Bencab brings together aspects of painting in works that highlight one of the country’s most impressive cultural images: the Filipina in traditional colonial garb. With an eye for detail and an assured technique, he brings his subjects to life with a lush sense of nostalgia.
It is hard to disconnect the radical change in fashion that has characterized the twentieth century from the radical change in art that accompanied. Same goes with the Filipiniana fashions of the tail end of the nineteenth century and the advent of sepia colored photographs at the turn of the century, both of which Bencab explores with his Larawan themes.
Though the painting's unusual composition was noted from its earliest viewings, initially its subject was interpreted simply as that of girls at play, but it has subsequently been viewed in more abstract terms, reflecting Bencab’s interest in the ambiguities of adolescence.
The composition is unusual for a group portrait, both for the varying degrees of individualization given to the figures. Some characters are represented barely more distinctly than the others, and everybody is supplemented by a barely subordinate figure, what seems to be a boy at the lower right. A conventional group portraiture calls for an arrangement in which the subjects are portrayed as equally important — and for the square shape of the canvas.
Of note is the close physical distance between them, the children are arranged like it was a Colonial period school class picture, all dressed in white Filipiniana outfits, the difference in their postures notwithstanding. With the use of subtle gestures, Bencab achieves both the unity of composition and contrast of character essential in a group portrait.
In subjugating the characterization of individuals to more formal compositional considerations, overall image is as much about the subject of childhood as it is an example of portraiture.
The painting demonstrates how Bencab can bring the face or faces collectively to a high but not overworked finish before completing the canvas, as has always been the normal practice in portraiture.
Historical fashion and painting, boon companions in the past, have continued their relationship in our century, and the interchange between them is often deliberately provocative. Whether the clothes shown in works of art are charming or elegant, or historical, it is clear that fashion in painting is not just a matter of surface appearances but points to deeper social and cultural realities as well.
Bencab is not interested in depicting a realistic image, but rather creating an illusion of ethereal memory.