The Art Of Juan Luna

(By: Eric Torres)

In the 19th century, anybody in Europe who wanted to be somebody in the art world had to submit his works to the Salon. The Salon, which could make or break him, was annual exhibition run by an association of established artist largely connected with schools of fine arts. If he was lucky, his works passed the severe screening test and were shown to the public. These Salons were grand affairs attended by everybody---the bourgeoisie and the ruling classes, the culturati and the glamorosi---who could give the aspiring artist overnight success, instant respectability, social status, and money. If he won a prize, so much the better. He became, in time, part of the Establishment itself that dictated artistic taste. He had it made.

Juan Luna, like his colleague Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, was the first Filipino artist to gain international fame this way. But for Luna it was not a simple matter of gaining personal glory for himself as an artist that made him join the Salons of Madrid, Barcelona, and Munich; it was also a matter of patriotic duty. He was an active member of that band of Filipino intellectuals in Europe dedicated to the principles of nationalism in the 1880s and 90s: Rizal, Del Pilar, Lopez-Jaena, among the leading lights. It is difficult to talk of Luna without taking into account the context of Philippine political history and the unusual position he occupied in it.

If he worked very hard for success in the Salons of Europe, it was because he was a man with a point to prove: that the Filipino, or Indio as his white master called him, was intellectually capable, as good as any foreigner. His was a nationalism fought in the cultural centers of Europe in the name of Filipino self-respect and pride. To his fellow-nationalists, he grew into a symbol of the best his race could offer. In the short span of less than twenty years, Luna was much aware of his role as a leading standard bearer of his countrymen--and he burned his candles at both ends.

The first time the art world sat up and took notice was when Luna entered his first masterpiece, The Death of Cleopatra, at the 1881 Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts and won second-place silver medal for it. What was more important was that several critics thought his painting far surpassed the Italian and Spanish entries. The Filipino community in Madrid was watching closely the progress of this young painter from then on. Luna was then barely 24, an ex-naval officer and pensionado of the Philippine Colonial Government. He had briefly attended classes at the Academia de San Fernando and was now protege of Alejo Vera, one of the young Filipino so impressed Vera that he took Luna along with him when he went to Rome to undertake some commissions.

In Rome , Luna imbibed the classical spirit of Michelangelo and Raphael and worked hard---for eight months---on an immense canvas which measure roughly 4 x 7 meters. The painting, which now hangs in the hall of Flags, Department of Foreign Affairs, a gift from the Spanish government in 1958, is the Spoliarium. This was to be his entity at the Madrid Exposition of 1884.

It was an immediate sensation. It won not only the highest possible honor, the first of three Gold Medals, but also enthusiastic notice in the newspaper columns of Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris. Many of the notices were extravagant raves. Here is a sampling taken at random:

"The largest work, the most frightful, the most discussed work of the Exposition." "It is more than a painting, it is a book, a poem." "It is something more than the mere mechanism of genius, of the art composition. . . Luna is a thinker."

"The superior qualities of Luna are: as an artist, his ambition to produce great designs; to subdue the multitude with the resources of the highest class in art; serious and rough, not with vile adulations from the pencil nor of color in beautiful lines; as a painter, his energetic style, broad and noble, truthful and on occasion fantastic."

"A giant of art, a kind of Hercules, that enters furiously leveling down all the gods with blows from his club, bringing in a new art, full of ideas and forms, carrying a Spartan soul and the brush of Michelangelo. More than sixty years did Michelangelo study! How many years did Luna study? Six! Let us wait."

Such adulation is a bit lavish, you say. But his was heady wine to the Filipinos in Europe.

Consensus of opinion among critics, painters, and the press of Madrid and Barcelona was that Luna deserved, besides his gold medal, the rare and more prestigious "Prize of Honor" award, which had previously been conferred on Francisco Padilla, the greatest contemporary Spanish historical painter, in the 1878 Madrid Exposition.

It must be remembered that in this same Exposition of 1884, another Filipino, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, won a silver medal for his entry, Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace.

No wonder the Filipino community in Madrid went wild with joy. The double victory called for a celebration, and a banquet was held at the Cafe Ingles, to which were invited some European friends. On this occasion, Rizal delivered his speech extolling the two winners to such majestic heights that today it is difficult to criticize the works of Luna and Hidalgo without inviting the censure of conservative admirers of their kind of painting. Rizal interpreted the Spoliarium as a symbol of "our social, moral, and political life: humanity unredeemed, reason and aspiration in open fight with prejudice, fanaticism, and injustice."

