Interpreting Luna’s paintings
“Century of Light” is the joint title for two landmark exhibitions at the National Gallery Singapore: “Colours of Impressionism” features a survey of French impressionist painters according to the predominant colors they used at various stages in their development, and “Between Two Worlds” features the extraordinary lives of two 19th century painters, Raden Saleh of Indonesia and Juan Luna of the Philippines. Both artists created iconic works that represented the idea of nation and led to their being acknowledged as national heroes in their respective countries. Naturally, I spent more time in the Luna section of the exhibits, but viewed his paintings in a new light after putting these in the context of the development of art in 19th century Southeast Asia and France.
Hung side by side on one wall are two versions of Luna’s “España y Filipinas (Spain and the Philippines)” also known under its longer more descriptive title “España guiando a Filipinas al camino de progreso (Spain Leading the Philippines on the Road to Progress).” Most known and reproduced, of course, is the version on loan from the Lopez Museum and Library in Manila. This undated work (probably painted in Paris circa 1888–1893) depicts two women: a fair-skinned one dressed as an allegory of Hispania guiding another with darker skin, wearing the Filipina everyday dress of the period, up a staircase toward the rising sun.
In 2012, an earlier version of “España y Filipinas,” signed and dated 1884, surfaced in Spain and was later acquired by the National Gallery Singapore. The second version, documented in a Barcelona magazine in 1886, sparked off additional background research, revealing that — contrary to popular belief — Luna made copies of his own work, and that there were at least six versions of “España y Filipinas.” Only three are extant: the 1884 work presently in the National Gallery Singapore; a large canvas, dated 1888, presently in the collection of the Prado, on loan to the Ayuntamiento de Cádiz; and the undated, reduced copy of the 1888 work, presently in the Lopez Memorial Museum that found its way to Manila after it was deaccessioned by the Museo Balaguer in Spain.
“España y Filipinas” was entered in the 1888 Exposición Universal of Barcelona as well as the 1893 Exposición Historico-Natural y Etnografica de Madrid. The painting is referenced in the Filipino reformist paper in Spain, La Solidaridad, which reproduced a speech Graciano López Jaena had delivered on Feb. 25, 1889, at the Ateneo Barcelona discussing the Philippines’ participation in the Universal Exhibition of Barcelona:
“Had it not been, gentlemen, for Luna’s immortal genius which contributed to that contest his painting entitled Spain Leading the Philippines on the Road to Progress done with masterful but light strokes and revealing a genius’ brush whose bold colors produced marvelous effects; it has a surprising brave perspective, one of the enchantments of the art and glory of the Philippines—had it not been for that, there would have been no exhibit from the Islands worth seeing. However, I must point out a defect in it. Though incompetent, I take the liberty of criticizing the painting of the great artist: it lacks a most important detail: a friar on the third step blindfolding the india with a handkerchief so that she would not see the road to glory to which Spain is leading her. (Great laughter, deafening and prolonged applause).”
We see these paintings today as works of art but what did they mean at the time the paintings were made? Do the 19th century meanings read into the work and hold true in the 21st century? What do the paintings say about Luna’s ideas of independence? Rizal, for example, expressed in a letter to Ferdinand Blumentritt dated April 10, 1889, that: “Luna has always been a Hispanophile; he never wanted to paint anything against the Spaniards; his painting ‘España y Filipinas’ shows them on the road to the temple of glory, carried by that, now he is doubtful, he does not know what to think or say.” Paintings can be read in many ways and that’s what makes them so engaging. What did Luna want to say in his paintings? What did viewers read into Luna’s paintings? Time to look again at old paintings to find something new.
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