This November, The National Gallery Singapore is proud to present Century of Light, an exhibition that gathers major works by masters Raden Saleh, Juan Luna, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and more. The show exhibits art from the 19th century, placing the spotlight on the range of styles and artistic movements of the post-Enlightenment period, marked by the exciting transitions and innovations toward positive change.
Painter, sculptor and political activist Juan Luna is hailed as one of the greatest artists in Philippine history. His work has become a timeless allegory of Philippine pride, such as his seminal piece, The Spoliarium, which portrays a true-to-life depiction of gladiators, whereas The Blood Compact (or Sandugo in Tagalog) captures the historical ritual in 1565 performed by Datu Sikatuna of Bohol and Miguel López de Legazpi.
Curator Clarissa Chikiamco of the National Gallery Singapore tells us the last major exhibition on Juan Luna was back in 1988 — nearly three decades ago.
“A milestone in putting Century of Light together was our 2016 curatorial trip to Europe to scout for major works of Raden Saleh and Juan Luna,” she explains. “Seeing these works in person really helped us get a better sense of the artists’ works and helped us to envision the show,” she says.
Masterpieces on display
Juan Luna’s work is widely celebrated in both Spain and the Philippines, and exhibition curators had to travel to various institutions in both countries for research and to borrow the artwork. The Spoliarium, a work of great national significance, could not be removed from its display, so the curators borrowed an engraving of the painting for the upcoming exhibit instead.
Juan Luna’s works are all included in one gallery of the museum, along with Raden Saleh’s.
And what should we make sure not to miss? Clarissa counts a couple: Cleopatra (1881, oil on canvas, 250 x 340cm), from the collection of Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. “Awarded a second-class medal at Spain’s national exhibition in 1881, Cleopatra won early recognition for Luna and was his first major prize in Europe. At the time Luna made this, he was based in Rome, after following his teacher, the Spanish artist Alejo Vera, there from Madrid. Cleopatra follows the Spanish academic convention of Luna’s time, which favored historical painting. It’s a piece that has been newly restored for this exhibition.”
There’s also España y Filipinas (Spain and the Philippines) (1884, oil on canvas, 229.5 x 79.5cm) from the Collection of National Gallery Singapore, along with a version from the collection of Lopez Museum and Library.
“Luna made several versions depicting the relationship of Spain and the Philippines as allegorical female figures. The subject found popularity at a time when Filipinos were clamoring for reforms in the relationship between Spain and the Philippines. This exhibition will display two existing versions together, one from the museum’s collection and the other from Lopez Museum’s collection.”
Several of Luna’s paintings were published or photographed during his lifetime, but still haven’t been located to this day. “I would also advise the visitors not to miss the extensive archival materials on display. These help deepen our understanding of Luna as a prolific Filipino painter working in Europe. Perhaps with this exhibition, more of Luna’s works will surface,” says Clarissa.
This story first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Smile magazine.