Wednesday, March 28, 2007


BluPrint Magazine, Nov 2002

  • The magazine commissioned this essay at the height of the Parisian Life scandal, during the painting's "extended stay" at the Bureau of Customs. to put things mildly, it was hell getting the interviews. GSIS Museum Director Eric Zerrudo even had to meet me incognito (unshaven, and in house clothes!), in some roach-infested panciteria in a Quiapo sidestreet, just to avoid the paparazzi.
  • At the time of publication, i was the only writer (art or otherwise) who publicly supported the GSIS acquisition. I even ended up in a print war at the Inquirer, against National Museum consultant John Silva.
  • A week after publication of this essay, an anonymous artist (well, actually, I know who. But I'm not telling) discovered that the subject of the painting (the woman in the pink gown) was actually a shockingly precise jigsaw-puzzle map of the Philippine Islands, in mirror-image. Luzon was her torso; the Cagayan-Ilocos coastline was her decollete. Her right shoulder socket (east) was the Punta Engaño Lighthouse in Santa Ana, Cagayan. Her left shoulder socket (west) was the Cabo Bojeador Lighthouse in Burgos, Ilocos Norte. Both lighthouses werecompleted the same year as the 1892.
  • Another anonymous source later claimed that the woman's cleavage, which coincides with the Cagayan River Delta in Aparri, is the location of two Ming-era galleon wrecks, still unrecovered until today because of deep, turbulent waters.

    Parisian Life is one of only six known paintings from Luna’s final year in Paris, and it becomes a chilling diary entry when viewed in context. For 1892 was the year Luna’s baby daughter died, supposedly because her mother “didn’t love her enough;” the year he caught “his wife in a tryst with her lover Dussaq in an apartment at #25 Mount Thabor St;” the year he committed the double-murders which his career never fully recovered from despite his 1893 acquittal. Parisian Life was probably painted during days-off from work on his most ambitious showstopper, the now-destroyed 1892 People and Kings, which was almost as large as the 1884 Spoliarium—that mother of Pinoy telenovelas—but vastly more complicated.

    Why read Parisian Life as a diary entry, instead of an innocent picture of Luna ogling a whore, as suggested by people who apparently haven’t even seen the painting? Because no self-respecting whore-on-the-prowl looks dejected in a first-class café in broad daylight with two half-drunk mugs of beer on her table. Neither does she wear a man’s black top-hat on her already flower-coiffed hair, nor a man’s plaid-lined overcoat over her fabulously flirtatious Luna-Pink satin dress in couture-crazy Paris at the fin de siecle. These visual miscues simply constitute too glaring a narrative boo-boo to even slip past a Painting student, let alone a fully-inducted member of the Société Nationàle des Beaux Artes slighted by the Madrid Salon. This painting, therefore, seems more visually defensible as a lover’s quarrel, with the Pinoy ilustrados playing uzi: with Rizal pretending to be above it all; with Bautista openly salivating over the abandoned girl (or the overcoat, at least); and with Luna pensive, learning a cue from the scene, planning to leave his own wife as well. The deliberation with which the painting was executed, plus the fact that it was constructed like an exhibition piece (it even posthumously won a silver at the 1904 St. Louis Expo), further hints at the artist’s saddened resolve. It is among the most heartbreakingly confessional of Luna’s surviving award-winning Paris paintings.

    Yes, P46 million (US$860,000) is a sacrilegious sum in these difficult times. But this isn’t the painting’s fault. Shoemaker Jimmy Choo recently sold a pair of diamond-studded bridal shoes for US$1 million; Elvis Presley’s blue suede shoes are currently insured for around that much; and the best of Van Gogh’s poster-sized paintings routinely sell for over US$80 million each. The Luna’s ransom is outrageous only because our country’s public officials have, for generations, allowed the peso to weaken so much. Is 2000 ounces of gold really too big a ransom for the country’s soul? Manila used to have Mercedes-Benzes for taxis, for heaven’s sake! And while we’re here appropriating blame anyway, let’s not forget any of the art critics who have betrayed their profession, who have become complicit in divorcing Luna from the people: they, too, like corrupt politicians and economic saboteurs, deserve black candles in Quiapo for all eternity.

