Filipino masters prove `genius knows no country'. Exhibit emphasizes national identity

Corazon Aquino's 1986 rise to power has catalyzed the pursuit of a new nationalism in the Philippines, even in the arts. Awash in imported popular culture, Filipinos are turning to indigenous themes and artists to reach the bedrock of their national identity. In current exhibits here, stunning displays of talent on canvas look back at famous Filipino artists of the last century - two of whom won top international awards. It is nationalism that is being celebrated, organizers say.

The two artists whose works dominate the shows astounded Europeans and their own countrymen in 1884 by winning the top two prizes in the prestigious National Exposition of Fine Arts in Spain. Their victory helped inspire Filipinos, who fought for independence during 300 years of Spanish rule, only to lose it for another 44 years under American rule.

The exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila and the Philippine National Museum help launch a ``Decade of Philippine Nationalism,'' announced by President Aquino on June 12, the date in 1898 when Filipinos declared their first, though short-lived, independent government.

The two Philippine masters, Juan Luna y Novicio, then 26, and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, 29, won the gold and silver medals, respectively, for ``Spoliarium'' and ``Christian Virgins Exposed to the Public.''

``It was the first time that Filipinos won anything,'' says Felice Sta. Maria, Metropolitan Museum president. ``While European painters had grown up with the Hellenistic myths discussed from an early age and with that artistic tradition all around them, the Filipinos did not,'' she says. ``They had to paint European themes and subjects in order to win. Suddenly they decided they were going to compete, which they did with much success and very little training.''

The message for contemporary Filipinos: Every Filipino has the potential for international achievement.

That message is being communicated with new bilingual (Filipino and English) study guides, slide shows, specially trained tour guides, coloring books, teacher's aids, free guide notes, and free admission to the exhibition.

Luna and Hidalgo both attended the art academy in Manila, then went on to Madrid's premier art school. Fluent in European artistic technique and composition, but bringing a fresh perspective to the European artistic heritage, they reinterpreted historical and allegorical themes, brought an unusual passion to the European competitions, and were heralded by the jury and the Spanish monarchs.

Luna's ``Spoliarium'' is a huge canvas showing the basement of the Roman Colosseum, where injured gladiators were stripped of weapons and clothes as they awaited death beside animal carcasses. Hidalgo's ``Christian Virgins'' depicts young women being auctioned into slavery to punish their belief in Christ. Both paintings were hailed by the Filipino intelligentsia in Europe as metaphors of Philippine life under Spain. Both showed that ``genius knows no country,'' in the words of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, the painters' contemporary. And both helped to solidify an emerging sense of nationhood.

The two painters continued to be successful in international competitions, winning numerous awards and commissions in Europe and the United States.

Some of Hidalgo's other prizewinning works - ``Las Barca de Aqueronte,'' whose rich reds and blacks evoke the despair of lost souls, and ``The Assassination of Governor-General Bustamante,'' a historic painting of friars killing a Spanish governor - are favorites of young Filipinos visiting the Metropolitan exhibit.

Some of the artists' major works remain unlocated; others were destroyed in the bombing of Manila in 1945.

One problem for the arts here today is the perception, a legacy of the Marcos era, that they are elitist. Yet Imelda Marcos, the nation's First Lady for 20 years and champion of the arts, ``set the momentum,'' according to Mrs. Sta. Maria. ``By her personality and position, Mrs. Marcos created an audience, which is still going now,'' she says. ``We are trying to build on the momentum and widen the popular audience.''

The Metropolitan exhibit, drawn from some of the country's major private collections, includes 11 works being seen in their first public viewing. The exhibition represents an effort to broaden involvement by collectors and viewers.

``Filipinos see the show and say, `Why did they stop painting Filipino things?''' says Sta. Maria, ``They had to block out everything Filipino to compete in Europe.''

Nonetheless, both painters explored their share of Filipino themes, which are amply represented in the 80 paintings by Luna, Hidalgo, and their contemporaries on exhibit at the Metropolitan through Aug. 15.

The reclusive Hidalgo, who expatriated to Europe in 1879, began by painting Filipino landscapes, including the muted and serene ``La Banca'' (1876). His later landscapes of the Normandy coast and the countryside near Paris show a mastery of subtle color and light. Some resemble the work of the Impressionists.

Portraits of Hidalgo's mother show the dignity and grace of the elderly Filipina he returned to his country to see after 33 years in Europe. After her death, Hidalgo went back to Paris, where he died in 1913.

Some of Luna's canvasses suggest experiments with social realism, such as ``La Colada'' (1893), a scene of workers, and ``El Golfo,'' (undated), a slum child holding broken crutches.

Luna's paintings of women are captivating and timeless - the skin tones are luminous in his ``Odalisca'' (1886), almost promising warmth to the touch; ``Nena y Tinita'' (1897) shows his sister and niece, the younger Filipina in European dress; and ``Paz Pardo de Tavera'' is an undated portrait of his wife of six years, whom he shot in a jealous rage.

Luna returned to the Philippines in 1894, two years after the murder, of which he was acquitted, thanks to the intervention of influential friends. He said he had lost inspiration, but continued to paint landscapes, portraits, and religious themes. Brown became a predominant color in his palette.

In 1896 Luna was jailed, along with many others, for his role in the revolt against the Spanish colonial government, and served eight months in prison. He died in 1899.

One exhibit panel describes Luna as ``a proud and self-assured young man ... asserting himself as an indio, a native to be reckoned with, not blatantly condescended to or disregarded as inferior.''

Will Luna, who met an international standard and remained deeply committed to a Filipino nation, become a role model for a new generation?

President Aquino has toured the exhibits and asked all Cabinet members and government employees to attend. The Department of Education has sent out a similar invitation to schools.

Says Sta. Maria, ``It could inspire us to triumph over our present trials.''

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