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Luna y Novicio, Juan

Badoc (Philippines), 24.10.1857 - Hong-Kong (China), 7.12.1899

The Hispano-Philippine artist Juan Luna is an outstanding figure in the singular chapter of Spanish painting's history that opened with Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and drew to a close with Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). He was trained in accordance to the national criteria of technical mastery, the study of historical models and noble artistic competition; as a result, Luna's output was tailormade for the system developed to promote artists during the Spanish Restoration (1874-1931). The prizes he won in Spanish and international public competitions, as well as the major public commissions—landmarks of his oeuvre—that carne his way, brought him renown. However, his fame was overshadowed by the incomprehension and tepid reception that accompanied his work, owing to his compositional audacity and narrative boldness, as well as his obvious ideological commitment, first to the Filipino ilustrado class and subsequently to the Philippines' independence from Spain. His controversial and hot-tempered personality, and his sophistication and love for the mores of the cosmopolitan world, made him an exceptional figure. This essay attempts to trace, albeit schematically, the milestones of Luna's public trajectory in Spain to try and obtain a clear idea of the influential role he played in the institutions of his time.
There is no consensus on the date of Luna's arrival in Spain. Contrary to the mainstream view that locates this event in 1877, it is possible that the artist reached the country in the middle of 1871, as surmised from a written re-cord in the archives of the Museo Nacional del Prado listing a Juan Luna y Novicio as a copyist in October of that year. Whether in 1871 or 1877, it must have been after his arrival in Madrid that Luna developed a deep respect for Eduardo Rosales (1836-1873), or rather for his artistic legacy, since Luna always saw himself as a disciple of Rosales' close friend, Alejo Vera (1834-1923). Rosales' sketchy, non-academic style left a deep impression on Luna's under-standing of painting and influenced his artistic trajectory. His admiration of a style that had a long tradition in the history of Spanish painting stood him in good stead and was key to the young man's smooth insertion into Madrid's art scene. It must have also spurred his contact with Vera and the influence the latter exerted on his career. That Vera took the young Luna with him to Rome in 1878 and introduced him to the community of Spanish artists there is testament to the established relationship between a student and his master. Furthermore, Vera probably covered all their expenses from the moment he was awarded a government stipend to work at the Spanish Academy in Rome, and in return, Luna served as his assistant. This manner of travelling to Italy, at the expense of a friend, is reminiscent of the case of Rosales, who went to Rome in 1857 without any official financial support, and whose experience there proved to be among the most decisive in determining the recent course of Spanish painting. Just like Rosales, Luna undertook the trip without any clear form of institutional backing or public funding, and it would be his artistic endeavours in Rome that earned him the extraordinary support he was offered by the Ayuntamiento de Manila (City Council of Manila).
After Vera's return to Spain, Luna stayed on in Italy with the Benlliures, a family of artists well known for their liberal ideology. There he started to create works that offered scope for political interpretation, a theme he would explore and develop throughout the first decade of his career. For an ilustrado such as Luna, images of a decadent Roman Empire could be readily assimilated into his own political ideology: a narrative of persecution that demanded greater attention to the Philippines' role in the Spanish context and that, once set in motion, was hard to reverse. Beneath the attractive, academic surface of Cleopatra, also known as La muerte de Cleopatra (The Death of Cleopatra), or Spollarium itself, behind the tunics of the vestal virgins and the racy Roman dancers, lies an implied critique of the decadence of the old and already ramshackle Spanish Empire—commensurate to the Roman Byzantium—and its steady drift away from its easternmost outpost, the Philippines. Some of the works he painted are logical outcomes of his apprenticeship under Vera, including La belleza feliz y La esclava ciega (The Happy Beauty and the Blind Slave), one of the canvases he submitted to the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Exhibition of Fine Arts) in 1881. The work was inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton's book, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), which was much in vogue in Europe at the time and had an enormous impact on contemporary Spanish painters. That year saw Luna's first public appearance in the award system set up by Isabella II in Spain. The system, in keeping with other such schemes already in existence in various parts of Europe and the United States, offered artists prizes and awards, and provided them with a platform to showcase their work and gain access to progressive patrons.
