To see what one wants to see
Students on a field trip at the National Museum are often herded into a grand hall dominated by Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium,” a painting that provokes awe by its sheer size and the restrained violence it depicts. They walk past it quietly, single file, move swiftly through the other halls, and climb back into the bus to head to and spend the better part of the day in an air-conditioned shopping mall. I understand the logistical difficulties of getting busloads of students through the museum, but hope that some day, when they are older, many of them will return to the National Museum and give the “Spoliarium” a second look, remember what they were taught about the “meaning” of the painting, and attempt a more nuanced understanding of what Luna intended and what others have read into it. The “Spoliarium” has become part of the iconography of the nation.
Thirteen decades since it was awarded a gold medal in the 1884 National Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid, Luna’s “Spoliarium” still evokes national pride of a type that far eclipses the boxing feats of Manny Pacquiao. Luna’s gold and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s silver are like Olympic medals heralding them as the “First Filipino International Artists.”
In ancient Rome corpses of vanquished gladiators were dragged into a room below the Roman Coliseum, where they were stripped of their bloodied weapons and shining armor before being disposed of or handed over to grieving loved ones. This is a powerful image that was part of the arsenal of “academic” painters in Europe. Resurreccion Hidalgo’s prize-winning entry, “Christian virgins exposed to the mob,” depicts just that—helpless women cornered by a gang of rapists and looking up to heaven for divine intervention that does not save them from the horror that the viewer knows is about to happen.
Large canvases filled with scenes from ancient Greece and Rome were in fashion then, so we must ask: Would Luna and Resurreccion Hidalgo win those medals if they had painted scenes from the Philippines instead? Ask students who have seen the movie “Gladiator” or the TV series “Rome” if they can see Spanish oppression in these productions; they don’t. For this we have to blame Graciano Lopez Jaena and Jose Rizal, who recast ancient Rome into an indictment of the colonial condition. Unfortunately, students are not taught to look at the painting but force-fed into thinking that the “Spoliarium” has but one correct interpretation.
In August 1983 Ninoy Aquino was assassinated at the Manila airport that now bears his name. Shot in the back of the head, his limp body was dragged by members of the Aviation Security Command and loaded into a van. The alleged gunman was left on the tarmac to be later identified, not by identification in his pockets, but by the name “Rolando Galman” conveniently written on the garter of his briefs. In the days of mourning that followed, I remember someone suggesting that the “Spoliarium” was a visual prophecy of the Aquino assassination; that Luna was not just a painter but also a prophet. One of these days a victim of extrajudicial killing will be dragged into an ambulance, and if a photographer catches the scene at the right angle to mimic the “Spoliarium,” we will find yet another meaning to add to a painting completed way back in 1884.
If there is one thing that can be said about art, it is that art being a representation of reality, viewers can, with some imagination, see what they want to see.
The National Museum complex is a respite from the oppressive heat and traffic in the streets. Now is the time to visit because elementary and high school students are on their summer break, the halls are not so crowded, and the air-conditioning is sufficient for the comfort of visitors and the preservation of the paintings. After paying your respects to the “Spoliarium” and taking the obligatory selfie, turn round and spend some time with Resurreccion Hidalgo’s “Murder of Bustamante,” which is not saddled with preset interpretations. So much violence in one room not intended to desensitize like the front-pages of broadsheets and tabloids, these are two powerful paintings that should give viewers enough perspective to realize that things don’t have to be the way they are.
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