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Monday, April 20, 2015

Juan Luna

Spolarium, 1884, Juan Luna
Juan Luna Self-portrait, ca. 1870s
It's no great secret today that wealthy entertainment celebrities often "get away with" behavior which would land most of us in the slammer for years. In centuries past, the definition of "celebrity" seldom included entertainers. Usually most of the celebrity slots were filled by royalty. However, famous artist, painters in particular, were often written about and thought about as being celebrities. There was apparently something special about anyone who could almost magically draw, and then paint a realistic (believable) image on canvas, which elevated them to what I guess you could call iconic status. And, like celebrities today, they sometimes did things that landed them before the "court" of public opinion, if not literally in court facing charges. Caravaggio and Filippo Lippi were two such artists. In more modern times, Salvador Dali fit this description as did Picasso, Lucien Freud, and a few others. One of the other "few" was the Filipino painter, Juan Luna. He literally got away with murder.
The Roman Maidens, 1881, Juan Luna
Juan Luna Novicio was born into a large Filipino family of seven children (he was the third) around 1857. In 1861, the family moved from the northern part of the Luzon to Manila in the south. The family was relatively well off, several of Juan's brothers quite prominent in the early history of the nation around the turn of the century as the islands transitioned from Spanish rule to American dominance and finally independence in 1935. One of Juan's younger brothers, Antonio, was a leader in the independence movement. Another, Jose, was a doctor; and yet another, Manuel, was also an artist, actually considered a better, though less well-known, painter than Juan. He was, in fact, his brother's first painting instructor. He was not, however, the last.
The Death of Cleopatra, 1881, Juan Luna.
One might even go so far as to say that Juan studied art most of his life, first in his homeland, then in Rome, followed by Paris, Madrid, and finally back to Paris. Each place he won awards for his work, a silver medal in Paris in 1881 for his Death of Cleopatra (above), followed by a gold medal in Madrid in 1884 for his massive Spolarium (top) among others. Along the way, he picked up the Romantic influences of Delacroix, Rembrandt, and Daumier. It was in Paris, in 1886 that he met and married the beautiful Maria de la Paz Pardo de Tavera. They honeymooned in Venice and Rome before settling in Paris where Paz gave birth to a daughter (who died in infancy) and a son named Andres. Juan was fond of painting his lovely wife (below), but also prone to physically abusing her and accusing her of adultery (maybe, maybe not).

The Parisian Life, 1892, Juan Luna--his wife...before he killed her.
In any case, it all came to a head in Paris some six years later on September 23rd, 1892. That's when, after a violent argument over his wife's alleged infidelity, Luna shot and killed her, then killed her mother, and wounded her brother when they tried to stop him. Luna was arrested and tried for murder. Incredibly, he was acquitted by reason of insanity under a 19th-century unwritten law by which the murder was deemed a "Crime of Passion." The French forgave husbands for killing unfaithful wives. Luna as ordered to pay his wounded brother-in-law $1,651 francs (and 83 cents) plus an additional twenty-five francs for postage. Postage?

Daydreams of Love,
1890s, Juan Luna

The Battle of Lepanto of 1571, painted in 1886, Juan Luna

Juan Luna, on the street outside his home.
Shortly thereafter, thinking it best to leave Paris before they changed their minds, Juan took his son and returned to the Philippines after an absence of seventeen years. Although he traveled in the Far East some after that and actively supported the Philippine Revolution, Luna painted little during the final years of his life. He died in 1899 at the age of thirty-eight. Today Luna is considered the greatest painter the Philippines ever produced. His house in Manila has been turned into something of a museum shrine with his bronze statue out front while the backyard garden has been made into a unique outdoor gallery displaying, large, full-scale reproductions of his work. All of which presents the natives with something of an awkward situation, having turned a murderer (twice over, no less) into a national hero.

The Juan Luna garden gallery shrine.


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