Separating the hero from the painter
Juan Luna’s 160th birthday this year went by practically unnoticed even in Ilocos Norte where all the stops were pulled out, not for the illustrious 19th-century “Anac ti Badoc” (Son of Badoc), but for the centennial of Ferdinand Marcos, otherwise known as “Da Apo” or “Anac ti Batac.” PhilPost even issued a commemorative stamp that turned out to be a tad inaccurate. The Ilocos Norte registry of births states that Marcos was actually born in 1916, making this year his 101st birthday. Someone should check this up with the National Statistics Office, for historians to know if his 1916 birth year was altered to have all milestones in his life contain his lucky number “7.”
Luna occupies a privileged niche in the art and history of the Philippines: He is recognized as the greatest Filipino painter of the 19th century whose art formed part of the nation’s imagery and narrative. But Luna’s greatest misfortune is being celebrated as a national hero. He is often revered more as a nationalist and known for one iconic work, rather than being rightfully appreciated as an artist who produced many more paintings.
A new look at an old painter is now possible in two landmark shows that opened the other night at the National Gallery of Singapore under the general title “Century of Light,” which showcases “Colours of Impressionism” by French impressionists from the Musee D’Orsay in Paris and “Between Worlds” that highlights the lives and works of our own Juan Luna and Raden Saleh of Indonesia, both recognized abroad in their time and now acknowledged as national heroes in their respective countries.
It is unfortunate that Luna’s iconic “Spoliarium,” a work of singular importance to Philippine history and nationalism, could not be loaned for the Singapore show because it hangs in the National Museum of the Philippines. Our reverence is based on textbook history that celebrates “Spoliarium” as one of only three works out of 806 that were awarded First Class medals in the 1884 Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Exhibition of Fine Arts) in Spain. At the heart of Luna’s win is the fact that a Filipino painter received recognition from the conservative Spanish exposition jury. It marked his transition from student apprentice to professional painter. The medal proved that an indio from the colonies was at par with or even greater than Spanish artists in Madrid.
Two halls in the National Museum of the Philippines are presently dedicated to Luna and his contemporary, Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, who was awarded a Second Class Medal at the same exposition for his painting “Jóvenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho” (Young Virgins Exposed to the Mob). A reduced copy of this large-scale work is also in the National Gallery of Singapore, depicting Christian virgins cornered by a gang of leering Romans. These hapless maidens look heavenward for divine intervention, but all is in vain, as the viewer sees the imminent unspeakable horror.
Works from Spain I had only known from photographs are in the Singapore show, like Luna’s “Death of Cleopatra” that has been in storage since it was painted and awarded a Second Class Medal in the 1881 Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts. Then there are paintings from the Balaguer Museum in Spain that allow even a jaded historian like myself to gasp in wonder. Walking through the Singapore exhibition made me try to remember all of the 200 smaller works by Luna that now crowd the walls of a hall in our National Museum because most of those works were studies or first drafts of the finished paintings I know only from faded archival photos and stray bibliographic references. In Manila we have the grand hall with “Spoliarium” representing the “official, public and historical” Luna, while the smaller gallery crammed with what is sometimes downplayed as “minor works” reveals the “private” or “artistic” Luna.
The Singapore show allows the viewer to see both the public and private Luna, and to trace the painter’s development in technical skill, style and color from his early years as an art student in Rome to his later years, when he achieved maturity as a painter in France, Spain, Japan and the Philippines. “Spoliarium” merely marks the beginning of Luna’s career. The Singapore show brings us one step closer to separating the hero from the painter, to properly situate Luna’s legacy in Philippine history.
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