Martin Arnaldo’s quest to tell the Juan Luna story sees no end

Still at work on the film, after all these years, he wants it to 'shake the foundation of make the West see how they've regarded us...'

Martin Arnaldo at Museya Kafé before our tête-à-tête

“So in Luna we find the shades, the contrasts, the fading lights, the mysterious and the terrible…Genius has no country, genius bursts forth everywhere; genius is like light and air, the patrimony of all.”

— Jose Rizal toasting Juan Luna, in Carlos Quirino’s Juan Luna                                    

It was déjà vu, imagining my student self making my way to the University of the Philippines Diliman for my class with Prof. Ding Asuncion on Philippine history, the revolutionary artists, writers, et al., as the car sped down Edsa one Thursday morning towards Ayala Museum. I was to meet filmmaker Martin Arnaldo.

Our conversation was to center on Arnaldo’s documentary Hymen, oh Hyménée! that premiered last June 12, with the unveiling of the 136-year-old painting by Juan Luna at the Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero exhibition of Ayala Museum, Makati.

Get to know Juan Luna in ‘Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as a Hero’ which runs until Dec. 30, 2023 at Ayala Museum, Makati.

A bust of Juan Luna by Mariano Benlliure at the entrance to where the documentary is screened

“The central theme of the film is that this painting truly symbolizes Luna’s marriage to Paz Pardo de Tavera,” Arnaldo said as we strolled through the exhibit space that evoked the ambiance of a 19th-century artist’s atelier, to see Luna’s chef d’oeuvre before watching his documentary. “He prominently displayed it throughout his years in Paris because it held special significance for him.”

Arnaldo wrote, produced, and directed the film commissioned by Ayala Museum. Initially it didn’t include the celebration of 125 years of Philippine independence, focusing only on finding Luna’s Hymen, oh Hyménée! and in time with the momentous unboxing of the painting in October 2022 at the museum. Arnaldo went back to the drawing board when the exhibition was tied with the commemoration of Independence Day.

“The celebration of 125 years of independence gave it an important perspective, which I didn’t see at the beginning. It paved the way to acknowledge both the Philippines and Luna. It bridged the gap imposed by colonialism and the social divide,” said Arnaldo, a philosophy graduate of Mansfield College, Oxford and Boston College.

‘The celebration of 125 years of independence…paved a way to acknowledge the Philippines and Luna’

The painting’s homecoming saw a serendipitous merging of the documentary with Arnaldo’s planned personal feature film on Luna, which is in the pipeline. It also gave him more talking space. The film’s brief 21-minute allotment was a concession he had to agree to.

“We only had 30 minutes of air time with CNN Philippines on July 8,” clarified Jin Paul De Guzman, Ayala Foundation Inc.’s senior manager for external communications.

The exhibit, with its cornucopia of the painting and bocetos (sketches), Arnaldo’s film, and a book of essays, couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, when education on art and history has fragmented into incomplete and disparate pieces of knowledge. For example, awareness on Luna among Filipinos “rests not on a corpus of work, but on one painting, Spoliarium, for its technical skill…its allegorical messages, and the gold medal it received,” wrote historian Ambeth Ocampo in Luna’s Pursuit of Greatness.

Luna, a colonial subject, was more than a one-painting wonder. He was a prolific painter and, through his body of works, repeatedly transcended the prejudiced perceptions of both the colonizers and the Filipino elite in Europe.

Luna resonated with Arnaldo on a personal level, with an obvious shared affinity to France despite the vast time gap. Luna moved to Paris from Madrid after winning a gold medal for Spoliarium in the 1884 Exposición Nacional del Bellas Artes. He flourished, establishing studios on Boulevard Arago, his first, and Villa Dupont, his last.

Paris became Arnaldo’s home in 1973, when he was just a year old. His family migrated to the art and fashion capital of the world when his father, Choy Arnaldo, the renowned ABS-CBN newscaster, started work with Unesco. In filming the documentary, Arnaldo met sculptor Elisabeth Chauvenet, who was born in Villa Dupont and who still calls it home.

Luna, with fellow painters Félix Pardo de Tavera and Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, participated at the 1889 Exposition de Universelle, exhibiting at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts his five paintings, Fiesta de Himeneo (Hymen, oh Hyménée!), Retrato de las Señora M.P. y L, Bacante, La Modelo, and Paisaje. His La Chula was simultaneously displayed at Salon de Paris.

