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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Juan Luna Decoded


Let's face it.  The moment we hear the word museum, we get bored or sleepy in an instant.  'But I guess not for someone who loves History as he loves the Internet.  Okay, that's me haha.  And recently, I got an invite to be part of the Luna Walk organized by the GSIS Museum of Arts.  Without a doubt, I said yes.  I know that my knowledge on Philippine History will be enriched if I join this activity.  And I was right.

Juan Luna

But first, for those who don't know exactly who Juan Luna is, let me give you a glimpse of who he is.  Juan Luna, born in Badoc, Ilocos Norte in 1857, is an icon in Philippine history, arts and culture.  He is the first Filipino International Achiever and one of the greatest Filipino painters who have ever lived.  In celebration of the birthday of Juan Luna, on Oct. 23, GSIS organized the Luna Walk to commemorate the special occasion and remember the contributions of a great Filipino artist.  The annual Luna Walk was initiated by Prof. Eric Zerrudo in 2003.  By 2006, GSIS Museum took over, this time, it was expanded to include Bahay Nakpil, National Museum, Luna Monument, San Agustin Church, Metropolitan Museum and GSIS Museum. For this year, his student Michael Charlton "Xiao" Chua, a professor in De La Salle University, Vice President of National Historical Institute and Panelist in ABS-CBN's Bottom Line, conducted the Luna walk and lecture.

Prof. Michael Charleston "Xiao" Chua

First stop was in Bahay Nakpil (Nakpil House) in Quiapo, Manila.  Sadly, I was not able to join this part but I've already been into that place in the past when I worked in ABS-CBN.  I think it was for the story of "Fiesta ng Quiapo" as the house plays a significant role during the said occasion. But even way back, Bahay Nakpil played a great role in our country's history.  It housed one of Luna's most notable and controversial paintings now officially called the "Parisian Life".  Later on, I'll share more intriguing stories about this masterpiece. 

Bahay Nakpil in Quiapo, Manila

From Nakpil House, I met the entire Luna Walk contingent at the National Museum.  A hall is dedicated to Luna here including the great "Spoliarium".  "Spoliarium", in May 1884, was awarded the first of the three gold medals by the Jury of Honor of Exposicion Nacional de Bellas Artes held in Madrid, Spain.  It was a brutal depiction of dying and dead gladiators being forcefully dragged to be despoiled of their armor in the basement of Rome's Colosseum.  Historians explain that what the "Spoliarium" was actually telling is how the Spaniards treated us during their colonial regime.  The gladiators' plight symbolized the Filipinos' suffering then.  Professor Xiao Chua however explained that the Prize of Honor was not bestowed to Juan Luna and a lot were surprised about the result.  It's the first international award won by a Filipino and the European jurors may have not liked the idea of someone from the Philippines winning the grand prize.  This was however rectified when no less than the Spanish King himself, King Alfonso XII, in Luna's formal presentation to him, congratulated him and conveyed his commiseration over the "Prize of Honor" issue.  News of this spread and eventually reached the Spanish Senate, which rectified the situation by commissioning Luna to do a painting of the Battle of Lepanto (Spanish victory against the Moors).  The Queen Regent Maria Cristina herself (widow of King Alfonso) unveiled his painting at the Senate Hall in November 1887.  Earlier, Spoliarium’s success came full circle when the local government of Barcelona purchased it from Luna.

The Great "Spoliarium" at the National Museum

We then  proceeded to the Roundtable, this is the entrance to Intramuros, Manila via Gen. Luna Street.  I somehow heard before that it was Juan Luna's monument standing at the middle of the island but it didn't really scored well in my memory.  Oh well, but right there and then, I just realized that I've passed by this monument for four years of my life and I've never realized how important the person is standing there.  The GSIS Team put a bouquet of flowers at the monument and we all took our shots at the place. I somehow felt the importance being given to one of our heroes and important personalities in our history.  And I somehow wished we could all do these with our heroes.

Juan Luna monument in front of Intramuros, Manila

Then we entered the walls of Intramuros and proceeded to San Agustin Church which is considered as the oldest standing Catholic structure in the country.  When I was in high school I knew that Juan Miguel de Legazpi's remains, the Spanish conquistadores who conquered Manila lies there.  What I did not know is that our great artist was also buried there.  And we also paid respect to and offered prayer to Juan Luna.

