When Juan Luna submitted the Spoliarium to the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884, and won the first of three gold medals, the painting was an “immediate sensation,” writes Eric Torres in an article he wrote about Luna in 2004. It won not just a prize but also rave reviews in newspapers circulated in Paris, Barcelona and Madrid. Luna, an indio, had made it.
Torres writes that Luna and his compatriot Hidalgo strove hard for success in the famous salons of Europe—back in the day, any artist who wanted to be validated by the cultural arbiters of the establishment had to first submit their works to the Salon; if they passed muster, they would be exhibited to the public—a glittering crew of the continent’s ruling classes and culturati. These exhibitions were grand affairs, and its guests could give aspiring artists “overnight success, respectability, social status, and money,” Torres writes. “If he won a prize, so much the better. He became, in time, part of an establishment itself that dictated artistic taste.” Torres contends that more than fame or prestige, Luna had a point to prove. He wanted to show the world that the Filipino artist was just as good as his foreign counterparts. Through the Spoliarium, however, Luna showed not just a talent at par with his European contemporaries, he showed that his talent could, in fact, surpass theirs. Luna’s nationalism was fought not in pockets of dissent around his country, but in the “cultural centers of Europe,” Torres writes, “in the name of Filipino self-respect and pride.”
Small wonder then that the Spoliarium is widely considered the greatest Filipino artwork—not just for its technique or subject matter, but also for its context. Six days ago, a study of the Spoliarium sold for 63 million pesos at the The Well-Appointed Life auction—itself the playground of Manila’s bourgeoisie and glamorosi. It was a sale not without controversy—from its shifting provenance stories to its lack of complete authentication. There was also the matter of another boceto showing up the day before the auction, with its presenter telling the story of a surer provenance, and showing a willingness to have the study tested for authenticity. Nevermind that it looked like an art school project. For at least one buyer, the first boceto was a real Luna, and the other boceto has since slipped benignly out of mind—it seemed like either a prank or a laughing effort by a would-be saboteur.
When the boceto was sold last Saturday, a news cycle ended—or so we thought. Two nights ago, a bash celebrating the birthday of a member of the Leon Gallery circle ended on a laughing note. Guests—composed of gallery friends, important collectors, and even the director of the National Museum— were made to rise, after dinner, to a postprandial surprise. On the wall was a painting, a sheet draped mysteriously across it. A short speech was given right before the moment of revelation, guests counted down to the moment the curtain was yanked down, and voilà, there it was—a Spoliarium copy—a revelation greeted with resounding wows, woohoos, clapping and laughter. There was an edge of malice to it, a sense that the crowd was laughing at someone and not sharing a good-natured joke. This unveiling was presumably a dig at the big to-do over the recently-sold boceto, which was revealed on more than one occasion, in a similar fashion, to the public at large.
Like a vernissage, this occasion was open to the press, their flashbulbs capturing the moment the hand yanked the curtain, and it slid down to reveal not a study, not a miniature, but a joke. A smartphone was also used to film the moment, and the video has since been circulated on social media.
This, being the latest event in the saga of the Spoliarium boceto, is what we’ll be talking about for days—as if this were one of the grand salons of Europe, and an indio had just won a medal for a massive painting with a coded message, and a style harking back to Michelangelo or Raphael. What a joke. What a funny, funny joke.