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Regrets

When Anita Magsaysay-Ho passed away last May, I remembered the last time I had the pleasure of sitting beside her at dinner. Six years ago she reiterated an invitation for me to sit for her one morning, to chat while she drew my likeness. Not making time is one of the regrets of my life. Dolphy was another person who said I could visit and interview him, but then he passed away—again, a missed opportunity.

The list of missed interviews gets longer. It includes: Blas Ople, Salvador H. Laurel, Luis Taruc, Jaime Cardinal Sin, and Corazon Aquino. In retrospect, I can probably write a book about all my regrets—not that it would interest many people but that it is good to know I am not always lucky. As a collector of Filipiniana, I have a long list of things that got away because I was not fast or funded enough to acquire them.

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Three decades ago the biggest single collection of paintings by the 19th-century master Juan Luna was discovered in an attic in New York. The paintings formed the estate of Grace Luna de San Pedro, wife of the architect Andres Luna, who passed away in Manila in 1952. Before returning to the United States, Mrs. Luna offered the paintings to the Philippine government so they could be preserved in the National Museum. But funds were not allocated and she took everything with her to New York. There this treasure remained forgotten for decades, until Grace passed away, as did her friend and caregiver who inherited everything.

To cut a long story short, the executor of the estate alerted the Philippine Consulate in New York and got the cold shoulder. He offered the paintings to an auction house, which took one look at them—and declared them as having “no commercial value”! Fortunately, the playwright Alberto Florentino and his wife Eva came into the picture and arranged that everything be repatriated from New York to the Philippines, where the paintings ended up in a firetrap known as the Heritage Art Gallery on Lantana Street off New York in Cubao.

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While everyone was excited over the paintings, I focused on the boxes of papers that came with the collection. The only other person with me in the bodega was art historian Santiago Pilar; he rummaged through the papers and architectural plans of Andres Luna while I went through the papers of Antonio Luna.

What made my research more vivid was the fact that the papers came with a box containing the bloodied uniform that General Luna wore on the day he was assassinated by Emilio Aguinaldo’s bodyguards in Cabanatuan in 1899. The box also contained Luna’s school notebooks, including those with drawings of things he saw under a microscope. It is not well-known that before he was appointed a general during the Filipino-American War, he had taken postgraduate courses at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. He had made a name for himself in Manila for his studies on the purity of carabao milk and water from the Pasig, as well as a study on mosquitoes and the spread of disease.

I was allowed to take home a whole box of selected documents for photocopying. I took the lot to National Bookstore and discovered that my allowance would not cover everything, so I returned the box of documents saying I would borrow them again once I had saved up enough to photocopy the rest. The late Mario Alcantara, owner of the gallery, insisted that I keep the papers for as long as I needed them. But I didn’t want to be responsible for so valuable a collection, and so everything was returned.

Within a week, during a storm, a lightning bolt burned the Heritage Art Gallery to the ground. Antonio Luna’s long-lost papers, which survived the Filipino-American War, World War II, and other threats like floods, pests and humans, were gone forever. What remain are the few diaries and love letters that I had managed to photocopy first.

That box of Antonio Luna’s papers was enough for a biography more definitive than the standard work by Vivencio Jose. This again is one of my regrets.

Then there is the series of illustrations that Juan Luna made for the “Noli Me Tangere” translation from the original Spanish into Tagalog by Paciano Rizal and corrected by Jose Rizal. This was never published, but in January 1892 Luna wrote Rizal:

“I am sending you the enclosed 21 drawings for the ‘Noli.’ I am sending them to you so that you can make use of them as you wish without waiting for those of the others to whom I have already given your order. One is what they call  aqua  fortis. I am also doing the same drawing according to this process, which I will send you, if it turns out well; of making use of it for other things of Philippine interest.

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“If you wish I will also illustrate ‘El Filibusterismo,’ and if you like, give me a brief subject for propaganda, so that with 10 or 15 drawings in  aqua  fortis, a little book can be made in the style of children’s stories that are made here, sometimes in the form of caricature, sometimes in more serious style. I believe that some booklets in Japanese style with Spanish or Tagalog text will serve to educate the people who do not know how to read. My work will be gratis and the only expense will be ordinary printing.”

Only 17 of the 21 Luna drawings survive in photographs, thanks to Alfonso Ongpin. The originals were destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945. Are these really lost to history or waiting to be discovered in someone’s bodega?

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TAGS: Antonio luna, art collection, featured column, filipiniana, juan luna
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