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Letters to Theo: van Gogh behind the strokes

An interactive art exhibit opened in Manila featuring some of Vincent van Gogh’s finest works like “The Starry Night,” “Sunflowers,” and “The Bedroom.” Hence, here are some highlights in the life of the ‘man who cut his ear off’ coupled with excerpts from his life-long correspondence with his brother, Theo. 



Vincent and Theo Van Gogh. Photos from THE MET website and Wikimedia Commons.

Vincent van Gogh is coming to Manila. Well, sort of. 

An interactive art exhibit opened last October 26 featuring some of his finest works like “The Starry Night,” “Sunflowers,” and “The Bedroom.” Although his works will not be physically present, the exhibit aims to impart visitors an experience that would immerse them in his artistic world. Hence, here are some highlights in the life of the ‘man who cut his ear off’ coupled with excerpts from his life-long correspondence with his brother, Theo. 

1. He was the eldest, but not the first. 

The name ‘Vincent’ was initially given by his parents to his brother, who died at stillbirth, a year before he was born. It was also common name in the Van Gogh family. In fact, he shares the same name with his grandfather and great-uncle. Before his death, his brother named his son after him which added another Vincent van Gogh to the family. 

Self-portrait of Vincent. In his lifetime, he has created over 200 self-portraits of himself. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

2. He began working at the young age of 16. 

Although Vincent received relatively good marks in school, somehow, it didn’t really work out for him. In 1869, his uncle Cent, short for Vincent, got him a job as a trainer at the art dealer Goupil & Cie branch at the Hague. His early letters from England spoke about his success, enthusiasm, and appreciation of English culture. His time as a clerk fostered his interest in the works of celebrated artists like Scheffer, Millet, Delaroche, and Hébert, to name a few. 

“Things are going well for me here, I have a wonderful home and it’s a great pleasure for me to observe London and the English way of life and the English themselves, and I also have nature and art and poetry, and if that isn’t enough, what is?”

Johanna, Theo’s wife, then referred to this time as ‘the best year of Vincent’s life.’ 

Jo van Gogh-Bonger in 1889. Wife of Theo van Gogh, she translated most of the letters of the van Gogh brothers and contributed much in Vincent’s fame. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

3. He originally wanted to become a pastor. 

Vincent was born to a religious family. His father, Theodorus van Gogh, was a protestant minister. In his early life, he began teaching in a Methodist boys’ school. In a letter he wrote from Amsterdam, he expressed his dream of becoming a minister:

As far as I’m concerned, I must become a good minister, who has something to say that is good and can be useful in the world.”

In most of his early letters to Theo, he spoke greatly about his faith in God. The ‘random’ thoughts he penned during his time in Amsterdam were laced with references to sermons of other pastors and teachings from the Bible. It was also during this time that Vincent was studying for an entrance exam to the School of Theology in the University of Amsterdam. He was, however, denied entrance as he refused to take the Latin exams, referring to it as a “dead language.” In his pursuit of his purpose, his devotion to preach didn’t stop there. 

In 1879, he moved in with the impoverished community of coal miners in Borinage, Belgium. To further understand their lifestyle, he immersed himself in the coal miners’ day-to-day struggle:

We went down together, 700 meters deep this time, and went into the most hidden corners of that underworld.”  

Throughout his time preaching to the poor and the sick in Borinage, he lived a simple life by giving up his belongings to a homeless person and sleeping in a small hut—a practice that eventually earned him the epithet, “Christ of the Coal Mine.”


“Two Peasants Digging” after Jean-Francois Millet (1889). Photo from The Washington Post.

4. He loved books as much as he loved art. 

Vincent didn’t only have an eye for art in canvas, but also in text. Instead of succumbing to homesickness, he turned to studying and reading books. His extensive reading list included works by Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, Jules Michelet, Émile Zola, and many more. In one of his letters, he expressed:

“If now you can forgive a man for going more deeply into paintings, admit also that the love of books is as holy as that of Rembrandt, and I even think that the two complement each other.”

5. His career as an artist didn’t start until he was 27.

From time to time, Vincent drew sketches in his letters to Theo. But it was only at the age of 27 (or 28, in some sources) that he first picked up his brush through his brother’s advice. He initially took up painting lessons from artist Anton Mauve and practiced ‘fanatically’. His efforts would then give birth to what would we be known as his first masterpiece, “The Potato Eaters” in 1885.  