On another occasion, Lopez-Jaena likewise read political implications in the Spoliarium, as follows: "For me, if there is something grand, something sublime, in the Spoliarium, it is because 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 more could a Filipino ask? Not only did the painting win the official approval of the Salon jury and the critics, brought its painter a small fortune (the Provincial Government of Barcelona bought it for 20,000 pesetas the following year), got him fat commissions from affluent families and the Ministry of the Navy, but most important of all, gained the respect of foreigners who came to know for the first time what a Filipino could do in the field of art. It was decisive evidence that the Filipinos were no race of savages living in tree houses, but one capable of showing creative intelligence of the first order. Luna became a living thesis that disproved the racist contentions of many Peninsular and Colonial Spaniards that the Filipinos were good for nothing, a race of mental pigmies.

Reading the comments of Rizal, Lopez-Jaena,and others on the Spoliarium leads one to conclude that the art of Luna was meant to be more than something that provided aesthetic satisfaction; it was also meant to be a species of moral truth, or virtue, as well---a Renaissance humanistic concept. In fact, the aesthetic doctrines of the Salon academicians required that art should instruct, convey noble sentiments, inspire heroic ideas, idealized nature---and that the there was a prescribed way of doing this that combined classical and romantic methods and approaches, an eclectic style called the Grand Manner.

In the case of Luna, as with most Salon painters, art could not remain something that simply presented visual order and compositional balance, and end in itself, social, and even political ends. To serve such ends it must employ technical means, dynamic and rhetorical enough to excite the emotions of the spectator and inspire him into action. A style, in short, that leads itself to propaganda. The style of the Spoliarium, and other historical paintings with similar message to deliver, draw more from romanticism than from classicism, because of Luna's passionate, impetuous temperament.

The serene grace of classicism, with its stately forms, elegantly fluent lines, cool clarity of light, was not for Luna. What he got from classicism, however, was a sense of dignity and heroic attitudinizing.

The visual rhetoric of the romantics appealed to the emotions in a broad, sweeping, compelling way---and this appealed more to Luna's nature: vigorous brushstrokes, high--lighting---dramatic chiaroscuro, or interplay of light and shadow---nervous, jagged lines, heroic proportions. Such a style can overwhelm the sense and the emotions by its sheer physical magnitude and dynamic presence. It engulfs you. And because the painting does not indicate everything with explicit clarity, it engages your imagination, sucks it in, making it fill in the areas that are not penetrated by light, and fill out those forms that are deliberately rendered as, to quote a critic of Luna's time, "incomplete indication."It is the kind of painting that lends itself to the patriotic needs and on which Rizal and others projected a nationalistic symbolism; it has the kind of visual rhetoric that helped rouse the Filipino desire to do something about political oppression.

One must not suppose that all Grand Style paintings in Luna's time were nothing but super productions loaded with historical, allegorical, and literary significance, such as The Blood Compact, depicting a certain great moment in the Philippine history, one of several paintings Luna was obliged to paint for the Colonial Government when he was granted a pensionadoship in 1987--- which now hangs in MalacaƱang. There were also Salon portraits and landscapes which conformed to prescribed norms of correct proportion, correct perspective, lifelike representation, and, of course, an air of dignity and allure. One such example is this Odalisque, which compares favorably with any similar Academic Salon job, a lot less slicker, in fact, than most. It is typical of the academic well-planned picture---the picture executed in the studio, the picture of studied effect, virtuoso skill and finesse.

An example of Luna at his most academic is Mi Novia, which you have already seen earlier this afternoon. This was entered hors concours in an exhibition---meaning to say, not for competition. It is a painting aimed at pleasing the public, using an ingratiating technique that tends to suppress the individuality of the artist. Mi Novia looks like all the other ladies of distinction that the Salon painters did; the manner is calculated to seduce the spectators by ease, glamorous cliches: that girlish tilt of the head, those dewy eyes, those auburn curls on the forehead arbitrarily echoed in the lacy, ornamental clots of pigment in the dress. The pictorial surface is slick. The expression of the face is sweetened by banal rosiness set against a winy purple backdrop that evokes the plush gentility of the second Empire drawing room. The lack of any ripple of dissonance of tension in the composition only underlines the obvious gimmick: to play on the emotional stock response on the viewer, to set the imagination adrift in reverie through the cuteness of a naturally pretty face. Compare this with Resurreccion Hidalgo's portrait of a girl carrying a flowerpot, which is just as academic. That the prettiness in both Luna's and Hidalgo's portraits is not as cloyingly sentimental as this one---by the Spaniard Madrazo---is a consolation. (An overblown piece of later academism that is simply cloying---O.A.)

