Passions and Obsessions

Juan Luna obra: My search for the masterpiece that ‘didn’t exist’

Independence Day celebration saw the reveal of the ‘Grail’ of Philippine art

Juan Luna
Found after more than 130 years, Juan Luna's ' Hymen, oh Hymenee! (Photo from Ayala Museum FB)

(The Philippine art scene had a grand reveal June 9, Friday, in time for the June 12 celebration of the Independence Day, when the Ayala Museum, with Leon Gallery, held “Splendor (Juan Luna, painter as hero),” a multimedia exhibit of the Juan Luna obra that has been rediscovered after some 130 years. The painting is titled Hymen, oh Hymenee!

The exhibit celebrates the 125th anniversary of Philippine Independence and nationhood. Opening with vernissage cocktails attended by the art cognoscenti, art collectors, and Manila society, the exhibit featured a 21-minute documentary by Paris-based Filipino film director Martin Arnaldo, and a book of essays by Dr. Ambeth R. Ocampo, Arnaldo, and Ayala Museum curators Ditas Samson, Tenten Mina, and Jei Ente.

The exhibit opened to the public June 12 and will run until December 30, 2023.

In his opening remarks, Leon Gallery head Jaime Ponce de Leon detailed the back story of a most significant find.—Editor)

NCCA chair Victorino Manalo (center) holds copy of Juan Luna book, with Leon Gallery head Jaime Ponce de Leon (third from left), Ayala Museum director Mariles Gustilo (beside Manalo), and Museum curators during the June 9, 2023 vernissage.

Let me begin by thanking everyone here for coming to share—for what it seems to me—the end of a very long but exciting journey.

The story truly began some 134 years ago in a salon in Paris. It was celebrated for a prize in the Paris Exposition Universelle de 1889.  And then its whereabouts would become unknown for about a hundred years.  A document mentioned it was in the collection of the Louvre.  Some speculated it had been burned by the Pardo de Taveras out of their spite for Luna. The mystery of its existence only grew through the engravings and mentions of its splendor in 19th-century publications.

But where was it? Nobody knew.

My own story began about 15 years ago when I first heard of this treasure.  By then, it was the ultimate “Grail” of Philippine Art. Much talked about by collectors, much revered, but nowhere to be found. That, of course, made it even more tantalizing.  It was Dr. Eleuterio “Teyet” Pascual, I believe, who first saw this painting some 50 years ago.  His eloquence got the better of him in recounting to me his impressions at first sight.  It was, I thought, the greatest painting that didn’t exist.

But there were no leads left to me.  I knew only one other person who knew this, but no collector nor dealer would ever give a clue.  And so it was a race to find it, but a race where no one would share the map to the “Grail.”

The dream of finding it would thus become a tireless obsession, and I would find myself haunting galleries and dealers—famous and some infamous—all over Europe, courting old maids and befriending aristocrats, and anybody and everybody in between who had some connection to Juan Luna as well as to the Philippines.  It would always be futile, and my hopes always dashed.

And then one fine day in 2014, I got a call and was told to be at the doorstep of a certain aristocratic, lordly home in a European city by 10 am sharp.  And there I was.  I could not believe what was revealed and finally lay before me.  It was the “Grail.”

But there is one thing that I must impress upon you tonight.  Beyond the splendor and magnificence of this masterpiece is its true meaning and intention.  Above all, this work is a testament and a monument to love.  I will leave that to Ambeth Ocampo, Mariles Gustilo, Lisa Guerrero-Nakpil, and Martin Arnaldo to tell you why.

And so here we are, ladies and gentlemen.  The time has come to unbox the “Grail.”  The mystery has been solved.  It has been found.

Luna spoke to the world best of what it means to be a Filipino

I would like to thank, first and foremost, the Ayala Museum for making this happen. Thank you to their curators—as this is probably the Philippines’ most studied, documented, and analyzed painting to date.

And to all of you, thank you very much once again for having gathered here with the intention of making our 125th year of Filipino nationhood even more special by remembering Juan Luna y Novicio, one of its greatest architects, alongside Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio.

Through his brush and his palette, Luna spoke to the world best of what it means to be a Filipino. And because of that, he was able to move mountains and help create a nation.

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