Rather than painting from memory like fellow artist, Paul Gaugin, he preferred to paint things as how they were in front of him. Along with artists such as Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Pollock, he was also known for using an impasto (“thick paint”) technique that showed the texture of strokes in almost all of his paintings. 

After the eventful night of Gaugin leaving and Vincent allegedly cutting his ear off, he began to exhibit signs of intense confusion, hallucinations, and self-harm. Tormented by his neighbors as a madman, he admitted himself in an asylum in Saint-Rémy in 1889. He continued to suffer from attacks that lasted a week and some as long as two months. In between his lucid phases, he still managed to find subtle light of optimism in his art. As he wrote in his letter from Saint-Rémy:

“What am I on the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – someone who has and will have no position in society, in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”

In his time at the asylum, he made over 150 paintings in the span of a year which included copies of Millet’s work, landscapes, and his iconic works like “Irises”. It was in the dawn of June 1889 that he painted the famous “The Starry Night” from the view of his window in his room. In spite of his relapses, he found solace in creating his art:

“It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things.”

Despite having his art exhibited multiple times, he struggled to make a living out of it. In his lifetime, he was only able to sell only one artwork in his lifetime: “The Red Vineyard at Arles” (1888), which was priced at 400 Francs (around P100,000 in today’s value). Nonetheless, he still continued to pursue his passion. 

“The Red Vineyard at Arles” (1888). Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

6. Oriental art inspired some of his works. 

For many years, Japanese art was kept out from Westerners. It was only in 1859 that overseas trade paved way for Japanese art to be recognized by the European public and Vincent himself. As he moved in with Theo in early 1886, his collection grew from a stack of Japanese woodcuts to what he would describe as ‘hundreds of prints’ in his letters. As a matter of fact, in a portrait he painted of Montmartre art dealer, Père Tanguy, Japanese prints—probably from his own collection—were used as a background. 

It was clear that Vincent had high regard for Japanese art during this time, even seeing them as equals with masterpieces of Western artists. In one of his letters from Arles, he stated: 

“Japanese art is something like the primitives, like the Greeks, like our old Dutchmen, Rembrandt, Potter, Hals, Vermeer, Ostade, Ruisdael. It doesn’t end” 

This inspiration would later on transcend in his works as it began to become more modern and stylized. He started to paint using bright and bold colors with a more flat-like appearance by excluding all the shadows (“The Bedroom,” 1888). Learning more from Japanese prints, he coupled his distinct paint strokes with spatial effects by cutting out the horizon (“Kingfisher,” 1887) and by working from a bird’s point of view (“Les Alyscamps,” 1888). In this time of his life, he was convinced that ‘seeing with a Japanese eye’ would help him uncover his personality.

“The Bedroom” (1888). Photo from Van Gogh Museum website.


“Les Alyscamps” (1888). Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

7. Theo was more than his brother. He was his confidante. 

By this time, you may realize that Vincent was more than just a passionate artist. He was also an insightful writer who spent a great amount of his time penning detailed narratives of his experiences, unorthodox philosophies, profound thoughts, and psychological turmoil in his correspondence with Theo. Throughout his lifetime, he wrote more than 650 letters to his brother. It was a practice he kept up until his last days. 

Some would say that Theo was a catalyst in Vincent’s pursuit of the arts. Their relationship was more than just the financial ties, he held onto Theo for emotional support. In a letter he wrote to from the Hague in 1883, he referred to his brother as his only friend. 

“Sunflowers” fourth version (1888). Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

“I don’t really have any friends except for you, and when I’m ill you’re always in my thoughts”. 

Vincent’s mental illness, however, didn’t go away. He grew anxious about the future, feared another relapse might happen, and generally felt like a failure. On the 27th of July 1890, Vincent walked into a wheat field in Auvers and shot himself in the chest with a pistol. The bullet didn’t kill him instantly so he staggered back to his room in the Auberge Ravoux. After hearing about the news, Theo travelled to Auvers where he was present until his last breath.

It was a little over 6 months after his death that the brothers would once again reunite. Today, they rest side by side in a cemetery in Auvers after Johanna had Theo reburied there in 1940. 

