Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Midday at the Museum, a glimpse of our living past


Yabang mode: I've been to the Louvre, the Prado, the Reina Sofia, the Van Gogh, the Rikjsmuseum. I've seen the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, Velasquez's Las Meninas, Goya's Naked Maja, Picasso's Guernica, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Rembrandt's The Night Watch.

Fail mode: I've not been to the National Museum. I've not seen the Manunggul Jar, the San Diego relics, Luna's Spoliarium.

Until last Saturday, that is--when, with only two hours of sleep (Friday night being crunch time at the workplace), I joined a bloggers' group organized by OutedNarnian for a three-hour tour of the museum. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., we ambled along after arts expert John Silva as he toured us all over the two buildings of the museum complex, climaxing with a stirring mini-lecture before the gargantuan Spoliarium.

Migs, McVie and OutedNarnian have all written about the tour, and its hugely enjoyable aftermath when we had late lunch in this restaurant-by-the-estero in Binondo (another unique cultural experience!), so may I just direct you to their respective entries? I'll find some time to write more exhaustively about the museum and the tour itself. Rough impressions: The institution is obviously laboring under budgetary constraints. For a national museum, it could use greater sophistication in presentation, preservation, even lighting, etc. (The original Manunggul jar is so poorly lighted, its exquisite details are lost in the shadows).

But Mr. Silva was a topnotch guide, engaging and never academic, bringing history alive with both sweep and anecdotal punch. His most hilarious moment: He recounted how, wanting to experience betel-nut chewing (nganga) himself to better understand the ways of our ancestors, he took one and promptly began hallucinating. He was beside a river that time, and a carabao lolling nearby turned pink and began dancing. “Ang mga ancestors pala natin, mga druggies!,” he quipped.

I had brought with me my new Flip UltraHD camera (a camcorder sized like a cell phone--thanks, Beektur, for the pasalubong!), but it was only before the Luna masterpiece that I turned it on, because the sight before us demanded some form of memorializing. Check out the video below. (The huge painting opposite the Spoliarium, on view when I pan the camera around, is Felix Resureccion Hidalgo's The Assassination of Governor Bustamante.)

Mr. Silva's very enlightening lecture--how Luna and Hidalgo's twin triumphs at the Bellas Artes Expo (the latter placing second for his painting, Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace) sparked in a young man named Jose Rizal some radical new ideas that would ultimately lead to his martyrdom and the birth of a nation, with him as its National Hero--is deliberately cut off in the vid. If you want to listen to the rest of the spiel, and to see everything else that our own National Museum has to offer, do sign up for the tour. It's only P800. Time and money very well spent, I tell you. (The numbers to call are 0926-7299029, 0917-4195928, 5275082. Reservation required.)

PLUS: Rizal's famous toast to Luna and Hidalgo was held at the Hotel Ingles in Madrid on June 25, 1884. It became famous because Rizal, then only 23, used the occasion not only to deliver a soaring, eloquent speech--“Genius has no country, genius blossoms everywhere, genius is like the light, the air, it is the heritage of all”--but also to link his two compatriots' staggering triumph at the world's then-premiere arts competition to the Filipinos' general longing for greater freedom and enlightenment under Spanish rule.

As Mr. Silva put it, Rizal had seized on a life-changing idea: “If Filipinos can now equal the Spaniards in the arts, why couldn’t we be equal in political rights? It was a turning point for young Rizal. He had made a declaration. Several months later, he was involved in campus demonstrations and began to write the first sentences to his anti-colonial novel, Noli Me Tangere. The medical student’s career path was irrevocably altered, and he dedicated the rest of his life and even gave up his life for his country. It all started with a painting.”

In Madrid last February, I was with a media group that went on a Rizal tour, visiting the places and houses associated with Rizal's stay in the Spanish capital. One of them is the historic Hotel Ingles. Some pictures:

The hotel, still existing, more boutique than five-star, is located along a narrow, rather nondescript street. Its lobby carries a plaque in Spanish commemorating the historic banquet where expatriate Filipinos led by Jose Rizal lauded Luna and Hidalgo. That banquet wasn't held inside the current hotel premises, but in a restaurant that is now, unfortunately, a garage.

