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Looking Back
Juan Luna’s works

By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer
First Posted 01:11:00 10/24/2007

Filed Under: Arts, Culture & Entertainment

MANILA, Philippines--Juan Luna was born in Badoc, Ilocos Norte, 150 years ago today. There are many activities that will kick off a year of commemoration, which will hopefully make people curious about Luna the man, the artist and the hero.

Unfortunately, those who want to read up on his life and art are limited to four main sources of information, all out of print and not readily found in bookstores. The heaviest work (physically) is the coffee-table book ?Luna The Filipino as Painter? by Santiago Albano Pilar, professor of art history at the UP College of Fine Arts. Then there is the little gem of a book, the monograph by the late E. Aguilar Cruz with his sensitive and sensible essay ?The Other Luna,? complemented with annotated colored photographs of Luna?s work. There is a long entry on Luna, as well as a preliminary listing of his known works, both those that were extant after the Battle for Manila in 1945 and those that were lost or believed destroyed during the war, in the first volume of the ?Dictionary of Philippine Biography? by the late E. Arsenio Manuel. And last but not least, what can be considered the ?mother of all Luna biographies?: a sketchy biographical outline by the late architect Carlos E. Da Silva who was one of the moving figures behind the Juan Luna Centennial Commission that implemented the celebration of Luna?s birth centenary.

It is hoped that between his 150th birthday in 2007 and the 110th anniversary of his death in 2009, someone will write a new book that will update the existing information, and, more importantly, show us, in pictures, the full range of Luna?s work: his paintings, watercolors and drawings.

So far Luna is remembered for a handful of paintings. There are the historical works: ?Spoliarium? which is again available for viewing in the National Gallery of Art of the National Museum and ?Pacto de Sangre? [?Blood Compact?], which now hangs at the top of the grand staircase that leads to the Ceremonial Hall of Malacañang. There is the allegorical painting ?España y Filipinas? now in the Lopez Memorial Museum that depicts Spain leading the Philippines along the way to progress. And finally, there is ?La Bulaqueña? or ?Una Bulaqueña,? depending on the source you are reading, that used to adorn the Music Room of Malacañang and is now back in the National Museum after a long absence. This impressive portrait of a woman whose identity is still being contested by historians continues to puzzle and delight more than a century after it was painted. Each time I gaze upon her, I wonder what she saw and heard during her stay in Malacañang.

It is unfortunate that we have very little of Luna?s watercolors. The most famous was a set of illustrations that he made to illustrate the Tagalog version of ?Noli me tangere.? These were believed destroyed during the war and we are indebted to the pioneering art dealer, art restorer and art historian Alfonso Ongpin who preserved them in a photograph album. A set of Ongpin?s photographs, not just of the works of Luna but also of Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fabian de la Rosa, Fernando Amorsolo and other artists, were made for the collector Luis Araneta. Thus, it is the ?Luis Araneta Photo File? that is cited by researchers who have not looked beyond to see its original source.

The delightful ?Noli? illustrations, I think, were made to accompany the translation made by Paciano Rizal and corrected by the author himself in Hong Kong some time in 1892. This would have been the definitive edition, except that the manuscript cannot be located. Paciano?s grandchildren remember seeing what may or may not be the ?Noli? translation in their grandfather?s home in Los Baños, and we hope it will turn up someday.

In the National Library, we have a small but important Luna watercolor that was found in a junk heap in the National Library by E. Aguilar Cruz. This was made in Leitmeritz (now part of the Czech Republic), when Luna visited Ferdinand Blumentritt, the friend of Rizal. This watercolor gives us an idea of the original colors of the flag whenever there is a controversy over its shades of red, white, blue and yellow.

One watercolor that I hope will also turn up is a small view of the Hong Kong harbor that accompanied a letter Luna wrote to his son Luling in December 1899. I remember handling this treasure 20 years ago, when it was on sale. It was a delicate work on crumbling paper, but it is probably Luna?s last work. He was traveling to Manila to be with his son and he wrote a short letter to him. To fill the vacant space at the end, he took out his brushes and made a view of the so-called ?fragrant harbor.? He suffered a heart attack and died there on Dec. 7, 1899.

There is so much material that has come up since the standard works on Luna were published, and his 150th birth anniversary is a good time to get people interested in him again. However, when Luna?s life and work are reassessed in the light of new information and newly recovered artworks, he should be studied not as a patriot right away but first as a person, then as an artist to provide context and value to his life and work as one of our national heroes.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

More Inquirer columns

Previous columns:
Questions about Juan Luna ? 10/19/07
Division ? 10/17/07
'La Naval' and a medallion from a Thai king ? 10/12/07
La Naval ? 10/05/07
Memories of a Pandaqueño ? 10/03/07.



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