The most notable painting Luna submitted to the 1881 National Exhibition, Cleopatra, is inspired by a fragment of Mark Antony's life recounted in Plutarch's famous Parallel Lives. The canvas, which depicts the Egyptian queen's demise, bears witness to the appreciable influence of Rosales in the formal and narrative aspects of Luna's oeuvre, inasmuch as both painters treat death as the ultimate political gesture. To be sure, Rosales' Doña Isabel la Católica dictando su testamento (Queen Isabella the Catholic Dictating Her Will) is exemplary of this theme. Luna was awarded a Second Class medal for Cleopatra, the highest honour an artist from the Philippines had ever been accorded, which in turn Ied to his receipt of a government stipend. The painting, which is formally indebted to La mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra) (1874) by Jean-Andre Rixens (1846-1925), was well received by critics, who overlooked its contemporary references and praised its independence from the representations of the Early Modern Period, appreciating the subject's baroque features and Luna's interpretive freedom. Reviewers commented on the spontaneous nature of Luna's choice of colour in his paintings, an influence they ascribed to his regional origin, just as they did in the case of Valencian artists; indeed, Luna was compared in various ways to Ignacio Pinazo (1849-1916). However, Luna was also cautioned about his style of painting, particularly in what was considered a composition that sought to create a purely sensory impression rather than to develop the moral message implicit in the theme. In general, Luna's work was viewed as a subjective interpretation of the historical text that he had taken as his source, and art critics stressed his lack of attention to academically important details. No comment was made, however, of its potential political subtext. A well-known photograph taken in the privacy of Luna's studio shows the artist and some of his friends with close ties to the archipelago in a sort of tableau vivant: the painter poses as Cleopatra, while the writer Jose Rizal plays the part of the Egyptian scribe before the gaze of the grieving Mark Antony, embodied by the historian and politician Trinidad Hermenegildo Pardo de Tavera. Could the queen of the Nile be seen as a personification of the Philippines and the Roman general an embodiment of Spain?
The same political undercurrent that could be read in Cleopatra perhaps reappears in Luna's Spoliarium, the painting that had the greatest effect both on his career and in the context of Spanish art of his time, and upon which the entirety of his prestige and reputation rests. The only work he entered to the National Exhibition of 1884, Spoliarium constituted both a veritable scandal and his greatest success, unleashing a deluge of critiques about its propriety, merits and flaws. According to the literary fragments chosen by Luna for the accompanying catalogue, the painting is set in the Eternal City and inspired by the vision of Roman gladiators set forth in Severo Catalina del Amo's Roma (Rome) (1873) and Charles Dezobry's Rome au siecle d'Auguste (Rome in the Time of Augustus) (1835). Spoliarium presents one of the most controversial aspects of this well-known Roman contest: the fate that awaits the gladiators defeated in the arena after the spectacle. In formal terms, the painting is clearly influenced by his mentor, Vera's entry to the 1881 National Exhibition, Numancia (1880), borrowing its illusionistic (seen from below) perspective as well as arrangement of figures in space, specifically conceived to convey the harrowing final despair that permeates both paintings. Thematically too Spoliarium is indebted to Numancia: both paintings focus on the plight of the victims as the best means to lay blame on the perpetrators of the dark episodes depicted, and resort to historical parallelism to justify nationalism. Spoliarium was first exhibited in Rome, its fame preceding its arrival in Madrid. An article published in El Liberal spoke of the enormous impact the painting created abroad, quoting reviews from the Italian and French press which, fascinated by the work, described it as a "rare gallantry"; the article also noted that it was possible to detect in it "the intention to pile up all the bloody corpses" depicted in recent paintings by Francisco Pradilla (1848-1921), Jose Casado del Alisal (1832-1886) and Jose Villegas (1844-1921), thereby inserting it into the contemporary practice of Spanish painting. It goes without saying that the painting enjoyed an enthusiastic reception from the most progressive critical circles for its daring composition. "He hasn't just moved forward, he has leapt ahead," wrote one critic, referring to its modernity poised between excitement and fear; but the highest praise was reserved for the emotional heights induced by the contemplation of the drama painted by Luna. However, the visual conception of the cruel slaughter-ground where the agony of the losers lay hidden proved scandalous for two reasons: foremost for its independent style and lack of tradition evident in its execution, and secondly, because among the most conservative critics the narrative was deemed inappropriate, excessively realistic for the Madrid society that would view it without any obvious moral links that would enable them to justify it, a priori. "An abortion of genius," was one comment; and indeed there was no shortage of