    And yes, the Philippines would’ve better redeemed itself if the painting went to either the National Museum or the Central Bank. But the National Museum doesn’t have a purchase fund; it can’t even afford to fix plumbing leaks or replace busted halogen bulbs for its Spoliarium room. The Central Bank still has its crypt in the Metropolitan Museum, but has long since stopped buying art. Which remaining government agency therefore has both the money and the museum to care for such a treasure? The CCP’s budget was so severely slashed it now has to lease its premises out just to stay afloat. PAGCOR has money in spades, but would it be an ethical repository of art and culture?

    Kudos then to dark horse GSIS, for mounting this brave ransom despite very the strange opposition it got (e.g., the stupefying argument to allow the Luna into foreign ownership in the name of globalization and cultural exchange; or the sanctimonious sourgraping of the very same cultural watchdogs whose incompetence facilitated this mess in the first place). With this one simple gesture, GSIS effectively jumpstarted the redemption of both Malacañan and itself: Malacañan for its shameful treatment of Luna throughout history, and GSIS itself for the multi-billion peso imbroglios implicating both the Estrada and Arroyo administrations. Redemption for both institutions may still be far away. But the spectacular ransom of Parisian Life is a rousing start to their penances.

    Redemption seems less likely for Luna, however. Mita Pardo de Tavera was still denouncing him in newspapers as late as 1988, although her ancestors already retaliated to the double-murder by destroying his early/private work (arguably worse than death for an artist), and although Luna already sent a handwritten apology 91 years earlier. But that is a private matter; blood-debts, retribution, and forgiveness are beyond the scope of this essay.

    And maybe forgiveness no longer matters? Luna’s art, corpse, and reputation have already gone through several lifetimes of abuse. Maybe he considers this penance enough already. For it is so characteristic of him to flout trends and explode into the headlines again like this, with flawless timing, barely three months into the publication of a much-awaited critical rethink, upstaging even a yearlong exhibit of most of his other Paris paintings at the Lopez Museum. Maybe it’s payback time, now. Maybe it was presumptuous of his detractors to think he’d finally shut up just because he was dead and humiliated.

    Of course, the recent media spectacle points to the silence that precedes it: If Luna was always so important, then why was so little written about him in recent decades? There seem to be two reasons:

    First, earlier commentators left such a huge mess. Luna’s art, politics, and life, you see, were hopelessly entangled with the Philippine revolution. He eventually became accessible only via towering interpreters like Rizal. Untangling this mess used to be too big a task for any single art-scholar; it even used to be impossible to refute Rizal’s ilk without appearing unpatriotic, without endangering one’s life (One leading biographer even skirted dangers by claiming that Luna and his wife “parted ways, never to live together again.” It was that bad). Admittedly, not all commentators were as deified as Rizal; Zaide in particular was always a sitting duck. But many nationalist commentators were unfortunately very much alive, and Luna was simply not worth the venom—especially not during the turbulent 1970’s, during the height of anti-Amorsolo Modernism when most artists, curators, writers, and poets were too busy either sucking up to the Marcoses, raging against the Marcoses, or being dead (to be fair, however, Imelda did more for the arts than any other advocate in the country’s history).

    Second, the heretic scholar finally arrived (academic agnosticism—the insistence for corroborative proof, regardless of who says what—is required of serious scholars. Academic heresy is consequently meant as High Praise in this essay, referring to a brave opposition of orthodoxy). Actually, someone might have prayed too hard because there came three heretics: Pilar, Ambeth, and Marian. There were other scholars who contributed obliquely to the rethink—Patrick Flores’ 1998 Painting History comes to mind. But as far as Luna scholarship is concerned it’s the Pilar/Ambeth/Marian trinity that collectively shredded a century of delusions. This also seems to be why few of their contemporaries want to touch Luna again these days. Because what’s the point? It’s like mountain-climbing after Everest.

