. However, his argument on the loss of originality is questionable because a photographer also sees images in a specific way.

Benmain was a German literary critic, philosopher, social critic, translator, radio broadcaster and essayist. According to reports, he is behind some of the most influential contributions to aesthetic theory and Western Marxism. He was greatly influenced by the work of Bertolt Brecht.

In his essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (1936), Benjamin discussed the consequences of modernity in film and photography art forms. According to him, mechanical reproduction causes art to lose its emotional effect.

“During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well,” he wrote.

Benjamin argued that works of art in the past are different from the kinds of art produced by modern society. It is precisely for this reason that people should alter how they perceive and treat art. This appreciation will help develop new contexts and art techniques. And this will help give art and artists direction.

It would be most interesting and instructive what the Marxist art critic would have said about the Basi Revolt series of paintings by Esteban Pichay Villanueva, currently on exhibit at the National Museum in Manila.

The Basi Revolt

Villanueva made his mark in the history of Ilocos and Philippine art history when he created his 14 paintings that focused on the events that surrounded the 1807 Basi Revolt. The Basi Revolt happened in 1807. Ilocano basi farmers and civilians from all over Ilocos took up arms against the Spanish government in Vigan. The farmers and basi producers took great offense against the Spanish authorities’ decision to forbid the production and sale of the local wine, basi. The Spanish wanted to remove all competition to the Spanish wine trade that directly reached the country through Acapulco.

The Basi Revolt lasted for 13 days. At the end of it, the rebels were defeated and they were executed via public hanging.

According to reports, Villanueva was a farmer who was born in Vigan in 1797. He was commissioned by unknown authorities to produce paintings on the Basi Revolt that took place 10 years before he himself was born. He had no formal art training, but in in 1821 he was able to create 14 oil paintings with canvasses measuring 91.44 x 91.44.

History in 14 canvasses

Art critics have pointed out that Villanueva patterned his 14 paintings after the paintings depicting the stations of the cross; still, the subject of his work was hardly religious; on the contrary, they were highly secular, and they now comprise venerable documentary artefacts of a period that most Filipinos are not significantly aware of.

One will not be tempted to comment on the skill and technique the painter used to execute his paintings: the style is pretty much pedestrian and basic. What one cannot miss, however, is the power behind the images and what feelings and thoughts arise when one sees them.

The first to the fifth paintings show the Spanish authorities instructing their own troops prior to engagement; and the Ilocano revolutionary forces gathering their own forces. The opposing groups are seen in line formation: the Filipinos do not have weapons, they bear only knives, hatchets, bows and arrows. The Spanish troops appear more formidable with their own weapons – swords, guns and cannons.

The Ilocono revolutionaries are from Candon and Santiago, and as they form ranks to wage war against the Spanish in Ilocos Sur, the governor Don Juan Ibanes orders his own troops and the people of Bantay, San Vicente and Santa Catalina to prepare.

In one of the latter paintings, residents of Bantaoay are seen rushing inside a church. Men, women and children carrying boxes and big bundles of their belongings wrapped in blankets hurry to seek shelter inside the building.

There is the strong and justified impression that they are in great fear for their safety and very lives. Inside the church, children sit in wait: they are mere shadows in form, almost intangible, but their very appearance is an indication of the gravity of the situation. Children are and should always be the first to be taken to safety during periods of calamity.

There is another painting depicting the immediate aftermath of the clash. The Bantaoay river is full of bodies, and the Spanish authorities are seen instructing non-combatant Ilocanos to retrieve them from the water or from the river bank. The pale bodies are fished out, wrapped in blankets or woven mats, and carried away for burial. Some are placed on carts drawn by water buffaloes: the bodies are piled one on top of the other, uncovered. It is implied that they will be taken to the plaza where the relatives of the slain would come to claim them.

In another painting, a man is seen being publicly flogged. It is not clear why he is being subjected to such cruel and barbaric treatment, and the image is horrific. His body is flat on the ground, facedown, and his hands are bound in chains. Blood flows from his stomach area and stains the ground. Around him, Spanish soldiers stand guard, watched by Filipinos who are in the pay of the Spanish authorities.

In the last three or four paintings, the revolutionaries are seen to be captured and forced to walk back to the provincial capitol barefoot, their hands bound. A military or government official is seen throwing his hat in the air in jubilation, while the defeated Filipinos look downcast, their faces and clothes streaked with blood.

