In the late 19th century, affluent Filipinos sent their children to London, Ghent, Rome, Paris and other European cities for higher education. The majority sent sons to Spanish schools. Typically, the trip from Manila to Barcelona in the 1880s took 42 days. From the Spanish port, they took the train or traveled by boat. Felix Roxas, a member of the "poorer" branch of the Roxas clan (the "rich" branch were the Roxas Zobel de Ayalas), was one of the fortunate Filipinos. In an engaging series of reminiscences written for a Manila newspaper in the 1930s (reprinted later in the Filipiniana Book Guild volume, The World of Felix Roxas), he recounts his experiences as a 17-year-old student sent to Europe in 1881.
Upon disembarking, Roxas immediately went to a barbershop, where he had his hair cut, styled, and curled. Then he went shopping for a new hat and cane. But the European sojourn of young Filipinos were meant to change more than outward appearances. Many of the contemporaries of Roxas bore surnames familiar to us still. There were the Visayans Cresenciano Gonzaga of Negros Occidental; and Emilio Villanueva of Negros. Graciano Lopez Jaena studied medicine in Valencia. Javier Gomez de la Serna and Simplicio Hugo y Vidal were both from Capiz. From other parts of the archipelago were Julio Llorente, taking up civil engineering and law simultaneously. Eduardo de Lete was from Pangasinan and Tomas del Rosario from Balanga, Bataan.
Gregorio Sanciangco of Malabon , who wrote El Progreso Filipino, in many ways as important as the Noli and Fili, was mentioned. There was Rizal, studying medicine at San Carlos and philosophy and letters at the Universidad Central. Also studying medicine was his townmate Santiago Carillo. There were Antonio Rocha; Manuel Fernandez Maninang and his stepbrother Vicente Gonzalez Maninang, from Manila. Melecio Figueroa, trained as an engineering scholar in Rome, was also an engraver, and later designed the Philippine coins during the American regime.
Pedro Alejandro Paterno already had a university degree from Salamanca, and enjoyed the friendship of prominent literary and political figures. Pedro's brothers Antonio and Maximino studied in San Carlos University. Roxas was like a camera, retaining colorful images in his head. To celebrate success in recent exams, he invited the Filipino student colony to a formal dance. They came "in formal attire: gleaming top hats, gloves and well-pressed frock coats... (Among the guests were)...lovely Madrileñas...(with) their olive complexion and elegant figures...They all spent an exceedingly enjoyable night dancing almost till dawn."
In December 1881 Pedro invited the entire Filipino colony to his house for a banquet honoring the overseas minister, Fernando Leon y Castillo, who had secured the royal decree abolishing the tobacco monopoly in the Philippines. The 50 guests “wore impeccable top hats and were flawlessly dressed” and were served champagne as they listened to speeches.
Prominent among the Filipinos was the master painter Juan Luna, who hobnobbed with royalty. His mother-in-law, a Gorricho, owned valuable land in Manila. His father-in-law, a top-notch lawyer, had been implicated in the 1872 Cavite Mutiny, and the family had gone into exile in Paris. Luna moved to Paris in October 1884, and established his studio close to that of F. Resurreccion Hidalgo. Luna in Paris was not the same provincial who had disembarked in Barcelona from a distant colony. He had become a sophisticate. Paris already dominated the artistic world. In its salons, the canons of Classicism, Romanticism and Realism were being challenged.
Paris of the 1880s had undergone a generation of urban rebuilding during which it became a city of fashion and elegance. But the architectural homogeneity was also a reflection of class segregation and the blasé public attitude. French artists adopted the stance of the flaneur—a perpetual idler, browser, or window-shopper who saw the city of Paris as a spectacle created for his entertainment, and judged commodities to be icons made for his veneration. The term "flaneur" is a French verb which means "to stroll." A flaneur can thus signify a person who walks the city in order to experience it. But more correctly, it refers to the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who spends his time, with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of the city. A flaneur thus both played a role in city life and (in theory) remained a detached observer. This stance, simultaneously being part of and apart from, combines sociological, anthropological, literary and historical notions of the relationship between the individual and the crowd.
The critical stance of flanerie is now applied generally to any kind of pedestrian environment that accommodates leisurely exploration of city streets, in particular commercial avenues where inhabitants of different classes mix. We get a glimpse of Luna and his contemporaries as flaneurs in "Interior de un cafe" ("Cafe Interior," retitled "Parisian Life," which the GSIS purchased a few years ago at auction for around P40 million). In this cynical take on Paris, three men (said to be Luna, Rizal and Mariano Ponce), ogle a bored beauty. Luna's sketchbooks — just like Roxas's journals — show their keen but detached, almost clinical, powers of observation.
But Luna was not predisposed to become a stroller or lounger like Manet and the Impressionist artists, in style nor in content. Social concerns were already at the periphery of Luna's consciousness, as seen in "Street Flower Vendors" (1885), which captured part of the funeral cortege of Victor Hugo. Luna must have read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables; he joined hundreds of thousands of Parisians in paying a last homage to Hugo at the vigil under the Arc de Triomphe and the funeral the next day, 1 June 1885. Luna's friendship with Jose Rizal and the other expatriate activists who often visited him in Paris, and with whom he constantly and warmly corresponded, was real and sustained by shared views. Luna's residence-atelier at Rue Pergolese became the meeting place of Filipinos who took to fencing (the Luna brothers, Valentin Ventura, and Rizal himself).