jibes, some even possessing a certain artistic quality, as must have been the case with a wooden relief (50 x 76 cm) by the Philippine sculptor and silversmith Ciriaco Gaudinez y Javier (1848-c. 1919) that entered the Museo Nacional del Prado, described in the inventory as a "Parody of Luna's Spoliarium" —the whereabouts of which is today alas unknown. With Luna defended by such prestigious writers as Benito Pérez Galdós, who praised his heartfelt realism, the painting became the most popular work in the competition. According to the writer Pedro Paterno, with whom the artist had a close personal relationship, its political significance—an interpretation of the Philippine situation in the context of Spanish politics—was only remarked upon after it was awarded the first prize at the exhibition. This emerged from the toasts at a dinner organised by the Philip-pine community in Madrid held in honour of Luna: José Rizal eulogised him, but Graciano López Jaena delivered the most compromising speech in this regard. Luna was also praised at the meal for having joined the ranks of a select group of painters: the recipients of gold medals for historical paintings which the state ultimately refused to acquire. The group counted Luna's ideological mentor, Eduardo Rosales, and Jose Casado del Alisal among its members whose works in the jury's eyes were deemed to be representative of a kind of creativity that should not be encouraged by patronage, so as to dissuade young artists from following in this style. In the presence of the highest Philip-pine cultural authorities at the dinner, Luna was acknowledged as a Filipino artist who had scaled the greatest heights to date in terms of gaining recognition and public honour in his homeland. This was seen as tangible proof of the results that Filipinos could attain if they were trained and their talent was nurtured in a way comparable to that in Spain.
In the first few months of 1885, amid the extraordinary public reaction to Spoliarium, Luna fulfilled part of his commitment to the Spanish government by sending to Manila one of the works commissioned in exchange for remuneration. Titled El pacto de sangre (The Blood Compact), this was another staged scene (just as Cleopatra had been), focusing on the historical sanduguan, or ritual pact made between the newly arrived conquistadors and the local powers as a symbol of their brotherhood. Pardo de Tavera sat as the model for the Spanish explorer Miguel López de Legazpi, while Rizal posed as Datu Sikatuna, the chieftain of Bohol. Later that year, Luna painted a portrait of the youthful Legazpi based on an original image kept by his descendants, satisfying the remaining obligations of the remuneration that he received and interest in restoring his image in the Philippines. Both of these works produced for the government had a striking political significance that, together with Cleopatra and Spoliarium, bear witness to the artist's ideological stance in these early years. In 1886, after Spoliarium was exhibited at the Sala Pares in Barcelona, the regional government of Catalonia purchased it by means of public subscription. In 1886, the artist married Paz Pardo de Tavera, the sister of two of his friends, and a year later, the couple's first child, Andres, was born.
Installed in an apartment in the boulevard Pereire in Paris, Luna completed the most notable commission that came his way in the wake of the public prominence from the success of Spoliarium. For the considerable sum of 30,000 reales, the artist undertook to depict the naval battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571) on a grand scale for Madrid's Senate Building. This work, titled La batalla de Lepanto (The Battle of Lepanto), appeared to bring Luna's interest in large historical compositions to a close, though later this proved otherwise. The painting was intended as part of a substantial decorative ensemble to commemorate the artistic culture of the Spanish Restoration and to complement the decoration of the San Francisco el Grande basilica, another great focus of art at the time. Consequently, it was only befitting that it should tackle one of the most glorious episodes of Spain's military past. Thus it may be said that, buoyed by his earlier success, the artist received the utmost appreciation on the national stage for this work, and became the only painter born outside the European continent to be commissioned by the government to create two great projects that represented Spain's splendid artistic future. The painting dispensed with "the conventions that had hitherto pre-vailed in the portrayal of naval battles; above all else, Luna tried to show in his painting the chaotic confusion caused by the collision of two imposing warships [...] organised in a strikingly daring arrangement, not dissimilar from the revolutionary development of photography at that time. Luna used an eminently baroque style of composition by representing the scene in a fragmented way to create an extraordinary visual effect and a special sense of immediacy and movement that was truly groundbreaking for the epoch." No doubt because of this, the press and the public who had viewed the work in Madrid treated it with disdain. It was subsequently physically dismissed: originally planned to be hung in the Conference Chamber, it was soon demoted to the inner stairs and finally relocated to a narrow corridor of the Senate Building, where it remains to this day?
