Jose Rizal and Juan Luna at the El Prado Museum, Madrid 1884
Thanks to King Carlos V and his son Felipe II, the Prado has the world’s top collection of Titians. Equally rich is its Rubens collection, and the Prado also has a rich collection of Italian paintings of the Romantic, Mannerists, and Baroque periods. King Felipe IV and Velásquez had a rewarding art history relationship (Alcolea, 1991: 227). Felipe commissioned Velásquez to travel all over Europe to buy paintings on his behalf. Twice Velásquez toured the continent for this purpose. Many of the choice works in the Prado are there because in riding back and forth between Italian cities, Velázquez came upon canvases, which he thought the king might like. It is safe to assume that Velázquez given a blank check by King Felipe to purchase his favorite paintings for the king, the Italian collection in the Prado were Velásquez’ personal choices.
The Spanish Masters
On many occasions, Rizal and Juan Luna, the Filipino painter, a student of Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, would have sauntered over to the Prado Museum to feast their eyes on contemporary art and to study the Spanish masters.
Only that year (1884) Juan Luna’s large oil painting Spoliarum won the prestigious Madrid National Exposition of Fine Arts award. This young Filipino compatriot proved himself as an “international artist.” Luna medaled gold! Luna’s entry showed the fresh corpse of gladiators being dragged across a dungeon floor of the Coliseum.
|Spoliarium by Juan Luna|
His fame assured, Luna would be commissioned to paint the Battle of Lepanto specifically for the Spanish Cortes Senate Assembly hall.
The Battle of Lepanto by Juan Luna can be seen at the Senate Hall, Madrid.
|The Battle of Lepanto by Juan Luna|
Another Filipino artist, Felix Resurrección Hidalgo garnered the silver medal for his Las Virgines Cristianas Espuestas al Populacho, dramatizing the humiliation of Christian women at a Roman slave market. To Rizal, who gave the toast at a celebratory party for the double victory, Luna’s fallen fighters and Hidalgo’s slave women were veiled allegories of the Filipino people’s suffering from Spanish political repression.
|Cristianas Espuestas al Populacho by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo|
“They proved to the world “indios” could, despite their supposed barbarian race, paint better than the Spaniards who colonized them (Ocampo, 1990: 63.)”
Both had beaten the Europeans at their own game in a major art competition by demonstrating their mastery at painting historical subjects in the grand mannerist style.
Empathetic Fallacy Conversation
What could it be like if we eaves-dropped on the Rizal and Luna conversation on the gallery floor of El Prado? We have no proof that this conversation occurred, but we have no reason to believe that the conversation could not have taken place either.
The two Filipinos stand before Velasquez’ Las Meninas (Maids of Honor, or The Family of Philip IV, 1656).
|Las Meninas by Velasquez|
Rizal: I can read it pretty well. The center is the little princess. The other subjects recede into the background giving an interesting perspective.
Luna: You mean the Infanta Margarita Teresa.
Rizal: Yes, the maids are clustered about the Infanta, her tutors, page, and dwarf in attendance, and her huge dog is in the foreground. From the dog, we work our eyes up by stages to the distance. Velasquez paints himself into the picture. What an idiot!
Luna: Remember, Velázquez was always concerned about his status as a court painter. Therefore he must show himself to the king and queen in his creative art. See that mirror? That is the reflection of the king and queen. Can you see the two huge Rubens in the shadow?
Rizal: Yes, I can see it now, obliquely.
Luna: Here is the whole world of the inner court, presented in reverse order of importance. It portrays a single snapshot moment of each figure responding to the unannounced entrance of the king.
They view Goya’s King Charles IV and his Family (1800)
|Charles IV and Family by Goy|
Luna: Goya shows real beauty with cruel ugliness in this picture.
Rizal: Beauty in its ugliness? Is that a dramatic idiom?
Luna: Yes. Goya portrays the royal family as vain and pompous in the illusionist sense.
Rizal: Oh, you mean the dazzle of the silk and lace? But where is the illusion? I see an infinite delicacy with which the ribbons, jewels and sashes glitter.
Luna: That’s exactly my point. The painter patronizes their glamour. See how the royals are spread out like a frieze, heavy, dull and self-absorbed? He shows how remote they are from the people. If you can portray the glitter of life and imbue it with folly without shoving it in one’s face, that to me that is real beauty.
While my characterization of the scene between Luna and Rizal is in the fictionalized narrative style, yet here are two young Filipinos (Rizal in 1884 just celebrated his 23nd birthday), non-Spaniards experiencing art, discussing aesthetic issues and conversant with the western art world’s vocabulary of heightened consciousness in El Prado Museum. That in itself is a rarity.
Understanding art in an amazing process. The more one studies it, the more it forces one to look at embedded references and nuances. Gardner, in Art through the Ages (1980) explains this methodical pursuit of a system as "bringing order to visual experience.” Not anybody can get access into this kind of experience and use of language. Rizal most especially was among these selected few.
Noteworthy too is the fact that the expatriates in Madrid of the time were being acculturated into the European milieu, implying a level of facility and comfort level with Western thought without losing their own cultural identity. Art appreciation necessitates an intellectual process made more significant in Rizal’s case because it requires an access to education, and into the power of symbolic interactionism.
Looking at paintings is a gut reaction. Either you love it or you hate it. That Rizal, Luna and their compatriots understood the references, subtleties, and symbolism in a painting show they had penetrated into that higher closed circle of the transformative power elite.