January 20, 2010

The painting that launched a revolution

The Spoliarium of Juan Luna (October 23, 1857 – December 7, 1899) is perhaps the most famous painting in the Philippine National Art Gallery. Measuring 4 meters high and 7 meters wide, Luna entered the painting in the 1884 Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid, where it won a gold medal. John Silva, writer, museum consultant, and advocate for the arts and heritage preservation, describes the Spoliarium thus:
    The painting’s brooding dark canvas exudes tragedy. The scene is the exit room of the Roman Colosseum called the Spoliarium, hence its name. The injured and dying gladiators are being dragged in. To the far right, a woman is half-sprawled on the floor, with her back turned to us. We do not see her face, but her crouch, her hands seemingly to her face, her head bowed and despondent, reveals only sorrow. To the far left we see Romans cheering on the next batch of gladiators in this blood-letting sport. It is barbarism captured on canvas…

Juan Luna's Spoliarium
In the same 1884 Madrid exhibition, another Filipino artist, Felix Resureccion Hidalgo, also won a second place silver medal for his painting Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populache (Christian Virgins Exposed to the Masses). Both paintings were seen as a critical allegory of Filipinos under the yoke of Spanish colonial rule. During the celebration of this double victory several weeks later, Jose Rizal, who was close to both artists, gave a toast congratulating them and proceeded to declare a manifesto of Filipino political equality with their colonial masters. It was because of this speech (collected in the book "20 Speeches that Shaped the Nation" selected and with introductions by Manuel L. Quezon III) that Rizal came to be branded a rebel by Spanish authorities, and it was also soon after this speech that he began writing "Noli Me Tangere." And thus was the road paved that would lead Jose Rizal to Bagumbayan for his execution and his proclamation as a national hero.

One final note about the Spoliarium: Since 1885, the painting was in Barcelona, having been bought by the provincial government for 20,000 pesetas. In 1937, it was sent to Madrid for restoration after it was damaged during the Spanish Civil War. In 1958, General Francisco Franco gifted the painting to the Philippines and it was shipped to Manila in three pieces. It was unveiled in the Department of Foreign Affairs in December 1962.

Obviously, my photo does not do the painting justice. Despite having darkened much since Juan Luna first painted it more than a century ago, standing in the same room as the gigantic (both in size and historical significance) Spoliarium is still an awesome experience.

28 comments:

Chuck Pefley said...

You've provided a wonderfully comprehensive history of this artwork. Isn't incredible that is was so pivotal in the unfolding course of events?

Obviously you were very moved in its presence.

Leif Hagen said...

An awesome painting with a lot of history and significance! Just curious, were you sneaky or do they allow photos in the museum?

Louis la Vache said...

«Louis» found this to be very, very interesting, Hilda, history buff that he is!

Jacob said...

Well, this is certainly a fascinating post! I wondered, at first, why a painting of gladiator horror would spark revolution in the Philippines ... but you 'splained it nicely.

It is certainly dark and brooding and very dramatic. I'll have to read up on my history to see how historically accurate it is. Not that it matters, it's just I get curious about such things!

arabesque said...

i was in s.g art museum last dec, when i saw another work of juan luna,forgot what's the title but the paiting's about two women climbing on some stairs,..really beautiful and intricate,i think the ateneo arts has something to do with that exhibition also.

ρομπερτ said...

Makes one wonder whether this could have been even a photography taken somewhere upon earth, during these days.

A wonderful Wednesday for you.

Meri said...

It's interesting that art had political overtones even years ago. Some people don't seem to welcome art/social or political commentary. They'd rather just see "pretty."

Vernz said...

Woah! priceless.... indeed!

been to National Museum when I was in High School pa ... your post made me think of bringing my children this summer there!

Vernz said...

Wait... the Parisian Life is another interesting Juan Luna, it was brought to Davao some years back ... another priceless Philippine possession... Great!

Don and Krise said...

I'm sure most people are quite moved when they see not only the size and subject matter, but the historical significance as well. Even though it had to be restored it's fortunate that it is still around.

Olivier said...

une très belle peinture, assez dure, et merci pour l'histoire...

Rob and Mandy said...

Well, at least one good thing Franco did, sending the picture back!

RJ said...

I've been to the (Philippine) National Museum twice, and have seen Juan Luna's Spoliarium there! ...napaka-swerte ko talaga. U

[I believe your readers are considering to visit Manila someday! You never fail to present the Philippines in a very nice way.]

Dina said...

A good reminder, your post, about many things.

Autumn Belle @ KDP said...

The difference between a painting and a photo is often that it can evoke many emotions in a person, depending on the skill of the artist. This is a story well told and explain. A great lesson in history. Hilda, thank you very much for your comment and advice on photography on my blog post.

Cezar and Léia said...

Dear Hilda,
Very informative and beautiful post.I'm envious that you were there face to face with this wonderful painting!
Thanks for sharing,
Léia

Saretta said...

The power of art!

maricar said...

this is indeed interesting Hilda, i've learned something again from you from our history...

did they allow to take pictures inside the museums?

Kaori said...

What a dramatic painting! And the history behind it is just as interesting ;)

Halcyon said...

It looks quite dark and dramatic. I'm sure it's even more so in person.

Lois said...

It's very impressive Hilda! When I visited the Art Institute of Chicago Museum last month, I was able to take pictures as long as I didn't use my flash. They actually turned out pretty well because of the lighting in the museum. I think you did a great job photographing this painting!

JM said...

The motion feeling of the gladiators' bodies beeing dragged is fantastic! Glad photos are allowed there.

Hilda said...

Leif, Maricar:
The National Museum — both the art gallery and the archeological museum — allow photos as long as you don't use a flash.

VP said...

An impressive and beautiful painting fron one of the periods I love more. Easy to see the allegory so harshly represented, the story of the painting itself tells something about how thing can change in few decades.
Thanks for showing us this work of art. I'm curious even about the other painting, but it's not easy to findo something about this artist's works.

metromanila said...

I can clearly remember the feeling I had around 8 years ago when I first saw this masterpiece.

I used to work in this museum as trainee. I'm glad the restoration of the gallery looks wonderful.

leonnybg said...

Thank you for the story. I know i little more. :) I like the picture and your photo.

Thiruppathy Raja said...

Great post with lots of really good information!
oil painting on canvas

Mary Ann Padilla said...

This blog has been a great inspiration to pursue the dreams of every artist. Wish your efforts will continuously inspire all Filipino aspiring artists. God Bless.