The Battle of Lepanto arrived in Madrid in 1887, after Spoliarium was awarded the Third Class medal at the 1886 Paris salon, the Societe des artistes francais (Society of French Artists), cementing Luna's place among the great Spanish artists of his time. In view of this, it is revealing that Spoliarium was not showcased at the Exposición General de las Islas Filipinas (General Exposition of the Philippine Islands or Philippine Exposition) held in Madrid in 1887. Out of all of his major paintings, Luna was only represented by Cleopatra and two other lesser works; Rizal's most notable publications were also absent from the show's display cases, thereby disclosing with utmost clarity the line of argument upon which the exhibition had been conceived: the government's official narrative of its most distant possession and its cultural subordination to and dependence on Spain.
In 1888, the Lunas moved to a comfortable apartment on rue Pergolèse in Paris, establishing themselves in the independent atmosphere of cosmopolitan bourgeoisie. From then on, Luna started producing paintings for the affluent international market, with relative success. He soon saw demand for his output, especially from Hispano-Philippine and Spanish clients, and he gradually set his sights wider. The following year, he and his friend, Jose Rizal, began organising meetings of the so-called "Indios bravos" (brave Indians) in Luna's studio, as a result of which the artist's political opinions gradually became more radical. Significantly, in February 1888, Luna began work on a large canvas for the Spanish government that was earmarked for the Overseas Museum-Library in Madrid. The painting, España guiando a las Islas Filipinas por el camino del progreso (Spain Leading the Philippine Islands on the Path of Progress) also known as España llevando a la gloria a Filipinas (Spain Leading the Philippines to Glory), must have been finished by the advent of spring, since the artist submitted his bill in May and entered the work for show at the Overseas Ministry section in the 1888 Exposición Universal de Barcelona (Universal Exhibition of Barcelona). An agent from the Ministry took possession of the picture and arranged for payment to be made over the course of the summer, transferring 10,000 pesetas to the artist on 28 July 1888.25 The work became extraordinarily famous and was replicated by the painter himself—his social ties with powerful figures and certain friends turned the duplication of paintings into a frequent practice—and was also copied by his admirers and reproduced wholly or in part, often mechanically, on the occasion of events related to the culture of the archipelago in the context of its relation with Spain, particularly over the next decade.
Luna's next appearance at a national exhibition of fine arts took place in 1890. Unusual for the artist, he did not submit, as was his wont, a large-scale painting that would underpin his renown. Instead, he entered two works that were at odds with one another: Un Chiffonnier (A Ragpicker), also known as El trapero, which shows the large-scale figure of a Parisian rag and bone man, and El té (The Tea), in which a beautiful girl relaxes in a sumptuous interior with the titular stimulating beverage. The two canvases, both conceived in Paris, faithfully reflect the dichotomy that emerged in Luna's output at this time: the artist was torn between the attractions of so-called "high-class painting," which combined a love of luxury with an exclusive and elitist lifestyle, and the claims of the dispossessed of the earth, which Luna himself had acknowledged as a key issue in past years. The latter was probably related to his adoption of a more radical ideology, stemming from his political readings, as he himself recognised in his letters. Reviewers did not take kindly to this double shift away from his large historical compositions, and as a result, Luna went largely unnoticed, attracting only a few mentions; those in Madrid who did refer to the painter, criticised his themes and style. Described as "insipid," his participation was deemed to exhibit "few qualities" and his paintings were judged to be "weak in line and colour," his status suffering as a result. Luna's second to last appearance at an exhibition organised by the Spanish state took place in 1892 and proved to be equally ill-fated. That year's show, which coincided with the fourth centenary of the discovery of America, had a markedly international character. With this in mind, the artist entered four very different paintings in a final attempt to shore up a reputation that had been shaken by The Battle of Lepanto and which, in the eyes of Madrid's academicians, he had failed to live up to. The well-known episode of male chauvinist violence perpetrated by Luna against