Juan Luna's remains in San Agustin Church, Intramuros, Manila

Our next stop was in Metropolitan Museum where a copy of Luna and Felix Resureccion Hidalgo's "Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho" (Christian Maidens Exposed to the Populace) is housed.  The original was destroyed in a fire at the University of Villadolid in Spain.  This painting won the ninth silver among the 45 entries during the 1884 Exposicion General de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain.  This masterpiece depicted the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome. The painting show how these pagan Roman men undress and abuse the Christian women at that time.

"Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho" at the Metropolitan Museum

And with the honors that Juan Luna and Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo reaped, no less than our national hero Jose Rizal delivered this famous line from his toast speech dedicated to them: "Genius knows no country.  It blossoms everywhere.  Genius is like the light, the air.  It is the heritage of all.

Our last stop then was in the GSIS Museo ng Sining (Museum of Arts) where Professor Xiao Chua gave more than two hours of lecture about the secrets and significance of Juan Luna and his artworks, most especially "Parisian Life".  "Parisian Life" also known as "Interior d'un Cafe", was created in Paris, France in 1892.  It bagged the silver medal award at the St. Louis Exposition (World Fair) in 1904.  Inaugurated in April 1996, The GSIS Museum or Museo ng Sining was created to pay tribute to the creative endeavors of the contemporary Filipino by consolidating and defining the best the country has produced in the field of contemporary visual art.  It collects, conserves, documents and exhibits Philippine art and artistic expressions from the colonial period to the present, which includes the "Parisian Life". 

"The Parisian"

From the lecture of Prof. Eric Zerrudo, where Professor Chua has been assimilated to, three interpretations were made based on research and hidden messages dissected by historians, educators and curators.

The first interpretation is literal.  According to Prof. Chua, the setting in the painting features three of our country's patriots: Dr. Ariston Bautista Lin (right), Juan Luna (middle) and Dr. Jose Rizal (left).  These three men are seated at a corner and are looking at the woman.  Prof. Chua candidly shared that they may be talking to each other about the woman and each of them proudly saying that he dated or went out with the lady.  As to what kind kind of a lady she is, was not revealed yet.  She may be a prostitute as Juan Luna paid such women to pose for his paintings or just another lady whom Jose Rizal had a fling.  'But whatever the conversation may be, it has a connection to the personalities of the three men, Bautista Lin being a playboy, Luna being an admirer of female anatomy as depicted in his paintings, and Rizal who has a taste for international women which may be interpreted to as being a womanizer. 

The second is biographical.  At the time when Parisian Life was painted, in 1892, Juan Luna's personal life was in a bad state.  His child died.  He suspected his wife Paz Pardo de Tavera of having an affair with another man.  He got engaged with the murder of his wife and in-laws, and was imprisoned.  The woman symbolized his wife and the painting depicted his solace.

Paz Pardo de Tavera

The third interpretation is historical and symbolic.  Professor Chua revealed that based on the review made my UP Diliman's College of Fine Arts, the woman is not any ordinary lady, is not Juan Luna's wife, but our Inang Bayan (Mother Country).  The woman's reflection on a mirror depicted the look of the Philippine map, with the knees pointing to Cebu symbolizing when the country knelt down to Christianity.  It was in Cebu where the Spaniards introduced Catholicism.  The navel is pointed in Bulacan where the country's and Asia's first republic was established (Barasoain Church in Malolos, Bulacan).

The painting shows that the woman is with  someone as what the hat and trouser at the end of the seat suggest.  The one she's with is no less than our colonizer Spain.  The woman is sitting in an awkward position just like how our country is during the Spanish times.  If you notice, the woman's glass is half-filled while her companion's is full.  This is how we were treated then.  Spain benefited from our country's resources while we suffered (e.g. encomienda system, the galleon trade, forced labor etc.)

It's also a no no that a subject (person) is photographed or sketched under a line. And if you will look at the woman's neck, it only shows that she is hanged to death. Just like how our mother country was at that time. Another item featured in the painting is the newspaper L'Echo de Paris which depicted the story of the French revolution.  And as we all know, the French Revolution is what inspired Andres Bonifacio to establish the Katipunan and quest for our freedom. 