At any rate, it is paintings like Odalisque and Mi Novia, which got Luna accepted in the official Salon of Paris. A daring man, Luna decided to move to Paris in 1885, where the competition was tougher. Paris, after all, was where the action was. At that time Paris was bursting at the seems with artistic talents from all over France and the rest of the world---Swiss, Russians, Americans, Dutch, Italians---including a passel of geniuses who were starting to turn the tide against the Salon aesthetics that dominated the scene: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Monet, Cezanne. To conquer this City of Light would be to deal a solid blow for the nationalist cause; it would mean greater glory than his conquest of Madrid.

Luna entered his Spoliarium in the Salon of 1886, organized by the Society of French Artists, where it competed with 2,500 other works by international painters. It won a prize---a bronze medal (third class), no mean feat.

Gradually , however, Luna realized in Paris that something was lacking in the Grand Manner sanctioned by academic circles in Madrid and Paris. The Grand Manner was getting to be cumbersome, repetitious, mechanical. The big historico-allegorical painting was getting to be a tiresome exercise on how well he could repeat sure-fire formulas for paintings the multitude would like, a mere display of virtuoso skill; it was dying from giganticism and groaning from the sheer weight of its multiple cliches. Besides, the Grand Manner subjects, gladiatorial combats, Roman orgies, Semiramis, Romeo and Juliet---what relevance did they have to contemporary life? Did one have to paint incidents, scenes, and personages from classical literature or history to produce great masterpieces? In Paris Luna started thinking about new ideas of realism in painting.

When Luna arrived in Paris in 1886, the Official Salon was getting to be stuffy with doctrainaire ideas, hostile to innovation, anachronistic, and narrow-minded---this despite the fact that occasionally some exhilarating spirit would manage to breeze in and exhibit works that had new, or "modern,"things to say. In the controversial Salon of 1863, for instance, it showed Edouard Manet's Olympia, and it was jeered by the public. Another painting of Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, was simply too much to show in the official Salon---it was shown instead in a special one called the Salon de Refusees.

Manet was among the first to strike a fatal blow against official art. He initiated two fresh ideas. The first was a new way of seeing, a new realism, or "modernism," that accepted the contemporary world, not hesitating to paint the society around him while rejecting allegorical, mythological, or historical themes. The second was, he developed a new technique in painting: Manet filled his shadows with color, contrary to the academicians who indicated shadows by careful graduations of the local tone. Manet's palette was a light one, certainly much lighter than the somber harmonies then in vogue. Manet ushered in the first phase of Impressionism. I mention all this because some lively debate has been going on hereabouts as to whether Impressionism influenced Luna at some stage of his career.

There is an appreciable number of interesting works by Luna done in Paris that precisely show certain touches of Impressionism, especially the early phase of it represented by Manet, Degas, and Marisot, with its emphasis on capturing the casual qualities of the fleeting moment and a simplified rending in the collection of Mr. Angel Nakpil which is being shown in the Lopez Museum. It presents a scene that Degas and other Impressionists might have painted---a cafe with a seated Parisian cocotte at the center being eyed by one of three gentlemen at the left of the painting (the gentlemen in question are Rizal, Antonio Luna, and Ariston Bautista). It has the touches of Manet Impressionism that only arouses one's curiosity into a thorough looking into the subject of Luna's so-called Impressionism, but until we can round up all of Luna's works---some of which are in the possession of Mrs. Grace Luna de San Pedro, whom few people have seen---our knowledge of this aspect of Luna's art remains incomplete.

As for the group of Impressionists who extended Manet's ideas, like Claude Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, with their brilliant, flickering colored lights, open-air quality, and casual renderings of scene and people, some touches are discernible in some of Luna's paintings. But Luna never quite pushed the implication of Impressionism to logical conclusions.