    Anyway, the first new big-shot on the Luna crime scene was UP History Professor Santiago “Jack” Pilar, with an expensive, well-researched full-color biography/catalogue in 1980. He never claimed the book as definitive (and it isn’t), but it’s so good that it’s still the starting point for Luna research over two decades later, specially because it identifies 445 of the 500-or-so remaining Luna paintings in the world. Good luck looking for it: it’s P4000 dog-eared, nearly P7000 new, if you find it at all.

    Next came historian/columnist/ex-monk Ambeth Ocampo, who augmented Luna research with books/lectures/articles he conjured during his sporadic re-materializations. Thankfully, somebody handcuffed him to the NHI; now he’s continuously exploited in the name of God and Country. He also teaches at the Ateneo now, and semi-regularly writes for the Inquirer. Pilar and Ambeth have between them read every important news clipping, shopping receipt, church document, and gossip letter around. They’re so good; it’s not even funny anymore.

    Finally came the critic Marian Pastor-Roces, the arch-heretic herself—I say that in all reverence—through whose eyes we will view Luna later in this essay. She authored last decade’s Sinaunang Habi, that breathtaking coffee-table book we all would’ve deemed perfect if we only understood half of what she was saying. She’s apparently a jet-setting celebrity theorist now. She wrote the brilliant critical rethink mentioned earlier, called Vexed Modernity, published in the Zero-In catalogue. It’s much shorter than the previous work: this one’s only 28 pages including footnotes, block-set quotes, 3” margins, lots of pictures, and fat gutters. And it’s not even completely about Luna.

    Before you stampede for the catalogues, however, please be warned. As Hannibal Lecter would put it, “Marian Is Evolving.” Her highly compact essay requires a week of reading plus a fistful of paracetamol. It isn’t quite written in English, so it will repeatedly seduce you with a friendly layout, bright colors, challenging wordplay, and a scholarly stance. Only when you are safely hooked will it break your heart. Vexed Modernities only looks like an essay; it is really napalm, burning everything in its path.

    But let’s detour through the historians and their sources for the meanwhile since Marian doesn’t do biography (By the way, I personally don’t know these three. I address Ambeth and Marian by their first names merely because of their fame, like Madonna and Britney):

    Luna’s father was from Ilocos Norte, who migrated briefly to Zambales to trade in seafood, eventually returning home to Badoc as a wealthy tobacco inspector. His mother had Aeta blood but came from a landed family in La Union. He studied briefly at the Ateneo when his father got laid off, because the family relocated to Tondo to wholesale fish. He later switched to a naval school, however, because he needed to earn money (or so Rizal gently rubbed in). He only turned to painting after a short stint as a seaman. He enrolled at the Academia (future UP-CFA) but got booted out after a fight with the school head. He then sailed for arts school in Madrid, where he stayed for a year before following his mentor to Pompeii. He then traveled through Naples, to Rome (he was 26 when he won for the Spoliarium), Paris, Venice and the rest of Europe. Medals and glamorous orders promptly flooded in, and Europe became the “glittering stage” for an unprecedented and still-unsurpassed indio-heredera romance that was rocky enough to begin with, but which rapidly unraveled only after the death of his baby daughter. Then came the rest of 1892, the 1893 acquittal, and diplomatic work for the young Philippine Government. After the futile Philippine Mission to Washington, he died poisoned in Hong Kong in 1899, at the ripe old age of 42.

    After the murders, Luna’s in-laws, the Pardo de Taveras, destroyed all of his paintings in their possession. But in fairness to them, they adopted the painter’s son Andres when the painter’s kin supposedly cheated the boy of his own inheritance (such an Ilocano story). The Pardo de Taveras even sent the boy to study architecture in Paris and whole-heartedly supported his career afterwards. Andres brought his father’s bones home in 1920, but the government refused a hero’s funeral. After WW2, Andres—in a gesture commonly meant to anger the dead—displayed his father’s bombed-out bones in a water-bucket he salvaged them with. He maintained this display for eight full years, until the painter was finally buried (still without state honors, and a year after Andres’ own death), after a shockingly pathetic ceremony in a public school, in March 1953, a full 33 years after his exhumation.

