The demons of Juan Luna

Published June 16, 2021, 9:00 PM

by AA Patawaran

Let the Spoliarium, in its 160 x 280-inch frame of oil-on-poplar, take you back to that time of struggle in which a concentration of our greatest Filipinos pursued passions far beyond the quest for self-fulfillment

HUMANITY IN SEVERE ORDEAL Juan Luna’s Spolarium displayed inside the National Museum of the Philippines (Photo by Gem Pax)

It’s a bigger world, it seems, and nothing like the life we live today. Even the light is different, a little more romantic, but also a little more shadowy, reflective of the romantic era’s obsession with horror and terror as the hallmark of intense feelings and powerful emotions, with cruelties and tragedies lurking in the dark corners, waiting to pounce on its inhabitants on any given day. It’s nothing like the spaces we now inhabit, awash in fluorescent lighting, rid of bloodthirsty creatures big and small, sanitized, disinfected, safe, all darkness banished even in the dead of night.

The people are dead, even those who are alive, muscles taut and tense in exertion, shiny with sweat mingled with grime, eyes full of sorrow, fright, forbearance, numbness, or malice. They were never alive, in the first place, except in this deep, dark, long-ago world brought only to searing clarity by artistic imagination or recollection, a glimpse into the gloom of the inner chambers beneath the arena of death, a spectacle once enjoyed by emperors and the cognoscenti, a game people played and watched with bloodlust in their eyes. How to imagine delighting in the sight of gore in a spectator sport, of swords piercing through muscle, of animal fangs biting through flesh, ripping it apart? Hard to imagine it took humanity 1,000 years, the whole stretch of a millennium, to decide that such a game was cruel at best, evil at worst, though not all games ended in death and though skill, strength, and strategy, more than violence and bloodshed, were revered at least by the more sophisticated of the audience, for whose entertainment the players would undergo elaborate training bound to a sacred oath, the sacramentum. The game, provided its outcome is death, is only a culmination of a life spent in unimaginable suffering, in preparation for which, the player is schooled in a place that strips him of all humanity, of all mercy and compassion, turning him into a beast. The more heartless he becomes, the better his chances at victory in the arena, a victory that is, to my view, only a euphemism for the extension of his lifelong curse that ends only in his destruction in the hands of a competitor with a heart even stonier, even more absent.

My apologies to the memory of the gladiator, but this is the world I let myself in as I stand here, looking at a snippet of such a world within the larger-than-life frame of the Spoliarium that welcomes me at the main hall of the National Museum of the Philippines. This world, as conjured by Filipino artist and Philippine hero Juan Luna, won not just for its creator but for all Filipinos now and then, a gold medal at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884 in Madrid. In the same year, the silver medal was won by yet another Filipino, Felix Resurrèccion Hidalgo, prompting Jose Rizal, at the opening toast he gave at a celebratory gathering of Filipino expatriates in Madrid, to declare the victory as “proof of racial equality” or, better yet, as proof that the so-called Indios, as we were called by our Spanish conquerors, were not as barbaric and as lacking in human potential for greatness as we were painted to be.

ROMANTISCIST FILIPINO PAINTER Juan Luna circa. 1899 (photo from Lopez Museum and Library)

But other than taking my hands off my eyes to reveal to me the violence of our past that from where I stand outside the 160-x-280-inch frame of oil-on-poplar seems so distant and surreal, the Spoliarium also takes me back to that time of struggle in which a concentration of our greatest Filipinos, from Jose Rizal to Graciano Lòpez Jaena and Marcelo H. del Pilar, pursued passions far beyond the quest for self-fulfillment, which, sadly, in my world today seems to be the most compelling of motivations in the pursuit of great deeds. So comfortable we are now, yet so burdened by our personal troubles to even worry about country and countrymen, especially since we have the luxury of expressing our patriotic impulses at the click of a Facebook button! 

Luna and Hidalgo are as much Spanish glories as they are Filipino. Just as they were born in the Philippines, they could have been born in Spain, because genius has no country, genius blossoms everywhere, genius is like the light, the air, it is the heritage of all.

—Jose Rizal, Madrid, 1884

I stand here at the entrance of the National Museum, lost in Luna’s immense work, and find it hard to wrap my head around his predicament at a time when even the acquisition of art materials was a challenge as overwhelming as his artistic ambitions, and travel was limited to a few, and he, like the rest of us now, was on top of his creative desires haunted by personal demons, principally his jealous demons, which led him later, in a fit of “temporary insanity,” to kill his wife and his mother-in-law.

How much better is life now, how much worse? I have no answer. But there is more eloquent musings about our past and future captured in frames, shaped in stone, or carved in wood beyond the Spoliarium at the National Museum and many other museums and galleries in Manila and elsewhere in the Philippines housing relics of our history and heritage. 

And I will walk the hallways and let myself into the portals there, the path through which I hope to find something in common with the artists, the dreamers, the visionaries, the revolutionaries, the iconoclasts, the commentators, the creative forces who might have shaped who we were, who we are, who we might be in search of my own identity and purpose in this grand scheme of things.