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Juan Luna, painter and patriot

Updating my travel history for the past 10 years, for future reference when applying for visas, I was surprised to realize that I had made six short trips to Singapore in the past 10 months. In all those visits, mostly for work, I made it a point to spend time in the National Gallery of Singapore, which has a remarkable collection of Philippine art.

The National Gallery, an imposing court building that was turned into a museum, recently hosted a representative, but not so impressive, show of French Impressionists from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. What drew the crowds were not the third-rate French works, but the first-rate and never-before-seen works of two 19th-century Southeast Asian painters: Juan Luna of the Philippines, and Raden Saleh of Indonesia.

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It is a pity that, for insurance and other logistical concerns, the Saleh show could not be replicated in Jakarta. Neither could the Luna show be transferred whole to Manila.

Of course, Luna’s “Spoliarium” (1884) was too big and precious to be loaned to Singapore, so the museum did the next best thing — by taking a high-resolution reproduction in Manila and projecting it on a screen at the Singapore exhibition. Saleh’s 1857 painting “The Arrest of Pangeran Diponegoro” could be considered as Indonesia’s “Spoliarium”; it was smaller, but was not allowed out of the Presidential Palace.

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The reception to these two paintings is worth studying, because the “Spoliarium” is available to the public in the National Museum of the Philippines, while the “Diponegoro” is mostly known through reproductions. You need to be able to get inside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta to see the original.

Do we value something more because it is familiar and accessible, or because its magic comes from it being inaccessible?

There are three Luna paintings still on show in Singapore: an early work depicting a young boy with a violin, who I presume was his brother Manuel; and two, of perhaps half a dozen, versions of “España y Filipinas,” one owned by the National Gallery of Singapore, the other on loan from the Lopez Museum in Manila. I never tire of calling on these two paintings on every visit to Singapore, because each new viewing makes me see something I had not noticed or thought about before.

In the allegory of “España y Filipinas,” Spain, the figure on the left, wears a red gown, while the Philippines, on the right, is dressed in blue. Both ascend the steps toward the crack of dawn, the sunrays shining through the darkness of night.

It is a coincidence, of course, that the composition and colors in “España y Filipinas” resemble those in the present flag of the Republic of the Philippines, which was forged in the crucible of the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War. But it is uncanny that, if the painting “España y Filipinas” is laterally inverted, with the red field at the top, it resembles the Philippine flag in time of war. It can be argued, too, that if you flip the painting on the opposite side to have the sun to the left, then you will have our flag with the blue field up, to herald a time of peace.

It is significant that, in 1899, Luna visited Litomerice in what is now the Czech Republic, and while there presented Jose Rizal’s friend Ferdinand Blumentritt with a small watercolor depicting the Philippine flag with the blue field on top. One could say that “España y Filipinas” was an allegory of the Philippines then struggling for freedom, while the watercolor presented to Blumentritt depicted a stillborn freedom as the Philippines passed from one colonial master, Spain, to another—the United States of America.

Then again, I may just be overreading, and should focus on the historical Luna instead and leave the art criticism to those more competent to do so. Luna is both a painter and a patriot, and we have a problem mixing the two when looking at his art. I guess nobody said it better than Graciano López Jaena, who scribbled these lines in Luna’s album:

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“We are the sons of the century of light, let us be sons of light;

“We are the sons of the century of progress, let us be sons of progress;

“We are the sons of the century of liberty; let us be sons of liberty;

“Liberty and progress are sons of revolution, let us be sons of revolution.

“Unite to your title of painter that of liberator of your people.”

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Amberth R. Ocampo, juan luna, Looking Back, National Gallery of Singapore, Spoliarium
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