In the field of portraiture—where technical accuracy, mastery of light, tone and mood are required of the artist, one Kapampangan painter stands out—Jose Bumanlag David. Though he painted a variety of subjects throughout his long, prolific career, it is in portraiture that he found recognition, thanks largely to his American clientele.
My first brush with this accomplished visual artist was in the mid 90s, when I went to a art gallery in Balibago near the Abacan Bridge to have some prints framed. There, amidst the clutter of acrylic paintings and kitschy copies of European masterpieces, I found a small vintage ethnic painting so popular in that era, signed in graceful cursive script by one “Jose B. David, 1955”. It is a portrait of a young lakan, perhaps still in his teens, attired in tribal clothes, complete with a potong, necklaces and earrings.
The portrait captured the likeness of a proud, handsome royal right down to his earthen complexion and his stare that pierces through you despite a half-smile. The gallery owner was just too happy to part with the old painting for Php 200, and my only regret was not asking if this portrait had a matching “lakambini”, as it was the custom of artists in those days to paint “his and hers”paintings.
Thus began my search to know more about this gifted painter—Jose Bumanlag David. The future visual artist was born in Mexico, Pampanga on 26 July 1909. His early schooling began at the Mexico Elementary School and San Fernando Intermediate School. He then enrolled in Pampanga’s premiere high school—the Pampanga High School from where he graduated in 1929. In college, he chose to take up Fine Arts—a course that was not exactly desirable in those days; painting was not considered a profession and painres were treated with disdain (“wala kang mapapala sa hampaslupang ýan!”).
Nevertheless, David went on to enter the U.P. School of Fine Arts where he quickly made a name for himself as a promising art student by winning medals in various inter-school art contests. He graduated in 1934 and started painting popular subjects like common folks in rural settings, historical tableaus and ethnic scenes. His paintings caught the eyeof leading dailies, and his artworks were featured regularly on the glossy, color sections of the Philippine Free Press. In 1939, Jose David and Wenceslao Garcia held a joint exhibition at the U.P. Library Gallery which drew much praise from the public.
Soon, his works were being collected by noted art connoisseurs like Jorge Vargas. At the 1941 National Art Competition held by the University of Santo Tomas, David won 2nd Honorable mention for his ”Presentation of the Santo Nino to the Queen of Cebu”(Religious Category) and 3rd Honorable Mention for his “Man of the Soil”(Filipiniana Category). His output was so prodigious that pre-World War II, his works could be found in the classrooms of many Manila schools and at the offices of the Department of Education, health and Public Welfare. After the War, he re-established his profession by relocating in Angeles, where he conducted art classes at the Clark Air Base.
It was to be a long and fruitful stay—thirty years in fact, from 1947 to 1977. He took a break to finish a management course in 1964 at the Air Force Institute at Gunter Air Base University, Alabama. Afterwhich, he established his studio near the base and, beginning in 1971 till 1982, he gave private art classes to bored American wives of U.S. military personnel and their other family members. One of his last one-man show was held in 1990 at Galerie Andrea in 1990. Many of his portraits of American military officers used to hang in various Clark Air Base buildings and those of Filipino heroes at the Scottish Rite Temple.
After his death, his studio closed but many galleries around the city continued to carry some of his prized artworks that were popular as tourist souvenirs. Today, his paintings rarely surface in the local market. A few pieces could still be seen at the U.P. Filipiniana Museum, part of the vast Jose B. Vargas art collection donated to the state university. Jose Bumanlag David, the master portraitist who so deftly immortalized on canvass the likenesses of thousands of faces—young, old, man, woman, Filipino, American—has also earned immortality himself as Pampanga’s most accomplished portraitist.