They formed a group called the Indios Bravos, and Luna's place became a convenient rendezvous. It was in Paris, in 1886, that Luna finished "El pacto de sangre" ("Blood Compact", app. 225 x 300 cms), now in Malacanang. The painting portrays Miguel Lopez de Legaspi and his men, representing the Spanish crown, and Sikatuna, datu of Bohol, representing Filipino sovereigns, drinking ceremonially from a common cup of wine, in which some drops of the two leaders' blood were mixed, on 16 March 1565. For this picture Rizal posed as Sikatuna, and T.H. Pardo de Tavera, as Legaspi. In the painting, which was meant to be hung in Manila, the viewers were meant to identify with Sikatuna, for his back is turned, and it is from his (or "our") perspective that we perceive "them" (the solemn Spaniards) avowing equality and friendship.
Luna, with growing cynicism and engagement with social realism, began to look for subjects in the shabbier quarters of Paris, in shops and factories with their deplorable working conditions. His subjects had became more radical, as in "Le Chiffonier" ("El trapero" or "The Ragpicker." Awarded one of the prizes in the Champs de Mars salon in 1890), which shows an old man in tattered clothes with a basket of rags strapped to his back, and old hats and bags hanging from his arms. (Bencab's "Sabel" only reprises Luna's magtatrapo). He wrote Rizal on May 13, 1891: "have been occupied with the humble and the disinherited... have been reading Contemporary Socialism, by E. de Laveleye, which is a compilation of the theories of Karl Marx, Lasalle, etc., socialism of the Catholics, the conservatives, the evangelical, etc..." He visited factories, which he likened to Dante's Hell, where men, women and children were mired in unimaginable misery. Luna turned more and more to socialistic themes. His continuing interest in the anti-friar and anti-colonial struggle in his homeland was signified by his continuing involvement in the Propaganda Movement.
Those Paris years were crucial for Luna. He may have been on the way to recognition as an important figure in European painting. But personal tragedy altered his destiny. His marriage was on the rocks, with the death of their daughter Bibi and discovering his wife's infidelity. In a fit of jealousy, in 22 Sept 1892, Luna fired at and wounded his brother-in-law Felix Pardo de Tavera, before he shot and killed his mother-in-law and his wife. He was charged with murder; the tragedy made the front pages and became the sensation of Paris and Madrid.
But Luna was acquitted by the French court on 7 February 1893 on the grounds of temporary insanity and the "unwritten law" which permitted a husband to kill an adulterous wife. Luna immediately left Paris, moving to Madrid with his son Luling. Years later (January 1897), he sent a letter of apology to Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, but he was never forgiven. The family destroyed Luna paintings that they had. Trinidad never spoke to or saw Luna again. In 1899, while Spain and the US were hammering out the Treaty of Paris, by which Spain ceded the Philippines to the US, Felix Roxas was in Paris helping Juan Luna in representing the Philippine Revolutionary government.
That task included a lot of socializing. Parties started at nine or 10 in the evening. Roxas remembers one party, where some opera singers were presented to Parisian society. At around two a.m., Juan Luna invited Roxas and two ladies—a French pianist and a Russian soprano—to leave the party and to eat at a restaurant. It was crowded but they were able to secure a table with bright red divans. The menu offered Soup; Cold cuts; Asparagus; Homemade strawberries; and Champagne. Luna began to recount — without omitting any detail —everything that had happened to him on that sad afternoon when, blinded with anger, he broke down the door of the apartment and then the door of the bathroom where his wife and mother-in-law hid. The lady guests were terrified by what Luna related.
Roxas remembers that the agitated Luna soon had to go home because he felt ill and had become dizzy. (Luna suffered from hypertension and died of a heart attack in Hong Kong some two years later). It was four in the morning when their coaches left the restaurant. Roxas' job included, if not participating in, at least responding to numerous invitations to dinners, soirees, and outings. The Filipino residents of Paris organized "expeditions to neighbouring cities; they visited museums, tendered banquets in various eating places, invited them to the Bois de Boulogne... (there) they attended the evening concerts in picturesque pavilions, gathered at the pond, and contemplated the elegant ladies who were promenading in their luxurious carriages, or rode on spirited horses wearing spurs...".
All this while in the homeland, their countrymen were engaged in deadly struggle against the Spaniards. The Filipinos in Europe in the late 19th century were dandies and flaneurs — they were bourgeoisie-fled and more than willing to stay blasé. It was quite easy because they were always strangers in the European cities where they may have lived for years and studied the ways of the larger world. Nevertheless Luna, Roxas, Rizal, Ponce and most of the other Filipinos of their generation remained deeply passionate about the Philippines, and went back home with purpose and hope.
Art from Juan Luna Drawings Paris Period from the Collection of Dr. Eleuterio M. Pascual.
This story first appeared on September - November Metro Him Magazine 2007.