Arnaldo recalled that day in Milan Kundera’s class: ‘He brought a cassette player and played Beethoven’s sonata….’

Arnaldo attended L’Études des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where he had the Czech-French author Milan Kundera as teacher. Kundera’s discussion on how a sonata of Beethoven, his favorite composer, provided structure to his novels, inspired Arnaldo to pursue a career in film. Realizing that music made it possible to “translate” everything, eased his difficulties with language, quickly helping him make up his mind on becoming a filmmaker right there and then. (Readers of Kundera will, of course, note the alternating rhythm in his novels.)

Arnaldo recalled that day in Kundera’s class: “He brought a cassette player and played Beethoven’s sonata. He called out Team A rondo, etc. His foot tapped to the beat while he talked about how themes in Kundera’s novels work like the sonata’s structure. His voice thundered, making everything shake like the table he was at.”

Hidalgo could easily have been Arnaldo’s research subject instead of Luna, but he found Hidalgo’s life story less dramatic than the mercurial Luna’s.

“You can’t get into Hidalgo, whose soul’s not stretched,” he said.

Another claimed point of kinship between Luna and Arnaldo is identity. Both lived away from the Philippines. Arnaldo wanted to find the concept of home which was, as he narrated in his film, elusive. He pondered on how Luna navigated the interstices of race, belongingness, and success among the French, who looked at “the other” with undisguised contempt.

“France was very racist then and viewed the Spaniards as savage. Seeing the Spoliarium, Guy de Maupassant exclaimed, ‘What is this savage representation?!'” said Arnaldo, who began his career directing commercials with celebrities like Penelope Cruz and Aishwarya Rai.

The Filipino elite in France wasn’t far behind in openly discriminating against compatriots, such as Luna’s own mother-in-law, Doña Juliana Gorricho. The widow, a member of one of the wealthiest families in the Philippines who relocated to France, was at first vehemently against her daughter Paz marrying Luna, believing she was marrying down. Eventually, she was prevailed upon to agree to the nuptials, and the couple married in 1886.

The Spaniards, in contrast, recognized Luna’s genius for painting. Museo Nacional del Prado’s Carlos G. Navarro understood Luna’s dual identity. “He was Filipino by birth, but integrated into Spanish culture, hence his modernity,” said the 19th-century conservator, one of the interviewees for Arnaldo’s documentary.

Seeing the ‘Spoliarium,’ Guy de Maupassant exclaimed, ‘What is this savage representation?!’

Similarly, the relationship with King Alfonso XII—forged with the help of sculptor Mariano Benlliure—spoke volumes of the high regard for Luna. The Spanish monarch redressed “the imbalance of Luna and the Spoliarium not winning the Medal of Honor by commissioning him to paint The Battle of Lepanto, said Arnaldo. Once finished, the painting was hung in the Spanish Senate alongside Francisco Pradilla Ortiz’s Medal-of-Honor-masterpiece, La Bendicion de Granada.

Continued Arnaldo, “It showed that Luna was on equal standing with Pradilla.”

But not all Spaniards were an admirer of Luna, such as the painter Federico de Madrazo. He was Luna’s main critic who lobbied fiercely to have Luna’s commission rescinded, but failed.

“It was a battle of generations between Madrazo and Luna, and he wanted his son to do the commission,” theorized Arnaldo. Ironically, towards the end of his life, Madrazo tried “painting a bit like Luna,” seemingly acclimating to Luna’s philosophy of bohemianism that he disliked profoundly.

Luna finished painting Hymen, oh Hyménée!—aka Boda Romana or Roman Wedding— during his honeymoon in Venice in 1887. It features 25 figures engaged in one of the sacred Roman wedding rituals, the bride entering the groom’s chamber and calling upon Hymen, the god of marriage, to bless the couple.

“Hymen, oh Hyménée! most probably represented (Luna’s) evolution from an indio painter who crossed the social and colonial divide to becoming a global citizen,” Arnaldo pointed out.

