“Genius has no country" - The Filipino painter Juan Luna

23 October 1857, the Filipino painter Juan Luna was born in Badoc in the Philippines.
“Genius has no country. It blossoms everywhere. Genius is like the light, the air. It is the heritage of all.“ (Toast of José Rizal to Juan Luna and Felix Hidalgo)

Juan Luna:  “Spoliarium” from 1884, now displayed in the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila

The demands of political change, home rule and liberty that shook Europe during the 19th century didn’t stop on the continent. The various overseas empires were affected as well, South America, South Africa, India and the Philippines. The latter experienced a first uprising in San Felipe against Spanish misrule that was bloodily put down and many belonging to the Philippines’ Intelligentsia fled to the British colonies in Southeast Asia or to Europe to continue their fight for freedom. The so-called Ilustrados were mostly the children of wealthy landowners from various ethnic backgrounds, had received excellent educations, either from colleges in Manila or Spanish universities and now put their talents in the service of the cause, pooled in the Propaganda Movement and aiming at raising the awareness especially in Spain of the needs and demands of the Philippines. Most contributed to liberal newspapers, like Marcelo del Pilar or wrote novels like Mariano Ponce and the Filipino national hero José Rizal – and some started apolitical and joined the movement later but played nonetheless an important rule in furthering the cause – like the painters Felix Hidalgo and Juan Luna.

Juan Luna: "Las Damas Romanas" (1882)

At the age of 20, Luna arrived in Barcelona to continue his studies, exhausted what he could learn there and went to Rome, not exactly a hot spot for contemporary painting, but Luna got acquainted with the masters of the Renaissance and began to paint his own colossal Graeco-Roman canvasses, a quite popular sujet under the influence of the late 19th century’s historicism. The academic canon of teaching fine arts did obviously not fail to make his mark on Luna and even though he remarked upon his disillusionment with the limits of a largely backward-looking style, he continued to produce them, his “Spoliarium” showing dead gladiators being dragged out of the arena from 1884 even won an award in Spain but he failed to achieve a top rank in Spanish exhibitions, allegedly due to biased juries, but was admired by the Filipinos at home and in exile, José Rizal among them. Luna finally went to Paris in 1885 and discovered new, more progressive means of expression, painting impressionistic motives. He was, again, quite successful and got admitted to the société nationale des beaux-arts and was allowed to exhibit 10 of his paintings at the Salon de Champ-de-Mars.

Juan Luna: "Odalisque" (1885)

Juan Luna was married since 1886, his wife accompanied him to Paris, the couple had two children and the story ended in tears, his little daughter died in her infancy and Luna killed his wife and her visiting mother in a fit of jealousy. He was acquitted though pleading temporary insanity and finally left Europe with his son after 17 years for the Philippines. Having made contacts with revolutionary circles in Paris and with his brother General Antonio Luna already playing an active role in the Propaganda Movement, Juan began to participate in the revolution which brought him to jail again promptly after his arrival in Manila, he was pardoned after a year and accompanied the Philippine Revolutionary Government’s delegation to Washington on the dawn of the Spanish-American War to press for the recognition of his country’s independence. Having received the news of his brother’s murder by reactionaries he travelled back home and died en route of a heart attack in Hong Kong.

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