“The Starry Night” (1889). Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

While most of Vincent’s notable works were bursting with colors of orange and yellow, his life was drowned in hues of blue and gray. Unfortunately, he lived in a time where little help was available for his illness. Though he was gone too soon, his works managed to live long enough to inspire a new generation of artists, filmmakers, and writers. With a handshake, he wrote: 

“Painters being dead and buried speak to a following generation or to several following generations through their works.” 

In the 8 years that Vincent painted, he created more than 850 paintings—most of which now reside in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam—and 1,300 works on paper. One doesn’t need to be an artist or an art critic to appreciate his works, but rather an eye that can look at things for what they are on canvas: emotions put into action. 



Which UST street are you?



Artwork by Tricia Jardin

Another year, another Buzzfeed-esque quiz that is based on purely subjective notions. This quiz can somehow garner questionable results as they can be entirely different from how one sees oneself, but still feel free to take a (good) three-minute break and validate which UST street completely molds your Thomasian existence. Enjoy! 


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‘Awit’ and the normalization of transphobia

With music as a tool for liberation, we must not let the likes of “Awit” to limit our minds, let alone poison our culture with prejudice.



Screenshot from the album cover of the now deleted song "Awit" on Spotify.

Erich Gabriel Bongon, also known as Young Vito posted a video of himself on Twitter singing a preview of “Awit” last Dec. 5, 2019, a song he that composed with sexist undertones and transphobic lyrics. Netizens were quick to call out the rapper when the preview is posted, prompting him to delete the video and issue an “apology.”

What happened afterwards? Was he cancelled? Was he given career opportunities after the incident? Did he change his ways and most importantly, did he educate himself on gender rights?

Young Vito is known to have signed a recording contract with Viva Records. With the record label having full knowledge of the incident, Young Vito and Viva Records have enabled themselves to go further: to release the same song with the same infamous lyrics, capitalizing off its notoriety on social media.

Awitis just one of the many Filipino songs propagating harmful ideas that does not only target the transgender community, but also encourages the normalization of transphobia and a culture of hate in the country.

Young Vito’s “Awitis a trans woman, with the singer implying that the woman deceives men, that there is something wrong with them. 

The song’s album art depicts a trans women using a urinal, as if implying that they should use the male’s comfort room; a controversial choice due to the ongoing debate on trans peoples’ comfort room access.

After receiving flak, the rapper posted an apology on Twitter, at the same time refusing to delete his video and liking tweets saying that people are “too sensitive.” He deleted the video afterwards.

A few days later, the rapper signed a five-year contract with Viva Records. After that, the song is released on multiple streaming platforms last Jan. 17, 2020 under Viva Records, with Emmanuel “NEXXFRIDAY” Salen producing and providing the beat for the track.

Photo grabbed from Young Vito’s Instagram account @youngvitoph

“Despite the controversy surrounding the song, Awithas been turned into a full-blown bop…,” the caption of the now-deleted lyric video in Viva Records’ Youtube channel reads. 

The song is then deleted on Spotify one day after its release.

Awitis just one of the many Filipino songs with transphobic lyrics. Songs like Abra’s “Gayuma” and Kamikazee’s “Chiksilog” portray trans women as someone who deceive men with their looks, while also spreading the notion that trans women are still men even if they have already identify themselves as women. 

One may think that the lyrics of these songs are harmless but for the transgender community, it makes their lives more difficult than it is.

In a country where the trans community are ostracized, where even some members of the LGBTQ+ community preach transphobia, where the likes of Hermie Monterde are still discriminated in the workplace, where personalities such as BB Gandanghari and Jake Zyrus are mocked online, where women like Gretchen Diez are shunned and arrested for entering the comfort room, where people like Jennifer Laude and Jessa Remiendo are murdered for being transgender – these songs spread dangerous ideas to the public. 

These songs normalizes harmful prejudices embedded in our culture. It hinders the LGBTQ+ community, especially the trans community’s fight for equal rights. It makes the idea of targeted discrimination and hate crime acceptable, painting a harmful image on people’s minds that it is normal to mock transgenders with the help of a song.

Music has been used to break the status quo, teach important lessons, and in some cases, aid in bringing down tyrants. With music as a tool for liberation, we must not let the likes of “Awit” to limit our minds, let alone poison our culture with prejudice. 