    Luna was excluded from the National Artist Award, which would have allowed re-interment into the Heroes’ Cemetery (such lousy treatment, despite funerals being primarily for us the living). The CCP awarded him Centennial Honors in 1999, but it didn’t have the authority to provide hero status, either. Andres’ widow offered the government 64 paintings in 1960 for P531,000 total. The government refused, offering only P185,000. In indignation, she scattered the paintings abroad. Filipinos have been scrambling to reclaim them ever since. Marian, of course, zeroed-in on the ilustrado angle of it all.

    Vexed Modernity began with Documenta (Germany’s current incarnation of last century’s European art expositions), praising version 11 for being what might be summed-up as the crystallization of Rupture-As-Rapture. Marian said it worked best as a giant artistic sparkplug for the scrutiny of freedom. She asked for scholarly agnosticism, quipped about indios “out to learn white tricks,” and then promptly requested a comprehensive rethink of Philippine history because our ilustrados’ nationalism was flawed and fatal to begin with. She calmly pussy-whipped every nationalist from Rizal onwards (many of whom, incidentally, were Luna commentators as well), claiming that the reformists’ struggle was essentially unstable because they didn’t even agree on the What/How/Why of it all, and even their Who changed over time. Heck, they even mangled the term “ilustrado” itself; they thought it was a coño thing when it actually was, in fact, a very jologs thing.

    Marian condemned Luna and Hidalgo with the rest of them, of course, because their art was complicit in the shaping of this flawed nationalism. She pointed out that the Spoliarium was a fluke: Neoclassical allegory was limited to “elevated,” not “abject” states; sordid realities belonged to the language of Realism, but Realism didn’t allow allegory at all. The Spoliarium only got past the judges despite this fatal flaw, she said, because it was operatic enough and intelligent enough for the retarded Madrid Salon. She was somewhat kinder to Hidalgo, because he was a cop-out anyway (“original sin,” her words). She further argued that the Luna/Hidalgo legacies remain valuable today only because the Filipino is essentially a hero-worshipper; these legacies would otherwise be in art-history’s dustbin because: a) the Salons were unethical imperialist spectacles; b) Neoclassicism was aristocratic & anti-poor; c) only Filipinos understand what Luna really felt for the country; and d) nationalist art in Asia forbids an analysis of nationalism itself. It was heartbreaking, she said—and this was the only time Marian showed pity—for Luna to have worked so hard, only to end up complicitly illustrating the very same cage that imprisoned him. I had to agree.

    (As ex-artist Aileen Familara opined, it must have been a terrible time to be a great artist. Luna’s countrymen were being harassed, his family and friends were being swept into the emerging Philippine Revolution, and he was just stuck there in Europe doodling for royalty. Yes, he was be-medalled, but those medals were for technical excellence, not patriotism—well, he did receive a government medal for patriotism, but it was for services rendered to Spain, not the Philippines, which might’ve added insult to injury. He worked so hard on those paintings, yet they weren’t seen by the tiny people whom he painted them for. Luna himself must have felt so useless and insignificant, despite the European acclaim).

    But Marian didn’t end there. She admitted that both artists eventually made rightful gestures towards Realism towards the end of their lives. Don’t let her admission warm your heart, because that’s just a feint for her cold-blooded coup de graçe. She concluded by opining that Luna’s eventual conversion into Realism was useless anyway, because even after eleven editions in 55 years, Documenta still hadn’t successfully dismantled the Euro-American cultural imperialism that Luna was fighting against.

    Marian’s conclusion obviously dooms Luna’s work, together with that of everyone else who still hopes to change the world through art. But it was honorable of her to recover Luna from a century of cooptation. Filipino visual artists can finally see a plausible Luna now: the ornery-but-well-meaning granduncle who made the wrong moves and who’s finally coming home to die. He is no longer alien to us; we can finally learn from his mistakes. We now see that it was only proper for Filipinos to ransom Parisian Life at P46 million, because other people will just consider it a pretty picture by an exotic Old Master. Others will look at Luna and only see failure; only Filipinos can look at him and see Icarus.

