Juan Luna: The Tragic Life and Legacy of The Renowned Filipino Master
This feature story was originally titled as The Painter & The Revolution, and was published in the June 2005 issue of Tatler Philippines.
The year was 1884, a glorious one for the Filipino intellectuals living in Madrid. Painters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo both bagged major prizes at the renowned Madrid Art Expansion and their countrymen were jumping with joy. Hidalgo won a silver medal (13 were awarded that year) for his work Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace where Juan Luna bagged the gold (one of three awarded that year) for Spoliarium, his colossal masterpiece named after the area in Roman amphitheatres where fallen gladiators named were stripped of their armour and weapons and then prepared for burial.
To the Filipinos in Madrid at that time, the twin victories were enough cause to celebrate; and more so because a Filipino had won a top prize in the grand exposition. Noted Spanish artists Antonio Muñoz Degrain and Jose Moreno Cabonero ranked second and third, respectively. Incidentally, Degrain is best remembered as the art instructor of Pablo Picasso.
Aside from the medals, the exposition also awards a Prize of Honor to the best work; and the Spoliarium would have been the clear winner since it had already received the top prize. Unfortunately, the jury decided not to give such an award that year. According to the book Juan Luna, The Filipino As Painter by Santiago Pilar, many suspected that the reason why the Prize of Honor was not given was because it would have automatically put an Indio above two well-known Spanish artists. At that time, the idea of a colonial subject beating its colonizer was unheard of. But then again, the Prize of Honor was also a rare distinction, one that was not bestowed every year; so it could be that too much was read into the apparent "snub".
Genius has no country; genius bursts forth everywhere; like light and air, the patrimony of all— Jose Rizal
Amid these controversies, a dinner party was held at Café Ingles attended by members of the Filipino community and their European guests. In this gathering were Luna's close friends—Jose Rizal, Graciano Lopez-Jaena, Pedro Paterno, and many more.
The Spanish art critics praised the Spoliarium for its impressive technique. In his book, Pilar cited one critic who observed, "Luna possesses a rich imagination for grand designs, and the necessary craftsmanship to integrate the varied resources of the highest category in art." Another described the painting as "full of vigour, broad and noble, truthful and occasionally fantastic." Luna was even called the "master of colour composition".
But the Filipino intellectuals in Madrid went beyond Luna's vibrant brushstrokes. Beneath the bloody image of the gladiators, they saw a country yearning to be recognized for its own achievement outside the shadow of its colonizer. They viewed Spoliarium as an expression not only of the painter's vision but also of the state of the country under Spanish rule.
During the dinner party, Rizal was asked to toast to the painting's victory. A medical student at that time, the soon-to-be-national hero had yet to write his novels, although he had already earned the respect of the Filipinos in Madrid because of his academic records and impressive written pieces. In his signature poetic style, Rizal observed that the painting is a reflection of the "spirit of our social, moral and spiritual life, humanity subjected to trials unredeemed, reason in open fight with prejudice, fanaticism and injustice."
Lopez-Jaena, known for his eloquence, was bolder in his observation, "The Philippines is more than a veritable Spoliarium with all its horrors! There it lies in mangled fragments, humanity massacred, the rights of man perverted! There is no semblance of justice for the common man and liberty is cinders, ashes and dust!"
The brilliance of Luna was further redefined as the rise of the Filipino race. Thus Rizal's famous words, "Genius has no country; genius bursts forth everywhere; genius is, like light and air, the patrimony of all."
Lopez-Jaena chose to counter Rizal's speech. "It's time to amend the error of our history by stating that before the Spaniards, this nation possessed a civilization of a high degree of refinement, and linked with the cultures of China, India and Japan with whom it maintained friendly relations."
The members of the press who were present during the gathering were quick to report on the subliminal message of Rizal's speech. When his family in Calamba learned of the incident, they told Rizal not to come back to the Philippines for in the eyes of the Spaniards, he was now a subversive. Thus began young Rizal's quest for independence.
"So you see, it all started with the Spoliarium. After his speech, life was never the same for Rizal. The Philippine Revolution was inspired by a painting," said John Silva, senior consultant to the National Museum.
BLOSSOMING IN ROME
Artist Juan Luna was born in Badoc, Ilocos Norte in October 23, 1857. The young Juaning, as he was fondly called by his father, was the third of seven children. He first studied at the Ateneo Municipal, after which he moved on to the Escuela Nautica de Manila to become an apprentice officer, a position that took him to many places in Asia. But every time he'd come back to Manila, Luna would take painting lessons at the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura.
His first art tutor was Don Lorenzo Guerrero, who immediately spotted the young painter's potential. It was he who convinced Luna's parents to send the young man to Spain to further hone this talent. Thus in 1877, Luna left for Barcelona together with his brother Manuel to study at the San Fernando School of Fine Arts in Madrid.
In Spain, Luna's talent quickly became evident. In his first year in school, he immediately bagged the first academic prize. Even while still in school, he took private lessons under Alejo Vera, a famous contemporary painter in Spain. As expected, Vera was deeply impressed with Luna's skills, so much so that when he had to undertake commissions in Rome, he would take his student with him.
Rome to Luna was like a playground to a toddler. While he learned valuable insights in Madrid, Pilar wrote that the artistic freedom in the Italian capital made Spain look like a "fickle-minded stepmother."
