Reestablishing Jorge Vargas as Art Collector and Wartime Mayor

Two new exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila focus on two distinct aspects of a complex figure who lived in a complex time

by Emil Hofileña

The cultural distance between a work of art and us as viewers does not have to grow further with the passage of time. Smart, purposeful curation and continued academic study can keep these artworks within our spheres of relevance for decades. And as art continually switches hands, we can choose to view these changes in ownership not as interruptions but as new phases in the art’s history.


Over at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila (MET), two new exhibitions present a selection of art, memorabilia, stamps, coins, and books from the Jorge Vargas Collection of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, in collaboration with Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. The exhibits, entitled Fascination with Filipiniana: The Vargas Museum Collection and In the Wake of War and the Modern: Manila, 1941 to 1961 remind us of the many roles Jorge Bartolome Vargas played in helping shape our culture and history. Vargas had a myriad of interests and responsibilities in his life, but the featured selections draw our focus to his life as an art collector, and his position as Mayor of Manila during the Japanese occupation.


Even those familiar with Vargas might find interesting new angles here, given all the curators involved throughout history. The artists created their pieces, Vargas collected them and donated them to UP, and UP has allowed the MET to make their own selections. There is a lot to take in in these exhibits, from paintings of the tragic effects of war to some oddly whimsical portraits of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines, of which Vargas was a founding member. It’s clear that the MET leaves Vargas up to interpretation, and sets the stage for some interesting points of contention—in particular, the movement from 19th-century realism to the modernist movement of the 1920s, and the question of whether or not Vargas was a patriot or a renegade for collaborating with the Japanese colonialists. All of it forms an intersection between war and the hope of a new nation—and the man in the middle.


Fascination with Filipiniana and In the Wake of War and the Modern are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila until July 21.