PLUS PLUS: If Luna's triumphant Spoliarium is at the National Museum, where is Hidalgo's own masterpiece, Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace? It is at the Central Bank Museum--the crown jewel of its 1,200-plus visual arts collection, I believe. Now, this was a museum I got to check out last year, and take pictures of. Below is Hidalgo's electrifying painting. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Remember the time--this was the 1800s, when women baring a shoulder was already considered a taboo. Nudity was only sanctioned in the high arts--in painting and sculpture. If the Spoliarium took one's breath away with its massive scale and epic subject, imagine the titillated frenzy that must have accompanied the viewing of Hidalgo's work. A reaction not entirely out of line, since a look at the painting--especially the faces of the lecherous men ogling the vanquished women--tells you Hidalgo himself didn't shy away from the queasy nature of his subject. It's a startlingly frank work. The painting reeks of heat, lust, debauchery, humiliation, ravishment and sadism. A more modestly scaled piece compared to Luna's masterpiece, it is, in its own way, overpowering.



joelmcvie said...

I actually saw Hidalgo's painting first, since I also was able to visit the CB Museum first. Powerful painting, gripping even in its modest size (compared to the Spoliarium).

Turismoboi said...

i love zpolarium

guzto ko tlaga makita yan!

gio said...

thanks for posting this gibbs. i truly adore our painting masters. i love you exploring History and ruminating about it in a contemporary manner. hope to have lots more people reading in your entries.

mabuhay ka!

The Green Man said...

OMG!!! I am supposed to be at this tour. John S. has been inviting me to join his tour but I always tell him I am busy. John is a good friend.

Sigh... sayang... had I known you guys were going... I should have freed my sched :-(

beektur said...

in my heart of hearts i have so much to say but i don't know how. the day after we visited intramuros, we went to metropolitan museum (bangko sentral museum). 3 minutes into the museum, my non-filipino companion said that the metropolitan is a joke. my knee-jerk reaction was a mixture of indignation and annoyance, even anger towards his remark. but so quickly it turned to indignation and sadness, for there's so much truth in his statement. we are nation with a rich history. our country is at a crossroad of cultural currents -- a receptor of european and american ideas and idelas while keeping our malayan spirit. the manila met museum offers not even a glimpse to any of them. we then proceeded to CCP -- with me hoping to recapture whatever grandeur that percolated through messy management and government bureaucracy. our experience went further downhill. the kiukok masterpieces in the lobby are in the dark (i had a sudden urge to wank them off the wall and give them a better place). the pasyonasyon(?) exhibit on in the third floor -- though varied and well-curated was in a crumbling space (i remember well the 13 artists exhibits here), without proper ventilation and smells of mold and rust. this after a confusing experience in a confusing space called NCCA in intramuros. and THAT after getting inside intramuros to be confronted by shanties, open sewers and garbages everywhere. what's my point? museums are not repositories of artifacts. they are showcases of a nation's collective pride and vision: what they aspire to be throughout the stages of their history. they are not physical institutions run by and available for a few. they are the people's living reflection of who they were, who they are and what they are capable of. i am writing this as my heart bleeds. i think of the streetchildern that knocked the window of our cab and the fishermen in bohol. what can we do to let them know that there's so much dignity in our history. that we are much more capable of other dignified achievements than knocking out boxers and wowing audiences with high notes?

John Silva said...

hi gibbs,

many thanks for your wonderful comments. I know this will spur others to come to our museum. I am in Bangalore and just came back from their National Museum and I feel saddened that it is in bad shape, even more underfunded and a feeling of incredible neglect yet in a beautiful 19th century building. We are actually a lot better than they are but I dont say that to gloat either.



lorienimladris said...

I was in Manila for four months after a 23 year absence. One of my goals on this trip was to get re-familiarized and explore the cultural amenities that the city has to offer. Upon visiting the National Museum, I was particularly shocked at how very few people visit the museums. This was during the height of the summer season. I counted six people have visited when we arrived early afternoon. Really sad. Something is amiss when people would rather go malling or what-have-you than explore this nation's heritage.

But all that sadness dissipated when I saw Juan Luna's Spoliarium. Truly breath-taking.

PLC said...

this article is to help us ... thanks
Very excellent

patrick said...

two of my favorite artists.


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