    To be fair, Marian—lacerating and implacable though she might have been—was only being honest. Her opinions on the future of art are corroborated by other international art evaluators/managers. Cutting-edge Art today (if there is still such a thing) is really about socially-relevant performance, not about allegorical painting. Vexed Modernities was exactly the light we needed. It was painful, of course. But what can you do? Truth always burns.

    Maybe it’s just as well that critics, curators, and other art speculators finally turned their backs on Painting; hopefully all the politicians and artiste-wannabes finally go with them this time. Because Painting desperately needs its believers right now. It’s high time that Painters finally recognized that genius by itself (or politics, or adolescent angst) has never made a painting; that modernism was devastating for the artist-craftsman because it allowed decorators to play Painter (it even allowed subcontractors to play Architect). Painting has always been a technical discipline; its self-respect and survival lies in Necessary Luxe, in the celebration of its craft-traditions. How did painters forget?

    But not all is lost. The Haute Couture used to be in a worse predicament but has successfully reinvented itself. Painting can redeem itself, too. But redemption must begin with acts of faith.

    Are you a believer?

    Painters, to begin with, need to return to their heritage. All Old Masters were excellent formalists; none of them had lousy technique. How many self-proclaimed Painters today can even reverse-engineer something as recent and as structurally simple as the Spoliarium? What oil recipe to use, so that paint solidifies before gravity pulls it down? What chemicals, in what ratio, for stable paint layers that only need re-varnishing across centuries? What transparent red to use for blood, since Alizarin Crimson was only invented in 1889?

    The market, too, must believe in its own role. Galleries must demand pride of craftsmanship, rewarding painters who have integrity, rejecting aesthetically sophisticated pretenders who default into abstraction just because they can’t draw. Patrons, of course, must be willing to pay for well-crafted images, regardless of aesthetics.

    This is going to be a difficult and expensive process. But only with this support structure in place can Painting survive. There might not be any critics or medals around this time. It may not even be called art anymore (but that’s okay. Art is such a slimy word these days anyway, like politics or alimony). But there will at least be breathtaking paintings once again for all of you who have never lost faith in the power of one single image to change one life, one country.

    And who knows? Maybe Juan Luna will once again rise from the dead like he did in Christie’s last October, still unforgiven yet still whispering, “Change the world,” ready as ever to flout yet another generation of critics who yet again consign him to his very own Spoliarium. For who would have thought that such a tiny painting as Parisian Life could expose—just by being its beautiful, useless self—so many personal betrayals, ethical lapses, as well as malicious intent, legislative incompetence, government myopia, and a starving people’s confused hunger to never the less connect with a truth greater than itself? What critically “valid” art form today can produce a Rupture as powerful as that? But, again: it demands acts of faith.

    And again: Are you a believer?

    I’m asking because I bring you now another test of faith: another important Luna might be offered to auctioneers within 2003. This one is less controversial but more beautiful and more dramatic than Parisian Life; with a similarly impeccable provenance/pedigree. I can not say more without jeopardizing my sources. But take a deep breath, dear believer. Because if this other Luna does go under the auctioneer’s hammer, then your faith is really going to cost you this time.

    The author sends his utmost gratitude to the organizers of Locus 2 for providing a purpose and a critical context for this writing, and to art critic Lee WengChoy (currently Artistic Director of The Substation, Singapore), for inadvertently providing the courage to speak out from within Rupture. The author also wishes to thank The Lopez Library Archives, The Lopez Museum, The GSIS Museum, The Ayala Museum, PANANAW Foundation’s Eileen Legazpi-Ramirez, the CCP’s Sid Gomez Hildawa, Bahay Nakpil-Bautista, and three nameless birdies, for making this very difficult essay-cum-performance possible.

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