Value our heritage: Keep Juan Luna’s Parisian Life in the Philippines

Juan Luna’s “Parisian Life” is once again in the limelight. According to Ricky Ramos, GSIS Museum PR office, this beautiful painting is now offered for sale along with two Amorsolo paintings. The painting is not too well known in 1892 but it was wrought with controversy when GSIS bought it at Christie’s auction in Hongkong in the amount of 46 million pesos in 2002.

Many questioned the use of government money for this purchase. GSIS stand is Art is an investment. Now, a foreign buyer has offered 200 million pesos. The value of this 46 million painting is now worth 200 million pesos. The question is : should we allow Juan Luna’s painting to be brought out of our country?

To truly appreciate Parisian Life, Leslie Bocobo invited me to attend the Michael Charleston “XIAO” B. Chua lecture on “Ang Pagtuturo ng Kasaysayan gamit ang Parisian life ni Juan Luna” at the Juan Luna Room (History and Destiny) of GSIS Museo ng Sining . I feel the present GSIS administration should appreciate the history of this painting.

When I first spotted Juan Luna’s Parisian Life painting, I wondered about the relevance of this woman. The painting seemed shallow to me at first. The painting has been known to have names A.k.a. “Intérieur d’un Café,” “The Maid,” “Un Coquette.”

Christie’s in 2002 describes “Parisian Life offers the best features of the artist’s work from the Paris period testifying to his sensitivity and skill in capturing a fleeting moment of ordinary life, and imbuing it with personality and universal emotions ”

Three interpretations

I took this opportunity to understand the significance of Parisian Life based on various interpretations.

GSIS museum director Eric Zerrudo suggests that there are three possible interpretations of the work.

The first one is that the woman was a courtesan who caught the eye of the three Filipino patriots while they were discussing affairs regarding their homeland in the cafe.

It is interesting to note that the men in the painting are Jose Rizal (back view), Juan Luna (center) and Ariston Bautista-Lin. The three heroes in the painting played very vital roles in the Philippine revolution. “In 1892, the three did not realize that they would change the course of Philippine History.” “Rizal” he added, “wrote the inspirational novels “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” and became the most beloved Philippine National Hero. Juan Luna painted more award winning paintings and was a member of the first Philippine diplomatic mission to the United States while Ariston Bautista Lin discovered paregoric, a medicine that stopped the onslaught of a countrywide cholera epidemic that time. He was also the financier of the Propaganda movement, the Katipunan, the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-America War. The three played pivotal roles in Philippine

Another interpretation is that the painting hints at Luna’s family problems. Close to the time of the painting’s completion, Luna was struggling with personal tragedies–the death of his infant daughter and his suspicion his wife was having an affair with a French doctor. The half-empty beer mug in the table in front of the woman and the coat on the sofa may be suggestive symbolisms.

Zerrudo’s third theory (based from the UP Fine Arts) on the painting is that the woman in the painting may be intended to represent the Philippines, her form suggesting a mirror image of the Philippine archipelago.

What appear to be artistic flaws in the painting–the dark neck of the woman and the awkward placement of her head against a window joint which thus appears to jut out of her head–may have been intentionally done to symbolize the state of the Philippines at that time.

You will note the awkward pose of her legs, and her arms. Observe the tiny waist which looks like 12 inches.

If you look closely, the shape of the woman is like the shape of the mirror image of the map of the Philippines. The edge of her dress is just about the shape of Sulu, the waist is situated on shortest oart of the Philippines starting from Infanta, Quezon until San Antonio, Zambales. Palawan is angled at the arm of the woman. The mountain ranges that separates Surigao from Agusan and Davao is exact to the dark fold of the lady’s gown. Kawit, Cavite, the site of the birth of the 1898 Philippine lndependence is exact on the lady’s womb, site of a birth. The site of the declaration of the 1899 Constitution Malolos, Bulacan is exact on the navel of the lady. The constitution accordingly is the bloodline of the nation. Cebu on the other hand covers the knee of the lady and it was pointed out that Cebu was the site of the first Christianization in the country.


Inang Bayan

Note the glass on the table. One is half empty while the other is still full. Researchers say the woman symbolizes “Inang Bayan”. Ciao Chua explains the symbolism.

Kung titingnan sa ganitong perspektibo, si Inang Bayan ay may kasama, sapagkat may dalawang baso sa mesa, may bakanteng upuan, at mayroong coat at top hat sa sofa. Sa interpretasyong ito, ang kasama ay ang Espanya.

There is more to the interpretation and other “connections” to Philippine history, such as the foundation of the Katipunan and Manila’s liberation.

I rather you hear the rest of the details from the historians like Xiao Chua or GSIS museum director Eric Zerrudo.

Xiao chua poses a question to each one of us :

“Sa huli, maaaring itanong, hindi kung ano ang halaga ng obra maestra sa bayan, kundi ano ba ang halaga natin bilang isang bayan sa harap ng obrang ito upang maging nararapat sa pamanang kahusayan at kabayanihan ng ating mga ninuno. “

What I would like to stress is that we need to value this painting, our heritage. Let us ask ourselves not about the worth of the painting but tour worth as a people to deserve a historically valuable artwork. “Parisian Life” began as a tribute to great Filipinos who are on the cusp of a great change, and now a fitting testament to Luna’s genius and artistic merit, his work continues to invoke passion and create history.”

Normally a three hour lecture gives me a headache but not this art appreciation of Juan Luna. I felt a deeper understanding of the worth of our heritage. It is clear Juan Luna’s “Parisian Life” not only serves “as a window to the past, but as a reflection of our real worth as a nation.”

If the Spoliarium of Juan Luna can be found at the National Museum, and the Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas Al Populacho of Felix Resureccion Hidalgo is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, the Parisian Life should continue to stay at the GSIS Museo ng Sining.

Let us leave politics outside the doors of Juan Luna room, the History and Destiny room. Juan Luna’s Parisian Life belongs to the Filipinos. Keep it at the GSIS Museo ng Sining.

“Heritage conservation is a moral obligation.” (Ellorin 2003)

There were twitter reactions as I live tweeted the lecture. Everyone believes that the painting should not be sold to a foreign buyer and leave Philippine soil.

MICHAEL CHARLESTON “XIAO” B. CHUA is a professor at the De La Salle Manila and the Vice President of the Philippine Historical Association