Sketches of pain

Juan Luna is in the news again following the aborted auction of a bust depicting him as a lad, a work of art in bronze that supposedly survived a fire decades after the same had been donated to the Philippine government.

The auction house said the sale was held in abeyance by the present “owners” of the bust that looks nothing like the Luna in the photos that showed him with Jose Rizal and other Filipinos who made Europe their playground (girl-watching and chasing) and propaganda battleground against clerical and civil excesses back in Manila.

Rizal’s life had been intertwined with those of the Luna siblings, with one account saying that the boy wonder from Calamba, Laguna, had adjudged Manuel an even better painter than his brother Juan. That’s quite a statement, considering JL’s masterpieces.

There’s the Spoliarium, depicting fallen gladiators being dragged off the battlefield in the center of the coliseum, awe-inspiring in size and how it captured the form of warriors in poignant strokes.

Gazing at the mural in the National Museum, one can imagine the fallen swordsmen, gasping for their last breaths, just moments after mouthing the ultimate ironic tribute: “We, who are about to die, salute you.”

Salute whom? The bloodthirsty royalty and the throng of citizen spectators on whose thumbs up or down rested the decision whether to finish or spare the life of the defeated?

To art and music lovers, there may not be a more fitting classical soundtrack while examining the Spoliarium than Concierto de Aranjuez. Make mine Miles Davis’ jazz rendition from his iconic album, Sketches of Spain.

Rizal also had his moment with another Luna, Antonio, yes, the assassinated general with whom, fighting for the affection of a woman, he nearly engaged in a duel after having one drink too many.

But back to JL, it may be said that this Luna, in winning a gold medal at the Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts in, if my memory serves me right, 1884, put Rizal on the radar of the Spanish authorities even before the publication of his incendiary novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

With Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo’s painting, Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace, winning the silver in the same art competition, Rizal was invited to give a speech in honor of JL and FRH. That speech was so bombastic that Rizal returned later to the Philippines, already a marked man.

Heroes have always been people with feet of clay, and Rizal and the Lunas were no exception. Antonio would die, assassinated by his fellow Filipinos, while JL would fade away in Hong Kong after being exonerated in the killing of his wife and the latter’s mother.

There’s no doubt that JL killed the De Taveras, but it was adjudged a crime of passion that somehow allowed him some compassion from those who set him free.

The National Museum naturally wants to recover the Luna bust and, in its communication with the auction house and the “owners,” seems to be leaning toward arriving at an amicable settlement or a win-win solution for all parties concerned.

We’re all for that, for the National Museum to get back what the Filipino people should be enjoying,  instead of having the bust hidden anew from public view for decades as part of a private collection.

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