his wife and mother-in-law—he shot both of them dead, and seriously wounded his brother-in-law—bedevilled his presence, for the critics were far more interested in the progress of the public trial in Paris than the talent on display in his paintings. Together with a small studio portrait, which struck some reviewers for its bitter mood, Luna entered two relatively large paintings of a notably social character: Les Ignores (The Unknown Ones), also known as Heroes anónimos (Anonymous Heroes) and Avant-Garde (The Advance Guard), respectively depicting the funeral of a poverty-stricken old man and a demonstration by some poor elderly women. According to Luna's correspondence with Rizal, both works were inspired by socialist ideology—with which the painter had clearly and unreservedly sympathised since 1891—and predate the last large work that Luna executed in the historical genre, Pueblo y Reyes (People and Kings). Completed in 1892, People and Kings was submitted to that year's National Exhibition in Madrid, and subsequently presented under the name of a friend at the 1894 exhibition in Barcelona. People and Kings depicts a shameful episode of the French Revolution: Prior to carrying out one of the decrees of the National Convention's public health committee, the French masses, enraged and drunk on anti-monarchism, entered the abbey church of Saint-Denis and despoiled and looted the tombs of the kings of France as well as desecrated their corpses. The critics focused chiefly on People and Kings, declaring that "not a single hint of the genius that painted The Battle of Lepanto, or the slightest indication of anything greater" remained. Notwithstanding this, the artist tried to persuade the state to buy the painting, even begging for forgiveness and asking to be released from the prison sentence hanging over him, but to no avail. People and Kings was destroyed in 1945 during the Battle of Manila.
The artist won the backing of Spanish painters who made their support for his acquittal known in a public letter that scandalised France. In Paris, Luna was exonerated for his crime, and returned to Spain.' Together with Servando Corrales, he oversaw the decoration of the Philippine Pavilion at the 1893 Exposición Histórico-Natural y Etnográfica (Exhibition of Natural History and Ethnography) in Madrid, an outcome of the unification of the historical exhibitions organised to commemorate the discovery of the Americas a year before. The Philippines' participation was significant; the fact that the installation was entrusted to Filipinos such as Luna and Paterno meant that the resulting show was very different from the exhibition of 1887. The painter subsequently settled temporarily in the Basque Country with the help of Victor Chavarri (1854-1900), from where he tried unsuccessfully to gain appointment as director of the School of Arts and Trades in Manila. He succeeded only in persuading the government to appoint him acting teacher of sculpting and casting at the school on 17 July 1893, a post he immediately rejected, citing his artistic commitments at the royal court, although in reality he baulked at the prospect of an artist of his renown being lower in teaching rank than other lesser painters. The post was taken by Vicente Francisco in 1894. Luna settled independently in the Philip-pines in May 1894. With the passing of years his name became associated less and less with art and increasingly with local political issues during this time of social turmoil, to the extent that his name was sometimes confused with that of his brother Antonio known for his political activism. He and his brother were mistakenly linked to the Katipunan uprisings. After the Philippines won its independence from Spain, the Spanish press published detailed information about Luna's activities as a diplomat at the service of the new Philippine government, strengthening its relations with Spain. News of his death on 7 December 1899 reached Madrid towards the end of January 1900.
A journalist remarked: Whatever Luna was, whatever he was worth, he owed to Spain, which magnanimously granted him its favours. He was educated in Madrid, and from here he departed for Rome with a stipend. The artist responded to this generosity with ingratitude.
Another added: When some time has elapsed, his ingratitude towards a nation more unfortunate than ill-intentioned will be forgotten. And his legacy will be his beautiful Daphnis and Chloe, The Egyptian Slave, The Death of Cleopatra, The Battle of Lepanto and, above all, the Spoliarium. (Text drawn of G. Navarro, Carlos, 'Juan Luna's cursus honorum in Spain: Laurels and Thorns' En: Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, National Gallery Singapore, 2017, pp. 124-130).

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