As for the last manifestation of Impressionism that started to gather momentum in 1880s, Neo-Impressionism, in which the approach to the painting of light resolved into highly scientific system and theories of color, Divisionism, Pointillism,etc., one can be sure Luna didn't like them. Luna saw 1890 show of the Independents held by the Neo-Impressionists and other radical groups, and wrote Rizal about it. Apropos of such Neo-Impressionists as Seurat and Signac, and other radicals who were like-wise to become the forerunners of the modern art, as we know it today---Van Gogh, Taulouse-Lautrec, and Henri Rousseau---Luna's comment is harsh, and I quote: "Some are crazy, the rest incompetent."In the same letter to Rizal, dated May 5, 1890, Luna has some unfriendly words about their bright, primastic "rainbow colors."

One very likely reason why Luna disliked Impressionism as developed by Claude Monet was that it tended to give less importance to subject; in fact, Monet and company dissolved their subjects in atmosphere, thereby giving increasing importance to pure pictorial form, pure symphonic harmonies, pure sensuous effects. These Impressionists agreed with Maurice Denis when he wrote his now famous definition of art in 1890: "Remember that a painting---before being a horse, a nude, or some sort of anecdote---is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order. "This wont do for Luna, for whom content is important. His growing interest in a new realism also would not allow for too much distortion; Monet was acceptable because he rendered human figures and objects without too much distortion;and Manet's way of painting still made it possible to convey an air of dignity, a grand attitude. Anything less than dignity or a grand attitude would not appeal to Luna's temper. Manet, as French poet and critic Baudelaire pointed out, was a"modern" who "knew exactly how to see and understand us as grand and poetic beings dressed in ties and polished boots."

Luna writes his friend, Javier de la Serna, in May 1889:

"Painting is becoming more realistic everyday. . . the tendency is toward an intangiable reality, and do not think that it is a brutal and dirty reality---no, it is a sublime reality under a new form. . . The grand painting, historical painting of studied effect has disappeared. . . the false is discredited, the truth triumphs; yes, all historical paintings are false. . ."

In A Box at the Opera, Luna produces something approaching this "modernism" a la Manet. There is a concern here for the flickering light effect of the Impressionist, although the picture is too elaborate in its use of ornamental detail to pass for Impressionist. The faces are a give away: they are precisely modeled, academic miniaturized portraits. Compare this with Mary Cassatt's At the Opera, which is completely in the Impressionist tradition of Manet and Degas. There is no attempt to glamorize or prettify in Cassatt. There is, Luna. . .

On May 5, 1890, Luna wrote to Rizal: "I belong to the dissident Salon, where Hidalgo belongs to the old and routinary." This "dissident" Salon was the one run by members of the old official Salon who had been dissatisfied with it and had formed a new association, the National Society of Fine Arts, which advocated for a slightly more liberal Salon. Luna was made honorary life member of this new society in 1891. It appears that there was an enterprising spirit in Luna that yearned for a freer, a more liberal climate, and felt that the old official Salon was getting to be too stifling.

In fact, there are two Luna's. One is the formal, the other informal. One is the Luna who projected a public image, competing for prizes and honors for his county-men, the elocutionary Luna took no chances to beat the European academicians at their own game. The other is the Luna not hampered by a masterpiece complex, who painted for the joy of it, a more intimate, simpler, perhaps more vulnerable Luna, but no less interesting and exhilarating.

This informal Luna painted several pictures, some finished, others sketchy or in the process of becoming, that reveal a more spontaneous draftmanship, greater compression, a lighter touch; their recurrent preoccupation with the casual, transitory qualities of the fleeting moment and with every-day subjects had led some people to think that they are Impressionists when, in fact, they may be looking at studies for more ambitious projects. I would say that the overall style of these pictures is largely a simplification, an abbreviation of his familiar romantic bravura technique.

A clutch of the paintings show this informal Luna, in varying degrees of "completeness" and "sketchiness" this profile of French lady which reveal the bravura technique in its utter simplicity; a euphoric portrait of his wife, Paz Padro de Tavera Luna, painted in Paris after she gave birth to their son, Andres, in 1896; this number called After the Ball, perhaps an unfinished painting; a conversation piece At the Marquis's; and this portrait of his son Andres, in 1889. The last three, again, are likely to raise the question of whether they are Impressionist or simply studies for future projects. True, oversimplification in the rendering of form is a "sketchy" characteristic of some Impressionist works, whether by Manet or Monet, but in this Manet portrait and this Monet scene, one notice that the "sketchiness" has a fuller paint body, a more decisive brushwork, than the Luna's which are somewhat tentative, certainly thinner, made paler by turpentine.

