When thinking of Filipino sculptors, few artists can rise to the level attained by Guillermo Tolentino. The level of detail, research, and skill that he invests in his work made him one of the most celebrated visual artists of his generation. From his humble beginnings in Malolos, Bulacan, he went on to design some of the country’s most recognized monuments including the Bonifacio Monument and the Oblation statue of the University of the Philippines Diliman.
Born on July 24, 1980 in Malolos, Bulacan, Guillermo Estrella Tolentino was the fourth child in a family with seven siblings.
Taking after his father, the young Tolentino masterfully played the guitar before discovering his talent for sculpting. His grade school teacher at the Malolos Intermediate School taught him techniques in drawing which then served as the foundation for his passion for visual arts.
After studying in Malolos, Tolentino attended classes at the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts under the supervision of Vicente Rivera for painting and Vicente Francisco for sculpture. He finally completed his degree in 1915.
By 1919, Tolentino headed to the US and worked as a waiter in Washington, DC. Said to have been inspired by former President Woodrow Wilson’s work for post-war peace, he worked on a small statue that symbolized “peace” in the hopes of someday presenting it to the President himself. Not long after, Tolentino was able to present his work–of a young woman leading a small child symbolizing the US and the Philippines with the inscription “PAX” on the pedestal–to President Wilson at the White House. The statue now sits in the fireplace mantle at the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, DC.
This became a turning point in his career after he was offered by Bernard Baruch with a scholarship to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. The American philanthropist and statesman was said to have been quite impressed with the peace statue he presented to President Wilson at the time.
After graduating with honors at the École des Beaux-Arts, he traveled extensively throughout Europe before deciding to study at the Regge Instituto Superiore di Bella Arti de Roma in Rome, Italy. There, he received recognition for his work “Saluto Romano” and graduated with honors before he held a one man exhibit.
With his return to the Philippines in 1923, Tolentino opened his own studio in Manila and later decided to work in the academe. He was appointed as an instructor for sculpture at the UP School of Fine Arts in 1926 and was later named as director of the School of Fine Arts and Professor Emeritus.
Arguably one of his most iconic works is the Bonifacio Monument in South Caloocan. For this iconic memorial, Tolentino interviewed some people who participated in the Philippine Revolution. Its design includes an obelisk made up of five parts representing the five aspects of society, “Kataastaasan, Kagalanggalang na Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Highest and Most Venerable Association of the Sons of the Nation)” crowned with a figure of wings representing triumph.
In 1935, Tolentino was commissioned by Rafael Palma, the former president of the University of the Philippines to sculpt the Oblation. The statue was inspired on the second stanza of Rizal’s Mi ultimo adios. The statue was built using concrete and was painted for it to look like bronze.
Among his other works include the bronze figures of President Quezon at Quezon Memorial, the bronze medal of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Seal of the Republic of the Philippines, life size busts of Jose Rizal (displayed in UE and UP), the marble statue of Ramon Magsaysay (GSIS Building), and the model for the Commonwealth Triumphal Arch that was never built because of the War.
Among the awards and recognition he’s received include the:
- UNESCO Cultural Award in Sculpture – 1959
- Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan Award – 1963
- Republic Cultural Heritage Award – 1967
- Presidential Medal of Merit – 1970
- Diwa ng Lahi Award – 1972
- National Artist of the Philippines for Visual Arts in Sculpture – 1973
Tolentino died on July 12, 1976 at his residence in Retiro Street, Quezon City and was interred at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
The Manila Project
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