History and Cleopatra: What You Need to Know About the Latest Juan Luna Boceto
“We must proceed from Rizal,” novelist and filmmaker Charlson Ong once said privately to me, though I suspect—and hope—he reminds everyone of that. That is arguably gospel truth for the Filipino writer, but if we take a look back, particularly in the afterglow of the recently concluded Art Fair Philippines, this truth must apply to the Filipino visual artist as well.
Case in point: on the night of the Art Fair vernissage last week, a separate, but linked (and equally by-invite only) event was held by Salcedo Auctions and Dr. Vicki Belo at the latter’s resplendent home, where the ostensibly incongruous double-hosting was matched with a decadent pairing between meticulous dinner courses and generous helpings of Hennessy and Glenmorangie. But all this, along with the other art on display, was perhaps just the setting and the frame: front and center hung yet another boceto—a small, preliminary “study” for a painting—by Juan Luna, fresh out of the safe mere months after the boceto of the Spolarium was auctioned off for almost P74 million, the record amount paid for a Juan Luna in the Philippines.
This new boceto is of Luna’s The Death of Cleopatra (1880), a painting he completed the next year and presented at his first outing at the National Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid—an art exhibition, possibly quite similar, in atmosphere and intent, to the Art Fair.
If the milieu and the well-dressed party in attendance were to be considered part of that evening, it may have all actually made sense. Wasn’t this all a little in the style and the manner in which the cadre of landed Filipino and mestizo intellectuals gathered and schemed in the parlors of their wealthier relations and patrons in Europe?
And this is where we proceed to Rizal, who actually figures in many Luna paintings: he and his compatriots, including fellow Indios Valentin Ventura, Marcelo H. del Pilar, and Trinidad Pardo de Tavera (who was Luna’s brother-in-law), would pose, sometimes in full costume, for Luna’s studies and sketches, in the artist’s studio. In between, there would be discussions, drinking, and fencing duels—the festive and carefree pursuits of the white middle-class at the time.
More art: Juan Luna's Portrait of a Lady
More art: Juan Luna's Spoliarium boceto
In fact, a photo of the live sitting for Cleopatra can be found hanging around on the internet, where an unnamed person lies dressed as the dead queen, with two unidentified figures, also in costume, standing around her. But sitting on the ground in front of her, dressed in the robes of an Egyptian scribe, is a dark man widely understood to be Rizal. It is also widely understood that the attendant actors are all members of what would be christened by Rizal several years later as Los Indios Bravos—“Indians brave” that stood for Filipino pride and emancipation.
If the photo is enthrallingly emblematic of many things, then so, it seems, is the boceto: it is the study of a major Filipino work that has, incredibly, never touched our shores. The finished Cleopatra languished, unexhibited for more than a century, in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, before the museum loaned it last year to the National Gallery of Singapore for an exhibit on 19th century art. The Prado Museum’s curator Carlo Navarro offered another dimension to the work: “Cleopatra is a political statement as the Egyptian queen's refusal to be captured alive by the Romans may be seen to represent the Philippines defiant stand against being enslaved by its colonizer."
It is thrillling to triangulate these three things across time and space: the Indios Bravos as 20-somethings running amuck across Europe, brimming with an embarrassment of talent and idealism; Luna devising the work with subversive intent and receiving a Spanish-government-sponsored scholarship at the Ayuntamiento de Manila for it; and that work remaining hidden for a hundred years afterward, finally seeing light in a gallery so tantalizingly close to our country, and yet never having a chance to return home.
This boceto then, signed, inscribed with a dedication to Luna’s father, and naturally the centerpiece of an upcoming Salcedo auction on “Important Philippine Art,” might mean many things to everyone—to the wealthy global purveyor or buyer, a claimable piece of elusive history; to bourgeois observers, a throwback to the early aspirations and ideals of their class; and to all of us, a glimpse at a small but significant shadow of our nation’s future self.
'Important Philippine Art' and 'Important Philippine Furniture and Important Philippine Tribal & Ethnographic Art' will be on 9 March 2019, Saturday, 2 p.m. at Salcedo Auctions, Three Salcedo Place.
The auction catalogue is available at salcedoauctions.com, while the preview is ongoing, from 10 am to 6 pm, at Salcedo Auctions. For more inquiries, call +632 659 4094 or +63917 894 6550 or e-mail [email protected]