But there are those landscape, like this Puesta de Sol, and another more morose landscape in the Lopez Museum painted in Madrid in 1893, which build up a case for Luna's partial, if somewhat hesitant, attraction toward Impressionism. Why didn't he go all the way? Is it because, after all, Luna was leading member of the artistic Establishment and he, being a Filipino with a point to prove and reputation to defend, could not afford the luxury of being identified with the real dissidents of the Paris art scene who were being scorned by the Academy and jeered at by the bourgeois public---Van Gogh, Pissarro, Monet, and others?

But in 1891 Luna had more important thing on his mind than Impressionist theories. He had ambitious projects, this Luna, and all pro patria. One of them was doing emotionally--charged paintings of real---life people caught in the tangle of social ills, thus carrying further the evocative realism of those splendid black-and-white wash illustrations he had done some years earlier for Rizal's anti-friar novel, Noli Me Tangere. On May 13, 1891, he write Rizal to tell him that he is reading at the moment a book called Contemporary Socialism by a certain E. de Laveleye that expounds on various socialist theories including those of Karl Marx; that he is much preoccupied with ideas like the exploitation of the poor and the disinherited; that he looking for a subject to paint on a canvas 8 meters wide; that he has just taken a walk to a factory where he saw workers who looked like cadavers, breathing carbon and powder, enduring the unhealthy atmosphere of the place. One wonders if, had he stayed longer in Paris, he might have painted another massive, big-message masterpiece to out-Spoliarium the Spoliarium, except this time, it would be set in a dim foundry with the laborers in shabby coveralls and furnaces blazing to make the sweat of their bodies glitter the way it does on the bodies in the Spoliarium.

But he was not to stay in Paris for long. He had his own personal tragedy to suffer, as he watch in horror his marriage headed for the rocks. He suspected Paz of infidelity. In a violent moment, he whipped out a pistol and shot his wife to death, killed his mother-in-law, and wounded his brother-in-law Felix. Luna's friends tried to hush up this crime of passion. Luna was acquitted by a French court, but this tragedy was a misfortune from which he never quite fully recovered. From then on, the Luna who painted the grand Salon ceased to exist.

His last years were as full quiet desperation and hang-ups as his early years of maturity were full of triumphs.

He returned to the Philippines in 1894 after an absence of 17 years. It is during this period of his return that he did remarkable portraits, especially of members of his family, that you have just seen this afternoon at the Lopez Museum. These portraits are characterized by a gentle condor, a somber delicadeza, and a lyric elegance. There is nothing sentimental about any of them. They are not showy paintings. In his portraits of Rosario Melgar, her sister-in-law, there is attempt to "improve" upon the subject nor the glamorize it---as is also the case of this double portrait of his eldest sister Nena and his daughter Tinita, rendered in the subdued warn brown tones. This is among his last paintings.

Early in 1896, he left for Japan. Soon after he came back, a few weeks after the Cry of Balintawak, he was arrested for complicity in the Katipunan Revolt. By a streak good fortune, he was among those pardoned during the birthday of the King Alfonso XIII on May 27, 1897. The last two years of his life were devoted to diplomatic service, working for the Philippine revolutionary government. In 1898 he was appointed member of the Paris delegation to work the recognition of the Philippine Republic at the Treaty of Paris. In 1899 he was again appointed member of a delegation, this time to Washington, to press the Philippine claim for recognition as an independent republic. Both delegations ended in failure.

He died on December 7, 1899 in , of a heart attack, at the age of 42.

The very last things he did as an artist underscore the frustration, the hang-ups, of those last years. While in Fort Santiago, he passed the time doing drawings---delicate, sensitive watercolor drawings of his prison cell, prison door, prison bars through which the heads of two Civil Guards may be glimpsed. He drew ants---the ants that crawled on the floor and ceiling of his cell, insects with minutely drawn legs. From the massive grandeur of the Spoliarium to ants in a lonely cell; what a come-down was there.

But in the end, it does Luna credit that he gave up the brush and easel to commit himself completely to the cause of freedom. It certainly cannot be said of him that here was an artist who preferred the ivory tower and kept his hands clean. If the measure of patriotism is what one is willing to give up for it, and he gave up much, then Luna's was indeed very great.

*A lecture delivered on 24 October 1967 in connection with an exhibition commemorating the 110th birth anniversary of Juan Luna, sponsored by the National Historical Commission, at the Lopez Memorial Museum in collaboration with Sheraton Philippines, now Savoy Philippines.