Luna loved the grandeur of Rome. The young painter was in his early twenties and adored the liberal spirit that triggered his creative mind. He was enthralled with the works of the Masters and openly imbibed the passion of classical painters like Michelangelo and Raphael.
The environment was so rich and conducive to self-expression that most of his winning works were created in Rome. This was where he painted Daphne y Cleo and The Death of Cleopatra.
Daphne y Cleo was his entry to the Liceo Artistico de Manila where he won a silver palette while The Death of Cleopatra won him his very first international prize, a silver medal from the Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid.
While the beauty of Rome uplifted the spirit of the Filipino painter, the same could not be said of his living conditions. For amid the blossoming artistic vision was the most pathetic work environment. How such masterpieces came out of a dingy neighbourhood, only the brilliance of Luna would know.
The artist lived in Via Margutta, a shabby alley where horsemen would park their horses, the latter being the mode of city transportation at that time. The place smelled of animal dung the whole day, and pedestrians had to shield themselves from instant showers since stallions were given their morning baths in the same alley.
Luna lived in dire poverty during his first few months in Rome and it was amid such surroundings that he painted The Death of Cleopatra, the canvas that gave him his first international prize in 1881. According to Pilar, the painting was described by critics to be "very rich in hues". He added that it surpassed the paintings submitted by Italian and Spanish artists and that it missed the gold medal by only three votes.
His silver medal in the Madrid Art Exposition brought Luna instant fame. All of a sudden, the art guilds in Europe were very curious about the young Filipino painter. His rise to fame earned him a four-year pension from the Philippine colonial government. Under such obligation, the artist was to paint a canvas for the Spanish government. Later on, instead of painting only one, Luna ended up doing three.
With his monthly stipend, the artist no longer worried about his day-to-day expenses and was all set to embark on his next project. This time, he was more ambitious. While basking on the success of The Death of Cleopatra, the artist was already conceptualizing the gory images for the Spoliarium.
BEHIND A PAINTING
The idea came from a book by Charles Louis Dezobry entitled Rome in the Time of Augustus; Adventures of Gaul in Rome. In the story, the lead character is awakened by crying voices from the Roman amphitheater. When he goes to the basement to check, he is met by a tragic scene—a wounded gladiator crying in pain as members of his family mourned by his side. The artist decided to seize that painful moment on a huge canvas. The result was a remarkable work of drama, pity and terror.
And while the book may have given him the idea, Luna, according to Pilar, must also have been strongly influenced by his grief over the death of his favourite brother Manuel, who was just 11 months older. They both went to nautical school and then to Spain to pursue their respective crafts. Luna became a painter while Manuel became a violinist.
While Luna painted The Death of Cleopatra in secrecy (no one, not even his artist-friends knew of his plans of taking part in the exposition) the Spoliarium was publicly in progress. Visitors flocked nonstop to the artists' humble workshop in Via Margutta. There were avid Luna watchers that monitored every line in his drawing, every brushstroke from his palette.
According to Carlos Quirino in the book Juan Luna, the Story of the Great Filipino Painter, the artist used up over 100 sketches before the entire canvas was completed.
A PAINTER'S JOURNEY
After his Madrid victory, Juan Luna sought to imbibe the artistic environment of Paris this time; and so he opened a studio at 65 Boulevard Arago in 1885. Other Filipino expatriates had also been lured to the City of Lights and in Luna's next atelier, at 175 Boulevard Pereire, the Filipinos in Paris would congregate, eventually organizing themselves into the Indios Bravos.
The next year was an eventful one for Luna. The Provincial Committee of Barcelona bought the Spoliarium for 20,000 pesos and he married Paz Pardo de Tavera, by whom he had a son named Andres. The marriage, however, was ill-fated. On September 23, 1892, in a jealous rage, the artist killed his wife and mother-in-law and wounded his brother-in-law Felix. There are two versions of what happened next. One says that a few months thereafter, on February 7, 1893, the French court acquitted Luna of the charge of murder and parricide. He must have had enough of Paris, as the painter took his son and moved back to Madrid five days after his acquittal. Historian Ambeth Ocampo has presented evidence that Luna had actually been found guilty, but because it was a crime of passion, was given a lenient sentence, the banishment from Paris being one of the conditions.
After 17 years of being away, he came home on April 27, 1894 and did some paintings of Philippine scenes. Two years later, he was arrested for suspected sedition. His brother Antonio was an active participant of the insurgent Katipunan movement. Fortunately, Luna was among those pardoned during the birthday of King Alfonso XIII on May 27, 1897; and on the following month, he again left for Spain. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Luna was appointed delegate to the Paris Convention which worked for the diplomatic recognition of the Philippine Republic.
Luna died in Hong Kong on December 7, 1899, upon hearing of his brother's assassination by soldiers loyal to General Emilio Aguinaldo. He was 42. At first he was buried at the Happy Valley cemetery, but his remains were exhumed in 1920 and kept in the house of his son. Later, they were transferred to a niche at the Crypt Chapel of San Agustin.
The Spoliarium was given to the Philippines by the Spanish government in 1953 as a sign of goodwill. It made the rounds of the different provinces before going under the care of the National Museum. Sadly, the canvas had to first be cut in four pieces in transport. The cuts are visible to this day.
Juan Luna, The Filipino As Painter by Santiago Pilar
The Art of Juan Luna by Eric Torres
Juan Luna, The Story of the Great Filipino Painter by Carlos Quirino
- ImagesLopez Museum and the National Museum