Painting national heroes in a new light
Last year, I was shown a collection of paintings by Luis Lorenzana that moved me enough to write about them for an exhibition catalogue published in the US. What struck me was their historical content and execution that reminded me that the Philippines is a young country with a long and complex history.
While Philippine history continues to be written and rewritten based on new research and fresh insight, it is unfortunate that most people’s first experience of this narrative is often traumatic because of a boring textbook that oversimplifies the multifaceted story that draws cardboard versions of the people who figure in the birth of the nation.
Luis Lorenzana’s paintings suggest he had a good Araling Panlipunan teacher, because long after his formal education he continued to exhibit an interest in the past, that stirred him to rescue four 19th-century men, all national heroes of the Philippines, from the proverbial dustbin of history by painting them in a new light that provides them with a new life and relevance in the 21st century.
Lorenzana’s paintings of Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Apolinario Mabini, and Antonio Luna were all composed from old photographs that have since become iconic images, fossilized into permanence by way of monuments, paper bills, coins, and commemorations. However, in Lorenzana’s playful rendering, these dead heroes live again to challenge and inspire the nation and people for whom they sacrificed their lives.
We don’t have column space to cover all four heroes so let’s focus on two of my favorites: Antonio Luna and Apolinario Mabini, often overshadowed by Rizal and Bonifacio but deserve a new book. Lorenzana based his depiction of Heneral Luna in full military uniform, on one of the many extant archival photographs. The dripping paint on the painting’s surface, punctuated by blood-red X’s, refers to Luna’s brutal assassination by the blades and bullets of President Aguinaldo’s bodyguards, a treacherous lot, loyal only to Aguinaldo, that Luna had earlier disciplined and disarmed for insubordination. The title, “Luna Mal Precedente”—literally, “bad precedent”—is a play on words to suggest “bad President,” a reference to Emilio Aguinaldo, who was so threatened by Luna that the accusing finger of history has settled on him as the mastermind in the murder of his rival. However, I have a good guess on who really wanted Luna dead. Luna was recently the subject of a 2015 Filipino film that went viral due largely to its unstinting depiction of the general’s bluster, bad temper and intemperate language, which shocked and galvanized a young generation of viewers into a burning desire for change and national renewal that can be summed up neatly by a line in the film: “Bayan bago ang sarili.”
Lorenzana depicts Apolinario Mabini as red-faced, and bills him as the “Agony Superstar”: an apt description, given that Mabini and Luna — a pair who believed in fighting for freedom, even if it meant dying to the last man — could easily be said to embody the conscience of the young republic. Both of them advocated for war at a time when more pragmatic officials in the Aguinaldo government argued for “peace” through surrender to the Americans. Some of these traitors to the cause of freedom are still on the roster of heroes, despite the cynical alacrity with which they jumped from the First Philippine Republic to positions of political and social influence under the Stars and Stripes. It could be said that Luna was removed by assassination, while Mabini was removed by intrigue. Mabini lost the use of his legs to adult polio, a disability his critics claimed was due to syphilis in order to discredit him. When he was nominated for the post of chief justice of the Supreme Court, he was told — contemptuously, by a legislator — that he could not fulfill the duties of the office because he was a paralytic, to which his quick and sharp reply was, “Does the job entail a lot of walking?” Mabini is a reminder that fidelity to duty does not always reap compliments and rewards—but often criticism and contempt.
Pictures can sometimes relate history more engagingly than text. Lorenzana’s images made me wonder if I would do better as a painter than a writer.
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