Luna through our eyes

A primary “sidelight” of my recent trip to Singapore for the 2017 Roche Pharma Asia-Pacific Press Day was a visit on our last day to the National Gallery of Singapore to see with my own eyes the works of Juan Luna.

Though many Luna paintings are familiar to us as part of, ironically, our history classes, some works have yet to see public exhibition in the Philippines. Prominent among these is “The Death of Cleopatra,” which is an early example of the Luna oeuvre and was in fact the first painting of his to be honored abroad. “The Death of Cleopatra” won in Madrid when Luna was only 24, signaling, wrote Lifestyle Arts and Books editor Lito Zulueta in an earlier piece, Luna’s “rise as an artist from Spain’s only Asian colony.”

(The following year, Luna capped his European studies by winning the gold medal in the same competition for “Spoliarium,” depicting a scene from the “charnel house” below the amphitheater of a Roman colosseum. Dead, or dying, gladiators are shown being dragged roughly to a room where they are to be stripped of their garments and wares. Scholars argued that “Spoliarium” was a metaphor for the state of the Philippines under Spanish rule.)

In contrast to the robust, disturbing scene depicted in “Spoliarium,” “The Death of Cleopatra” comes off as a staged piece, with a royal attendant demonstrably shocked at finding the just-expired Egyptian queen and a maid sprawled on the floor. It is melodramatic and histrionic. But it is indeed compelling and spellbinding.

Smaller in scale and gentler in approach is the less famous but familiar “España y Filipinas.” Two versions are on exhibit: the original version painted in 1884 and now part of the NGS collection, and the more familiar version (painted around 1888 and 1893), from the collection of the Lopez Museum and Library. Two women depicted in typical Spanish and Filipino garments are shown facing steps leading to the heavens, with the Spanish “sister” pointing the way to the colonial female.

Jose Rizal, commenting on the painting, remarked that “Luna has always been Hispanophile; he never wanted to paint anything against the Spaniards.” Graciano Lopez Jaena, a writer and sardonic observer of Philippine affairs, suggested that Luna should have added a Spanish friar blindfolding Filipinas, referring to the role of the Spanish missionaries in subjugating the native populace.

Luna would later leave Spain and establish himself in Paris, where he met and married his wife, Maria de la Paz Pardo de Tavera, whom he killed in a fit of jealousy along with his mother-in-law. (He also wounded his brother-in-law, and friend, Felix.)

The move to France also ushered in Luna’s turn to a more “realist” painting style, exemplified in the NGS exhibit with the large work “Les Ignores” (“The Unknown Ones”) depicting the winter funeral procession of a humble worker, judging from the simple wooden coffin and the shabby clothes of the mourners. This for me competed for significance with “The Death of Cleopatra,” being a work that is largely unknown to Filipinos, and shows us an emerging “modernist” side to the painter who had come to be known among his compatriots as a hero not just for winning plaudits for Filipino talent, but also for serving his country in the latter days of the Revolution as a diplomat.

The exhibit on Luna and that on Indonesian artist Raden Saleh was titled “Between Worlds,” as the pair were contemporaries in not just the temporal sense but also in their artistic emergence. From their beginnings as classicists closely following the dictates of their European teachers, they veered gradually to more realist, modernist trends that sought to address the realities of their countries under colonial rule. They were thus caught between not just the shifting trends of the art world but also the push-and-pull of Europe and their native lands, defining their dilemmas as artists and as patriots.

“Between Worlds” will be featured in NGS until March. And if you’re thinking of flying to the island to catch “The Sound of Music,” I urge you as Filipinos to pay homage as well to Luna and his genius.