Filipino artists

‘Painter as hero’: How Juan Luna first awakened the Filipino spirit

Lance Spencer Yu

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‘Painter as hero’: How Juan Luna first awakened the Filipino spirit

Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

'Genius has no country, genius bursts forth everywhere, genius is like light and air, the patrimony of all: cosmopolitan as space, as life and God,' Rizal says of Luna

MANILA, Philippines – When you think of Philippine independence, who comes to mind?

Is it Andres Bonifacio, with his bold battle cry amid the pealing of church bells? Perhaps Emilio Aguinaldo, who steered the fledgling republic in its first imperfect years? Or maybe Jose Rizal, who sooner laid down his life than forsook his country?

There are stories of men storming across bridges and barricades. There are others of men dying for their country. But there is also one of a hero who, through sheer brilliance, first forced the world to gaze upon a Filipino as their equal: Juan Luna. 

“We were starting to see ourselves as a people, not just through the lens of our colonizers. And here was a man who had undeniable genius,” Jei Ente, assistant curator at the Ayala Museum, told Rappler.

“Regardless of what they can say about the ‘race’ of the Filipinos, here was Juan Luna debunking all of it: what the capacity and the capabilities of Filipinos, of the ‘brown man,’ were. Here he was, standing above all of his European contemporaries.” 

This is the story of Philippine independence from an artist’s eyes, retold on the 125th birth date of the nation. And it starts with the homecoming of Luna’s long-lost masterpiece.

‘Holy grail of Philippine art’

Sometimes, we need a reminder to remember our past. This time, it came in the form of a cultural treasure rediscovered after disappearing more than a 130 years ago. 

The holy grail of Philippine art, they called it. The find of the century. Ineffable. A true sight to behold. And yet, this all came short of unraveling the mythical air behind Juan Luna’s missing masterpiece: Hymen, oh Hyménée!

‘LOST MASTERPIECE.’ After disappearing for 132 years, Juan Luna’s ‘Hymen, oh Hyménée’ is on display for the first time ever in the Philippines. Lance Spencer Yu/Rapppler.

The quest to find it is remarkable on its own, but that is a separate story to tell. It has since been reopened to the public in an exhibition titled “Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero” at the Ayala Museum on Monday, June 12.

The painting, feared to have been destroyed during the revolution, is hailed by many art collectors as the “holy grail of Philippine art” – due to both Luna’s brilliance and the air of mystery surrounding the piece.

By the time he had painted Hymen, oh Hyménée!, Luna had already made a name for himself. Five years back, he had won gold and international acclaim with Spoliarium. But it was this piece, which won bronze in the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, that cemented his status as a master painter.

The artwork, which depicts what looks to be a Roman wedding feast, is splendid, celebratory, and full of hope. But staring at it, one might struggle with seeing themselves in the work. We don’t see a typical Filipino scene in the painting, which is thoroughly Western in its style. 

“It’s so foreign, even if it’s Juan Luna. He has a lot of foreign or European-inspired works. But when we know the story of this painting, we know the story of his time,” said Ente, who was part of the team that set up the painting’s exhibit in Ayala Museum.

Luna worked on the painting while deep in the throes of love, during his honeymoon trip with his wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera, daughter of the Grand Inquisitor of Spain. 

Some experts believed that it may have been a gift to Paz. The imagery too might mirror the artist’s own wedding to his wife – one that, at first, drew heated disapproval due to their different social status and so-called “races.”

“In the context of ancient Rome, where only Roman citizens were allowed to marry, marriage was a significant rite of passage that solidified one’s status as a full citizen with all the associated rights and privileges. This rite was particularly significant for Luna, since he came from a society where race prevented marrying into a higher class,” explained Kenneth Esguerra, senior curator of the Ayala Museum in a documentary.

“By marrying Paz, Luna transcended social barriers and overcame colonial limitations. He was able to bridge the social divide and become a global citizen,” he added.

And it was this sense of overcoming “colonial limitations” that remained a constant theme of Luna’s life as a painter in Spain at a time of great racial divides.