If we want true progress, we must lose the chains of backwardness binding us, and we can start by taking small steps—starting with picking good songs to listen to.


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Kadenang Ginto is more complex than ever

The show may seem ordinary in the spectrum of teleseryes, but with the bouts of recognition and attention it harbors, shows like Kadenang Ginto may have the tendency to succumb to society’s patriarchal roots—a premise that has been the show’s subdued message from the very beginning.



Photo from ABS-CBN News

Media and entertainment industries, especially in the Philippines, have undoubtedly created a number of teleseryes that got viewers hooked. Iconic lines from television shows made their way through social media, thus birthing an irreversible decade of video parodies, i.e. “Cassie, hindi ka muna papasok sa iskul” which came from the ABS-CBN afternoon prime show, Kadenang Ginto (directed by Jerry Lopez Sineneng and Avel Sunpongco). This particular boomerang created by the show serves as a primary example of the proliferation of teleseryes into the in-betweens of people’s mundane realities. 

Usually, Filipino TV formulas have just been restricted to cookie-cutter stories such as rich girl-poor girl rivalries, wife versus mistress conflicts, and other types of predictable stories with a recurring plotline—dramatically mirroring the struggles of which people could sympathize and in some cases, empathize with. 

Now, with the recent narratives of most materials, it is fitting to raise the question: do teleseryes, such as the case in point, subconsciously imply a patriarchal and capitalist society which can water down women’s roles as simply pawns of the men-splayed environment?

Dissecting the Initial Premise of the Show

The whole idea of the show displays a tangled story between Daniela Mondragon (played by Dimples Romana) and Romina Andrada (played by Beauty Gonzales). Romina, a glorified Secretary, marries the business tycoon and father of Daniela, Robert Mondragon (played by Albert Martinez).

Caused by jealousy, Daniela strived to emerge relevant by physically and emotionally belittling Romina to death, hoping that she could at least gain more relevance in the old Mondragon’s life. It gets more complicated when Daniela marries Romina’s past lover, Carlos (played by Adrian Alandy), who still has unresolved feelings for the latter.

While Daniela’s past actions remain important both in their family business and in the lives of the men involved, it seems questionable that all her intentions were for the sake of these men.

While it is also applauding that Daniela and Romina are their own persons who are fully responsible to stir changes necessary to keep the show going, one may question the end of not just the character’s intentions, but as well as the writers’ inclination to probe and provide a substantial arc for these characters.

It raises the question, especially during a period when a new character was introduced in the persona of Richard Yap, a rich businessman, who somehow became a catalyst on how the character of Romina can get back on track. 

Are the women in Philippine teleserye doomed to always be swept off their feet by some men to garner the easiest way out?

The show may seem ordinary in the spectrum of teleseryes presented by the network, but with the bouts of recognition and attention it harbors, shows like Kadenang Ginto may have the tendency to succumb to society’s patriarchal roots—a premise that has been the show’s subdued message from the very beginning.

Now (with the plot lines tangled and recurring), the characters and their progressions can be attested to hopeful major changes (thankfully), as lead female characters are taking matters on their hands especially with Romina Andrada-Mondragon gaining more control over her circumstances, a (seemingly progressive) march of silent revolution, veering away from the initial premises of the show – yet still bound to its original plot line.  

Trudging the Conventional

While the network’s teleseryes’ cookie-cutter and cardboard characterizations of women are proven formulas, fresh perspectives are always a welcome venture with the exploration of complex female characters. 

Writers and show producers must become more socially-reverberant that they not only choose to showcase shows that pay the rent. In the Philippines, it is slowly building its pace with independent films being at the forefront.

Unfortunately, most mainstream media consumers are still inclined with choosing the proven formulas so mass media practitioners also stick to what generates more audiences. What the consumers can do now is to try to become more adamant to good and progressive changes – utilize the everlasting “get out of your comfort zone” notion. 

Media, as compared to what it tries to cater to before, has certainly come a long way with the sprouts of powerful women characters here and there. Unfortunately, Philippine mainstream media and its consumers sat way comfortably in the reassurance of these boxed and usual beliefs.

It may possibly take a while for these teleseryes to do the same with their high intentions to generate money, even if the essential purpose of art to heighten and challenge the empathic tendencies of the people can definitely suffer.


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