Rare works of Juan Luna on display at National Gallery Singapore

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The National Gallery Singapore’s “Between Worlds” sheds new light on the works of Juan Luna, as well as Indonesian artist Raden Saleh. In photo: Juan Luna's “The Death of Cleopatra” (1881) from the collection of Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Carcasses of gladiators are dragged away from a Roman circus and pulled towards pitch-black darkness. There are contrasting emotions in this scene — some seem to be waiting for an opportunity that could arise from these deaths while some bemoan the cruelty that has befallen the departed.

This picture is set in a “Spoliarium,” a Latin word that refers to the basement of a Roman Colosseum where dead gladiators are stripped of possessions and are disposed, and is also the title of this Juan Luna masterpiece.

This 1884 artwork is deemed to be the ‘most valuable oil-on-canvas painting’ by Luna and is the largest painting in the Philippines. It not only won the first gold medal at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes, it has also become a picture of the propaganda movement during the Spanish colonial period.

But it was not the only important painting completed by the artist, and most of his work can only be found in foreign soil. In 2016, the National Gallery Singapore acquired major works of Juan Luna, as well as Indonesian artist Raden Saleh. As both artists have influenced their respective countries in historical, cultural, and political means, the National Gallery deemed it fit to bring the works of two Southeast Asian 19th century artists together in one exhibition that could reflect how colorful and important their journeys as artists of the colonial times were.

Juan Luna 1.JPG “Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna” traces the artists’ journey from Southeast Asia to Europe and back, as well as their continuous struggle to reconcile their ambitions in Europe and their nature of gravitating towards their homelands. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

Juan Luna 3.JPG Juan Luna's two versions of “España y Filipinas (Spain and the Philippines),” which depict two women representing both countries — one fairer than the other. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

The exhibition, titled “Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna,” is also happening alongside “Colours of Impressionism,” an exhibition that features over 60 works — including those of Monet, Pissarro, and Cézanne — from the collection of Musée d'Orsay, Paris. These two exhibitions are under the “Century of Light” exhibit, which aims to feature the various 19th century art movements and painting styles of that period.

“We were also in discussion with Musée d'Orsay about doing an exhibition with them and of course [their] strength is 19th century European works ... Raden Saleh and Juan Luna were both active in Paris, so for us it really made sense to have Juan Luna, Saleh, and Musee d'Orsay together,” says Clarissa Chikiamco, one of the curators of “Between Worlds.”

“When you say 19th century people, you usually think impressionists of France or European art. But then you have these two really amazing stories of these Southeast Asian artists.” — Clarissa Chikiamco

 

 

The exhibition traces the artists’ journey from Southeast Asia to Europe and back, as well as their continuous struggle to reconcile their ambitions in Europe and their nature of gravitating towards their homelands. While other artists were also considered, such as Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, an important artist who was part of the Philippine reform movement during the Spanish era, Chikiamco says that they decided to focus on Luna and Saleh, seeing as these artists have equal stature both in Indonesia and the Philippines. “They have that same kind of standing, of [being] national heroes in a way,” she adds.

Saleh was the first Indonesian artist who trained in Europe and was conferred as the “King’s Painter” by King Willem III of the Netherlands, Indonesia’s colonizer at that time. Meanwhile, Luna was taken under the wing of Alejo Vera, a painter from Spain. Both went on to receive recognition from other European countries, such as Germany and France.

Raden Saleh 2.JPG The exhibit features 80-100 works of the two artists from different museums around the world. Only three works are from the collection of the National Gallery Singapore. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

Raden Saleh - Javanese Temple in Ruins.jpg Raden Saleh's 1860 painting titled “Javanese Temple in Ruins,” which was loaned from the Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

The seed of the idea of bringing Saleh and Luna’s works together in the National Gallery Singapore started four years ago. After several negotiations, the curatorial team then went on a trip to Europe on May 2016 to start looking for the artists’ works, and opened the exhibition to the public on November 2017. “It was challenging. There are so many lenders for this exhibition. We have about 80-100 [pieces], but only three are from our collection, so everything else is on loan,” she explains.

The lenders from the Philippines includes Ayala Museum, Bank of the Philippines Islands, Lopez Museum, National Museum of the Philippines, and Vargas Museum, among others. Chikiamco says they worked closely with these lenders, especially when they found new insights on Luna’s works. For instance, the team proposed a lot of new dating for pieces that were previously undated. They saw patterns of his change in coloring, which signified that Luna could have done the work in Paris, and not during his time in Rome.

 

The curatorial team’s research also showed how Luna has made several versions of his work. An example is “España y Filipinas (Spain and the Philippines),” which depicts two women representing both countries — one fairer than the other. The 1884 version is one that the National Gallery Singapore has, while the other, dated 1888, is one that belongs to the Collection of Lopez and Museum Library. The only difference between the two paintings is the color of the women’s clothes.

Juan Luna - Les Ignores aka Heroes Anonimos_crop_HR.jpg Juan Luna's 1890-91 painting “Les Ignorés (The Unknown Ones),” loaned from the Collection of Biblioteca Museu Victor Balaguer, Vilanova i la Geltru, Spain. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

Edouard Fiorillo - Juan Luna in his studio.jpg Juan Luna in his studio, as photographed by Édouard Fiorillo. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

As evident in the works, these masterpieces display the capabilities of Southeast Asian artists during a time of oppression. One of the highlights of the exhibition is Saleh’s “Javanese Temple in Ruins,” an 1860 oil on canvas landscape painting of Java that the gallery loaned from the Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, and is on public display for the first time. Another highlight is Luna’s “Cleopatra,” an 1881 painting that theatrically depicts the Egyptian ruler’s death, which also won Luna his first major prize in Europe.

In the collecting of all these highly prized art pieces, what was revealing, Clarissa says, was how much these two artists had to overcome just to get to a place of recognition.

“When you say 19th century people, you usually think impressionists of France or European art. But then you have these two really amazing stories of these Southeast Asian artists. When you think about just the kind of odds that they had to overcome to reach their stature, it's incredibly interesting, and I would say, even inspiring.”

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“Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna” runs until March 11, 2018 at the National Gallery Singapore.