The succeeding paintings depicting the public execution by hanging of the captured revolutionaries are chilling, especially when one considers that the scenes did actually take place. The men are hanged, and after they’ve died, their bodies are lowered to the ground. In one of the paintings, a man – it’s not clear if he is Filipino or Spanish – cuts off their heads one by one and places them inside baskets that have all the appearance of bird cages.

Also shocking is how the entire process is witnessed by children: they and their parents were most likely forced to witness the public execution.

Villanueva did not have the skill to paint more realistic expressions on the faces of his subjects, but it is precisely the absence of these that emphasizes the grief, pain, outrage that his subjects felt seeing their neighbors and compatriots killed. What was missing all the more indicated what must have been clearly there in that plaza either in San Vicente or Santa Catalina in Northern Luzon in 1807.

Art as accidental propaganda

The first photographs were created in the 1820s, a few decades before Villanueva made his Basi Revolt paintings. Had the technology been invented at the time, the photographs that would have been taken would most likely have depicted so much violence and cruelty on the part of the Spanish forces, and bravery on the part of the Ilocano revolutionaries.

Villanueva’s paintings can be said to effectively perform the function of photographs in present day. They remind one of the photos taken of the various events of serious import to the country’s state of human rights and the people’s struggle for social justice: the massive rallies in 1986 denouncing the brutal assassination of labor leader Rolando Olalia; the 1987 photos showing the farmers gunned down in Mendiola; ; and the more recent 2004 pictures showing the bloodied bodies of Hacienda Luisita workers after they were massacred at the picketline.

The issue of art as propaganda has already been settled long ago, and no one but reactionaries and the politically conservative and naïve will contest the historic and moral validity of claims that art should serve specific political purposes such as exposing social corruption and providing viable alternatives to it. There are art works, however, that are inherently political regardless of what the artist intended.

Villanueva was said to have listened to exhaustive accounts of fellow Ilocanos who witnessed the Basi Revolt and its immediate aftermath. He used the stories, impressions and anecdotes to put together the images in the paintings. He may or may not have any intentions to support the revolution against Spanish colonization, but what is certain is the accuracy of what he painted –- the images, after all, are visual renderings of real accounts of real people – turned them into propaganda material.

One could say that when one chooses to paint socially accurate images, regardless of whether one has a conscious political agenda or not, one makes a political message. Artists may or not be deliberately doing this, but their art will speak for itself, and what messages it conveys can be different from what their makers actually believe or stand for.

It was said that the Spanish authorities wanted Villanueva to paint the events of the Basi Revolt in such a way that Filipinos who saw them would be discouraged from initiating or joining any other uprising. For instance, Villanueva appears to have been told to make sure that the Spanish authorities are always seen to be bigger than the Filipino locals, and that they should be present in all the paintings.

Contrary to this view, however, is the other opinion that Villanueva’s depiction of the events subtly revealed how he wanted audiences to believe that there would be eventual victory in the uprisings against Spain. It’s impossible to miss how he painted Halley’s Comet in his panels. Local belief, at the time, was that the appearance of a comet marks the beginning of a revolution. This was all the more strengthened when the comet appeared before the revolt led by Diego Silang and his wife Gabriela.

Crictis like Benjamin have said that a work of art was “a unique object or performance that could not be experienced except by audience members willing to make a pilgrimage to the artwork’s location.” This is quite true in the case of the Basi Revolt paintings.

Seeing them up close and in person was to experience art as history and as social commentary. The paintings are valuable because they are testaments to a period in Philippine history when Filipinos took great and justified offense against the economic and political limits imposed against them by an unjust government. The paintings can be considered as propaganda in the sense Villanueva was commissioned to paint them for the Spanish authorities and their political purposes, but this supposedly defined motive backfired.

Looking at the paintings, Filipinos can and should see the injustice inherent in societies where the rulers look out for their own economic and social interests at the expense of their constituents.

As for the quality of the art, whatever is lacking in painterly or artistic quality was overshadowed by the content and the message. The paintings are visual documents, affirming the existence of yet another period in Philippine history when Filipinos showed courage and defended their rights. The images are plainly-rendered, but what they imply, what they show are more powerful than words. (

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  1. There is a serious mistake here in the interpretation of Walter Benjamin’s “aura” that, if not corrected, is quite embarrassing.

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