The Art Report Spotlight: Juan Luna in “Between Worlds” at the National Gallery Singapore
The Art Report is pleased to focus this month’s Spotlight on the National Gallery Singapore, which is currently holding a major exhibition titled “Century of Light,” a special presentation of two exhibitions focusing on the art of the 19th century: first, a comparative exhibition of two major Southeast Asian artists, Juan Luna (Philippines) and Raden Saleh (Indonesia) in “Between Worlds,” and second, the complementary exhibition of Impressionist works in “Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay.” Read The Art Report on the Juan Luna exhibition below, “Colours of Impressionism” here, and other helpful information about the National Gallery Singapore (and other interesting places to visit, eat, and shop at the museum) here. Download the National Gallery Singapore’s app here. The exhibition runs until 11 March 2018. Please visit this page again for further updates on articles and news clips on this Spotlight.
There is a lot of buzz surrounding “Century of Light,” National Gallery Singapore’s special presentation of two exhibitions on the art of the 19th century, and deservedly so. To say that the exhibitions play off of each other is an understatement; while each exhibition is so richly developed on their own, they are electric all together, making “Century of Light” a sumptuous and rewarding visit. It is a testament to the deft storytelling abilities of the curators Russell Storer, Clarissa Chikiamco, and Syed Muhammad Hafiz, who, in “Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna,” one of the exhibitions in the presentation, have not only outlined the trajectory of Luna’s and Saleh’s prolific careers but have also illuminated and thoroughly presented the progression of each artist’s craft and philosophy by weaving it into the artistic movements of the 19th century, and, even more significantly, the political and social milieu of their respective homelands in that time period.
This is especially significant in the case of the section on Juan Luna, who we all know is widely lauded here (and most well-known) for Spoliarium. Spoliarium has long since outstripped its initial acclaim in 1884 when it won the first-class medal in the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid by consequently becoming a symbol for the Philippine Revolution and an enduring Filipino icon on its own. There is no question that Spoliarium is Juan Luna’s most significant oeuvre. But its absence from the landmark exhibition Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna at the National Gallery Singapore (except for a plate in a periodical at the exhibition) makes the exhibition all the better for it. Staged with efficient balance, the exhibition takes an exploratory look at Juan Luna’s body of work by aptly giving his national hero status its deserved respect without having that distinction eclipse his pure talent. This has always been a concern of Luna expert Dr. Ambeth Ocampo; in his essay for the exhibition catalogue (and in many of his writings on the subject), he emphasizes that “Luna’s great misfortune…is being celebrated as a national hero. He is often revered more as a nationalist and known for one iconic work [Spoliarium], rather than being rightfully appreciated as an artist who produced many more paintings.”
And many other remarkable paintings did he produce. The exhibition sets the tone with work by his European mentor, Alejo Vera y Estaca, and Luna’s early teenage work, one of which is the charming El Violinista; it continues on to the portraiture and mythical-historical subjects he is famous for, the most stunning of which is Cleopatra. Painted in 1881, the commanding piece won the second class medal at the same exposition where Spoliarium won its first-class medal a few years later, and features the same electric, unfolding, highly moving, tragic drama. Side-by-side for the first time in the same salmon-pink gallery are the twin paintings Espana y Filipinas (the earlier painting is dated 1884 and is part of the National Gallery Singapore collection, while the painting dated 1888-1893 belongs to the Lopez Museum and Library), whose provenance and propaganda prove themselves an absorbing read in the catalogue’s essay written by Chikiamco and Phoebe Scott. (If the exhibition is a must-see, the catalogue, on the basis of the luminescence of the essays and artwork notes by Chikiamco, the curators, Ocampo, of course, and Carlos G. Navarro, is a must-read.)
Particularly revealing is the collection of Luna’s realist work, most notably Les Ignores (The Unknown Ones). The collection starkly sets itself apart in style and subject from his popular and sought-after portraiture of the beau monde and historical/mythological paintings. Deeply moving, Les Ignores depicts a funeral procession, every face turned away from the viewer, and on the whole painted in somber, dark tones. Chikiamco’s notes on the painting include a passage from La Ilustracion Artistica praising the work and the artist: “Fortunate are those who, like him, after bringing the greatness of the past to life with their genius, are capable with their hearts of making us feel the misfortunes of the present.”
The Spoliarium—its absence in this exhibition due to being that its size made logistics difficult, as well as its being a chief attraction in the National Museum—is not deeply missed; the exhibition shines on its own by not having the masterpiece as an anchor. (The same goes for the comparative exhibition on Raden Saleh–which is not to be missed–whose career’s trajectory, while in many ways different, also mirrors Luna’s in that they were both from southeast Asia, lived under colonial rule, and honed their craft in Europe. Saleh’s Boschbrand/Forest Fire, one of his most significant works, is in a different gallery in the museum.) It frees the body of work gathered in the exhibition to gainfully explore Luna as a true artist, a perspective not employed as often as it should.