Luna’s pursuit of greatness
Competing with the Independence Day coverage the other day was the news on the repatriation of a long-lost work by Juan Luna — “Hymen, O Hyménée” — painted during his honeymoon in Italy and later exhibited in the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, where it was awarded a bronze medal. The painting on view at the Ayala Museum till the end of the year gives us pause, and helps us appreciate his other works outside “Spoliarium.”
Luna’s greatest misfortune was to be canonized in Philippine art history as the greatest Filipino painter of the 19th century. As such, Luna has been fossilized in the popular mind, his reputation resting not on a corpus of work, but on one painting — ”Spoliarium.” Aside from the technical skill that went into Luna’s largest and best-known work, the horror and violence of its color and subject, the morality, historicity, contemporaneousness, and universality read into its allegorical message, “Spoliarium” resonates in the Philippines for the gold medal it received in the 1884 National Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid. Luna’s gold, the first of only three first-class medals conferred for painting that year, has not lost its shine in the eyes of his countrymen because that recognition placed Luna, an indio from Filipinas, at par with or even greater than his Spanish peers.
Also world-class was Luna’s friend and compatriot, Felix Resurrección Hidalgo, who was awarded the ninth of 17 second-class or silver medals in the Exposition, for his painting “Jovenes cristianas expuestas al populacho (Christian maidens exposed to the mob).” During the dinner given in their honor at the Hotel Ingles in Madrid, on June 25, 1884, a series of toasts were offered, one of them from Jose Rizal who proclaimed:
“Luna and Hidalgo are Spanish as well as Philippine glories. Just as they were born in the Philippines, they could have been born in Spain, because genius has no country. Genius sprouts everywhere. Genius is like light, air, the patrimony of all, cosmopolitan like space, like life, like God.”
Luna and Hidalgo besting Spanish painters at home court, produced a groundswell of pride in their countrymen that resonates in our times with Lea Salonga’s triumph on the West End and Broadway, Manny Pacquiao’s conquest of world boxing, and, last but not least, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz bringing home the first Olympic gold to a proud and grateful nation. From speech to text, Rizal’s brindis or toasting speech was not merely the first documented art criticism by a Filipino, it was subversive. Not only did he predict that: “The patriarchal era in the Philippines is waning,” but lightheaded from drink and the exhilaration of the proceedings, he added: “the Oriental chrysalis is hatching from its cocoon, the morning of a long day for those regions is announced in brilliant tints and rosy dawns.” For Rizal, the darkness of the long night was to be swept away by light, life, and civilization.
On the surface, the paintings by Luna and Hidalgo were romanticized scenes from ancient Rome, but they alluded to something else. Then as now, Filipinos read into the raw brutality of these works an allegory of the colonial condition. Those landmark paintings were epiphanies that inspired them to imagine a nation long before it came to be. When Spanish colonials like Rizal and his compatriots began to see themselves as “hijos del pais,” or sons of the country, they rooted themselves in Filipinas as their rightful country, and not Spain that they were raised to believe was the “mother country.”
Therefore, one has to look beyond the “Spoliarium.” One needs to appreciate Luna’s body of work to place him in context. Luna was recognized as the first Filipino international painter not with the gold Medal of 1884, but with a second-class or silver medal conferred on his “The Death of Cleopatra” in the 1881 National Exposition of Fine Arts. His luminous canvas hangs in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid today after languishing in storage for over a century.
From the first silver medal in the 1881 National Exposition of Fine Arts, to the posthumous silver awarded “People and the Kings” in the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, Luna racked up eight medals, five awards, and a knighthood in the Spanish Orden de Isabel la Catolica. Not one to rest on his laurels, Luna painted consistently, furiously, in pursuit of that one last laurel, the “Medal of Honor,” a recognition that eluded him the rest of his life.