Saturday, September 20, 2014

Following Juan Luna's tracks

For some reason, this year (so far) has been about me (and my museum-hopping friends) unintentionally going to locations connected with the famed Filipino painter, Juan Luna. For the past few years, it's always been about Jose Rizal... but things are different this year. It's quite curious really. I just noticed it while going through the pictures I've taken during my historical/cultural adventures.

During the epic Ilocos road trip, Ate Bing and I visited Juan Luna's birthplace in Badoc, Ilocos Norte. Unfortunately, the house was being repaired (not surprising after the recent typhoons) and so we could only look at the fa├žade under the protective shade of a mango tree across the street. 

While looking on at the house, Ate Bing and I were able to talk with a tricycle driver who was also watching the goings-on with the construction of the house while seeking shelter under the mango tree. According to him, the house wasn't there when he was a child; it was previously a vacant lot. The former First Lady Imelda Marcos, according to the tricycle driver, launched the project to rebuild the house. The structure that's presently standing on the property was based on pictures taken by a neighbour (I think the owner of the house right across the street) when members of Juan Luna's family were still staying there.

But before this drive-all-I-can adventure, I was at the National Museum's art gallery with my museum-hopping friends to check out Juan Luna's obra maestra: the Spolarium. This painting never ceases to amaze me, not only because of the intricate details and the highly emotional and gruesome scene but also because it's so huge! I think this must be the largest painting I've seen as a child and it has left a significant impression on me. So just wait until I've seen the Sistine Chapel... the inner child will surely gasp and be amazed (and will talk about that ad nauseam).

Now that I've seen this painting at least twice at the National Museum, it was time for me to look at the details. I'm pretty sure that Juan Luna painted this from his imagination or from a recreated scene... not from the actual battleground because he's a few centuries too late to have seen an actual gladiator match, yeah? 

Viewers have a penchant for looking at the painting in a nationalistic context: for instance, the painting is supposedly a symbol of the Filipino struggle for independence from Spain. If that's the case, why did Luna have to show a fallen gladiator? If he really was intending to symbolize the Filipino fighting spirit, did he mean that the country's road to independence would lead to utter failure? So my guess is this: he wanted to paint an emotionally charged scene that spectators normally didn't see in a gladiator match (a post-credit scene, perhaps) to get noticed by judges in the arts competition he entered. Although his painting might not have been about the path to independence, he wanted to prove that the Filipino is world-class and can be as good or even better than the colonisers.

On the same day as the museum-hopping expedition to the National Museum, we went to the San Agustin Church. Walking around the crypt, I noticed a small spot high up, adorned with flowers. Taking a closer look, I realized that I was looking at the place were Juan Luna's remains now rest.

Unlike Jose Rizal or Andres Bonifacio, Juan Luna's resting place wasn't an open-air space that people can visit frequently. His was in a crypt in the Philippines' longest standing stone church, a structure that has been through earthquakes, fires, and wars. A place which, like his art, has withstood the test of time.