These revelations reminded me once more of what our country went through and what we should have been learning from our past.  It also made me realize how valuable the creations of our artists, past and present.  One of the participants even expressed her gratitude to the organizers as it opened her eyes on how she can teach Philippine History in another perspective, in a more interesting and engaging approach.

The GSIS Museum revealed that there are plans to sell Juan Luna's masterpiece "Parisian Life".  The government thinks the proceeds from this sale can help settle debts of the country.  To give you an idea how it's valued now, "Parisian Life" was bought for PhP 46 million from Christie's in Hong Kong in 2002 by GSIS.

Well, before you react, here's how it ballooned that much.  The "Parisian Life" was given to Ariston Bautista Lin by Juan Luna and was displayed in Bahay Nakpil for a long time.  Ariston Bautista Lin and his wife Petrona Nakpil invited Julio Nakpil and his wife Gregoria de Jesus (Andres' Bonifacio's widow) to live with them in their house.  Because the Nakpils were childless, the Nakpils inherited Bautista's house in Quiapo including the Parisian Life and his other paintings.  According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer on October 26, 2002, the one who sold the painting was a descendant of Ramon Nakpil, Julio's brother, who said that the painting is part of his inheritance.  This was objected by Nakpil heirs Francisca Nakpil-de Lange and Mercedes Nakpil Zialcita, daughters of Juan Nakpil and Gregoria de Jesus.  In the interview conducted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer then, the Nakpil heirs expressed shock and sadness over the sale and said that the painting should not be sold because it belongs to the Nakpil clan and is part of the Filipino heritage. 

In 1980, then GSIS President and General Manager Roman Cruz recommended to the GSIS Board of Trustees the purchase of selected paintings by prestigious Filipino artists.  Apart from its vision of helping define the growth and of Philippine visual arts, the GSIS considered these art pieces as some of the best investment vehicles available, believing that protection of the Filipino public extends beyond insurance into heritage.

However, when GSIS acquired the "Parisian Life" in 2002, the government agency was highly criticized and the public protested against the purchase.  Well, I don't want to dwell on politics, but from my point of view, it's inevitable that our country buys back this priceless painting.  Whether it's through GSIS, who has the money, or another government institution like for example, the National Museum, who struggles for funding, we must get back this Luna treasure.  What I am disappointed about is the sale made my Ramon Nakpil's heir to Christie's in Hong Kong.  I am not fully aware of the legalities of their inheritance, but if he really was the legal owner of the "Parisian Life" and has all the right on the painting, was it difficult for him or her to spare a little concern for the country and think what will happen if this treasure goes out of the Philippines?  Okay, granted that nationalism is not in his or her vocabulary and he or she is in so much need of the money that will come from the sale of the painting, was it not possible for him or her to make the offer first to the Philippine government, and perhaps came up with a price that is beneficial to both parties, to the so-called inheritor of the artwork and to the people of the Republic of the Philippines?  My goodness, this is a national treasure we are talking about.   

Anyway, that's water under the bridge and I guess we can't do anything about it.  I somehow witnessed how GSIS Museo ng Sining takes care and gives importance to our country's significant artworks, which include the "Parisian Life".  I wish they can keep it, so they can really take good care of it, and continue sharing the valuable lessons of this masterpiece to the current and future generations.  But if the government really needs the fund, my appeal is to restrict the sale locally and require that whoever may buy it, be it an individual or a corporation or an institution, to keep it within Philippine shores, take good care of it and share it with the rest of our countrymen as how the GSIS Museo ng Sining does.  

I agree that hindi nakakain ang painting (Painting cannot solve hunger.) but it's not only food that keep us alive.  We also need our souls to be nourished and enriched, so we can live life to the fullest. And this is what the "Parisian Life" is for -- to help solve the puzzle of our nationhood and keep the fire of the Filipino soul.

Juan Luna

I've always envied other countries, like our Asian neighbors, who give value to their cultural heritage.  And look where they are now?  Look at how self worth benefits Korean industries or the nationhood that keeps Japan on top amidst natural and man-made calamities, or the love for culture that makes Chinese everywhere influential.  And look at us, who always debated to just prioritize the current and the urgent, the rice we need to eat each day, and set aside the long term benefits of preserving our cultural heritage and enriching our national identity.  It doesn't feed the hungry body but it does nourish the hungry soul.  There are other ways to find food and this is not where it should be extracted from.  It's something to think about folks.


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