(READ: ‘Holy grail’: Juan Luna’s lost masterpiece revealed after 132 years)

‘Luna, the painter as hero’

Juan Luna hailed from the sleepy town of Badoc, Ilocos Norte – or, as the Spanish called it, the “wrong part of the island of Luzon.” 

Traveling to Manila and then Madrid, Luna studied under art school after art school, winning recognition but never quite finding the teacher he needed. But he would soon find his mentor in Alejo Vera, who painted historical scenes to perfection. And it showed in the works that set up Luna’s meteoric rise to the top of the European art scene. 

The year was 1881, and Luna was just 24 years old when he painted The Death of Cleopatra. The work, depicting the Egyptian queen moments after death, garnered Luna his first major award, a silver medal in the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes.

But it would be in the next Spanish national exhibition that Luna would cement his name – and awaken the Filipino consciousness. 

In 1884, Luna unveiled Spoliarium, winning a gold medal and beating out other Spanish artists. In dark, harsh hues, the painting depicted dying Roman gladiators being stripped of their spoils, their weapons, their armor. In an unlit corner, a woman weeps over a body.

SPOLIARIUM. Presentation of the Boceto of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium at the Salcedo Auctions on August 30, 2018 in Makati City. Alecs Ongcal/Rappler.

In the same exhibition, Filipino painter Félix Hidalgo also won a silver medal for his Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho, which showed Christian female slaves being unclothed and eyed by Roman men.

But Luna didn’t speak of anything political or patriotic when he won as a Filipino artist – or in the terminology of the time, an “artist from the Philippine islands.” Neither did Hidalgo.

It was Rizal who invoked the power within these paintings, the messages that lay just beneath the brushstrokes. 

In a congratulatory toast to Luna and Hidalgo, Rizal spoke with eloquence and boldness, saying that the two paintings embodied “the essence of our social, moral and political life: humanity in severe ordeal, humanity unredeemed, reason and idealism in open struggle with prejudice, fanaticism, and injustice.”

“Genius has no country, genius bursts forth everywhere, genius is like light and air, the patrimony of all: cosmopolitan as space, as life and God,” Rizal said of Luna.

Luna never quite became as vocal with his political views as the likes of Jose Rizal or Marcelo H. del Pilar. He never took up a rifle in defense of the nation, unlike his fiery brother Antonio. But he had always allied himself with the members of the Propaganda Movement. In 1899, under Aguinaldo’s government, Luna served as a member of delegations that worked on the diplomatic recognition of the Philippines.

‘He gave them something to believe in’

In many ways, the triumph of Luna over his Spanish contemporaries became a turning point in how Filipinos perceived themselves.

“You can tie it to the whole story of how Juan Luna was part of that list of important people who really gave us the courage and the belief that this fight is actually worth fighting for – for this nation, for this representation, this self-erudition, self-acknowledgement,” Ente said.

When we study our history and how we became a nation, we look at our military history. We study the battles. We remember the people who died. Who shot this captain? Who won the battle in this province or sea?

While plenty of important battles were fought for Philippine independence, perhaps an equally important detail is where this sense of peoplehood first came from.

SPIRIT. This installation at the Ayala Museum, with Juan Luna in the center of the room, stands as a metaphor for the Filipino spirit. Lance Spencer Yu/Rappler.

“But what makes these men go through these battles? It has to be a belief. There has to be something that they should have believed in – something intangible, something inner, like a reality that happens inside before it can manifest externally through bravery, through martyrdom.”

The revolution would follow soon after Luna had first stirred a whole nation’s sense of pride. Seven years after Hymen, oh Hyménée! brought the talent of the Philippines to the world, the first gunshots of independence rang out.

“For generations and for centuries, as a colonized people, we were taught we were of this level and we were subjugated. But for a painter – for a Filipino – to break through a very elite and very closed-off world, such as the world of fine arts, that must have meant something to his peers, who were also starting to feel that we should be recognized with our own voice,” Ente said. 

“He gave them something to believe in.” –

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Lance Spencer Yu

Lance Spencer Yu is a multimedia reporter who covers the transportation, tourism, infrastructure, finance, agriculture, and corporate sectors, as well as macroeconomic issues.