The Juan Luna Gallery at the National Museum
In honor of Juan Luna’s 160th birth anniversary, the National Museum, held a tour for his work now displayed at the National Museum of Fine Arts. When I saw the invite, I immediately listed the whole family for the event.
It is a chance to show my eldest who have not been to the National Museum yet that history is real and not just the theoretical histories and things he reads in books. It has a by product and artifacts where he can not only learn but understand history, figure out what happened, and perhaps be able to apply the lessons in his life. While we know these by default, and understand it in theory, it is different when you see them in person and I feel that you realize the implications of history only when you see it live because your heart remembers it.
And of course I have a “special” interest -to see the paintings of Juan Luna who is such a conflicted personality in our history. On the one hand, he was a talented artist, internationally renowned, and a gifted painter. On another hand he is a known propagandist, a member of the Filipino illustrados who pushed for the freedom of the Philippines. Both aspects make him a hero by default. But still on the third hand, a man so volatile that he shot his brother in law, and killed his wife and mother in law in a fit of jealousy. He was quick to anger and always hurt her wife Paz Pardo de Taveraboth physically and emotionally. Its a subject that confuses most people. Does the first 2 points make him a hero, ignoring the third one? Or does the third hand invalidates him being a hero? Can you divide his personal life to his public life? What really makes a hero?
As a mother and wife, I am aghast by the historical records where Juan Luna’s lawyer argues that Juan Luna should not be punished for what he did to his wife because it is a crime of passion and that it is Paz fault for having an affair. As a Filipino, I am aghast that for all his supposed success in showing that the Filipinos are not savages, Juan Luna’s lawyer argues that he is a savage and should not be punished under the French law. And more so by the fact that the court agreed to this argument and he was freed in just 6 months.
So I wanted to see if I can feel his passion or his anger on his paintings. What I saw humbled me. Immediately upon entering the Museum, I was dwarfed by the expanse of Spoliarium. It was so massive that I began to feel nauseous, imagining the ladders the painter used just to reach the highest corner of the painting.
Truth to tell, Spoliarium felt foreign to me. I could not identify -with it being a painting of a fallen Roman Gladiator or Roman Gladiators being dragged inside the “Spoliarium” or the basement. Say Spoliarium and I would think more of Eraserheads than this scene. I can’t even associate Luna, or a Filipino for that matter, with this work.
But seeing it live almost brought tears to my eyes. I was choked, not by the people fighting for the gladiator’s chainmail, nor the woman and old man looking for their dead, or even the gladiators being dragged but the splashes of blood all over the painting. They looked so real, and bruised, not totally red, just trampled blood. Considering the whole painting, it was like a muted montage and looking at the entire painting feels for a moment, like you’re suddenly becoming deaf. I think what also contributes to my tears is the scene in the Antonio Luna movie that recreates this scene.
On another note, I was shocked to learn that they cut this work in 3 just to bring it home. They worked hard at restoring it but you can still see the lines where they cut the painting. Spoliarium is only Juna Lunas 3rd biggest painting starting from the lost People and Kings and Battle of Lepanto.
Moving on to the entire collection, we were treated to more stories about his life in Europe, his friends Jose Rizal and and R. Hidalgo and his life as he entered the famous Salon.
The gallery have in loan most of his interesting studies, his work on the ruins of Mount Vesuvius, his Japan studies, and an assortment of his other major works including Una Bulakenya, his controversial Mi Novia (a supposed painting of his wife but turns out to be a model), and his children and immediate family. While most of his work was burned down by the Pardo de Taveras, after his crime of passion, there were still a lot of the work that was left.
According to the curator, Imelda Marcos “borrowed” this (Una Bulakenya) painting on the pretense that the model is her grandmother, but I might claim it myself seeing as she does look a bit like me. :P
I was entranced by his small studies of the common people in Paris which seems to be in such a contrast with his dramatic works, they were worn out, almost faded, and also has that silent feel, as if you chanced into a personal despair that you’re not supposed to see. These were only studies but so powerful on their own.
We finished the tour in an hour and we roamed the gallery till lunch studying and trying to figure out this man who can paint such a lovely scene of his wife just giving birth, who can inspire Jose Rizal to give rousing speeches, but in the end fall to such a bitter end. It is said that when he was imprisoned when he came back to the Philippines, he resorted to drawing ants in his cell.
In the end, I’m not sure if this man is a hero. For me a hero is an entire person, able to do the big grand things, but not hiding in his superiority as a man (or in this case, his supposed inferiority). While others might give in, a hero is someone on another level, who will not give in to his impulses. Someone who is able to see the consequences of his actions, and someone able to put themselves in another’s shoes. And someone who commits a crime of passion is not a hero at all. He is brilliant, yes. He makes my heart ache with his work, yes. But not a hero at all.