The ‘Filipino-ness’ in Luna’s Art

By John Anthony S. Estolloso

The recent surfacing of Juan Luna’s Hymen, oh Hyménée! reignited interest in the old master’s paintings.

Painted in 1889, the artwork is a classic example of Luna’s penchant for history and mythology as motifs for his canvases.

In what appears to be a nuptial scene enacted in the atrium of a Roman residence, the painting focuses on a central group of enrobed female figures throwing roses at what appears to be the bride being led to the groom. After all, Hymen was the Greek god of marriage and if the artwork was meant to be a visual ode to the deity, then Luna’s work did not fail in delivering a worthy hommage.

This reappearance of a Luna masterpiece invites once again the discerning audience to ask about our national identity in the artworks presented by our national artists. The inquiry, let alone the familiarity of the ‘canon’ of Filipino art is rather a vague point of discussion. Most people are content to gaze in awe and wonder at the multicolored plates and frames that hang in galleries rather than delve into who painted which or what; few would be able to recall names of artists or masterpieces.

Nowhere is this most apparent than in school. Try asking a random high school student for a familiar piece of Filipino art and one receives a most familiar answer: Juna Luna’s Spoliarium.

Let us revisit the artwork. If we took time to look closely and describe what is visible on the wide span of canvas, we encounter half-naked bodies dragged on the floor of what appears to be a dark room. Behind, a group of inquisitive old men peer with morbid fascination at the bodies. We read in classical history that a spoliarium was a chamber of a Roman amphitheater where the corpses of gladiators and animals killed in the games were dumped or displayed, the latter for armor and clothes to be auctioned to other slaveowners. And Luna captured this with dramatic flair.

If we analyze the basic artistic technique employed in the painting, Luna played with a particular method quite obsolescent by the end of the century. Bathed in darkness, the Spoliarium made extensive use of chiaroscuro, that masterful manipulation of light and shadow beloved by da Vinci, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. The saturated dark background further emphasizes the theatricality of the artwork: the viewer is necessitated to look at the gore and gestures of the central figures.

Then again, what is with Juan Luna’s classicism? Why the need to depict scenes from myth and classical history? Recall that he was educated at the Ateneo Municipal. His orientation of the artworld was formed in his stint at the Academy of Fine Arts, under the tutelage of Spanish master Agustin Saez. His stay at Madrid further introduced him to Spanish art and of course, continental literature. All in all, Juan Luna was a product of his times – and quite removed from indio sensibilities at that.

To synthesize: our much-touted main display in our National Museum of Fine Arts is about the macabre aftermath of a gladiatorial combat, the style with which it was rendered a revered artistic style by Western masters, and altogether painted by a Latin-surnamed ilustrado artist educated by Spanish Jesuits and art masters.

So which aspect of the Spoliarium is truly Filipino? In all appearances, the painting is much more at home in the pages of a textbook of Classical Roman history than in the main hall of an artistic repository that champions the aesthetic trademarks of Filipino culture and identity.

Yet ask the same random high school student the above question and he will give you a classic textbook answer: ‘Juan Luna’s Spoliarium represents how we were oppressed by Spanish colonialism, spanning three centuries of abuse, maltreatment, and misrepresentation.’ If you will follow up by asking him to identify a specific element in the artwork that would validly support his interpretation, he will be as lost as Ongo Gablogian in a gallery of modern art.

So where do our students and teachers get this overtly nationalistic interpretation? Luna, as painter, was mum about his own artwork – as every artist usually is. His circle of friends, however, were not so unabashed when toasting his masterpiece. Rizal saw the artwork as a symbol of “our social, moral, and political life: humanity unredeemed, reason and aspiration in open fight with prejudice, fanaticism, and injustice.” Ilonggo patriot Lopez Jaena further opined that “behind the canvas, behind the painted figures . . . there floats the living image of the Filipino people sighing its misfortune. Because. . . the Philippines is nothing more than a real spoliarium with all its horrors.”

What does not usually reach our students’ understanding is that our association between the Spoliarium and the movement against Spanish oppression was established not by Luna the artist but rather by Rizal and Lopez Jeana the audience. The force of the interpretation was the Audience defining the identity of the Art: it was Rizal and his comrades who made the artwork relevant to our narrative of and aspiration for independence.

For regardless from which period an artwork is made, the audience will view it through the lens of its contemporaneity. What we claim to be Filipino art may rest not so much on the artist’s creative and imaginative sensibilities but more on our perceptions, consciousness, and understandings as audience. We find and define what is Filipino in the masterpieces of our artists.

Luna and his newly found artwork may be talk of the town again, but who does the talking?

[The writer is the Subject Area Coordinator for Social Studies in one of the private schools in the city.]