The painting winning the bronze medal at the 1889 Exposition de Universelle further elevated Luna’s status as a painter who bested the masters. Better yet, it gave Filipinos someone to pin their hopes on, someone of superiority and excellence in the midst of discrimination during the Spanish rule. It served as incorruptible proof that he wasn’t a fluke. Earlier on, he’d won a silver medal for his La Muerte de Cleopatra in the 1881 Exposición Nacional del Bellas Artes. The painting, said historian Ocampo, “hangs in the Museo Nacional del Prado after languishing in storage for over a century.”

When the hullaballoo over the triumph of Hymen, oh Hyménée! had quieted, another began with an action-film vibe: The painting became untraceable and collectors were caught up in a flurry of trying to pinpoint its exact location. The last everyone knew, it was with Luna until his fatal cardiac arrest in Hong Kong in 1889. So, where was Hymen, oh Hyménée!? Destroyed or spirited away to an institution’s care, like world-renowned artifacts and artworks? Or perhaps kept in an art patron’s private vault?

The painting became untraceable…The last everyone knew, it was with Luna until his fatal cardiac arrest in Hong Kong in 1889

No other Filipino except for art collector Dr. Eleuterio ‘”Teyet” Pascual saw the painting in its entirety, all 1.25 m  x 2.505 m of it. This was 50 years ago, until León Gallery tracked it down in Spain, bought it, certified its authenticity and provenance (Ocampo was among those who helped in its authentication) and unveiled it to the Philippine public on June 12. It is on loan to the Ayala Museum for three years.

Up until the Splendor exhibit, monochromatic lithographs—Pascual was said to own some of them—were the only way to look at the painting, but naturally they didn’t fully capture its colorful attributes.

The success of Hymen, oh Hyménée! presupposed an eclipsing of a part of Luna’s life, the double murder of his wife and mother-in-law, which has been largely omitted from his biographies. Ocampo, in his Juan Luna’s Crime of Passion, said he found a note from Luna’s daughter-in-law in the 1957 Luna Centennial Commission papers asking to “kindly omit the tragedy for all occasions.”

Reading between the lines as a comparative literature major, I found Hymen, oh Hyménée! smaller in physical size compared to the colossal Spoliarium, but the viewpoints on Luna shift monumentally. A 19th-century audience would see the painting as a celebration of his marriage (and entry into the elite class) to Paz, whom Luna “adored with madness,” according to historian Carlos Quirino in the brief biography Juan Luna. The marriage was broken with Paz’s affair with the Frenchman Dussaq. Tellingly, the painting’s title, inspired by a wedding chant of Roman poet Cattalus, highlighted the proprietorial nature of love: Her maidenhood is not her own, but her parents’ and eventually her husband’s.

Luna was cuckolded by Paz and her lover, asserted Ocampo and Quirino. She was “smuggled out of (an) apartment, hidden in a carriage, through a back exit,” wrote Ocampo.

In Quirino’s account, Luna secretly followed his wife to her assignation with Dussaq, acquiring incontrovertible proof of her infidelity. Consumed with jealous rage, he shot Doña Juliana dead. He shot his brother-in-law Felix in the chest, and Paz in the head. Felix survived; Paz died days later in the hospital.

Luna was exonerated by the court, which ruled that it was a “crime of passion” and done “in defense of his honor.”

For Arnaldo, a 21st-century filmmaker, it was a complicated situation because “no one has done a script on Luna given the #metoo movement.”

In 2022, he voiced a similar sentiment in an interview with The ANC X Forum, saying, “You can’t have a hero in today’s world who kills his wife and gets away with it. It’s difficult to write about a killer who murders his wife and is acquitted by the court.”

‘No one has done a script on Luna, given the #metoo movement…You can’t have a hero in today’s world who kills his wife and gets away with it’

Still, Arnaldo is pushing through with his project, further encouraged by a friend’s words that his story on Luna, “once released in the US, will resonate with Asians.” But more than that, Arnaldo wants his story to “shake the foundation of racism…to make the West see how they’ve regarded us, and bring (about) Asian awareness.”

This firm determination also stems from, among many things, knowing how his own father wasn’t allowed to speak in Tagalog when living abroad.

“That’s why my Tagalog is bad. My father grew up in New York and, during that time, he had to speak English all the time,” Arnaldo said.

It’s been six years since Butch Perez and Jessica Zafra broached to Arnaldo the idea of making a film on Juan Luna, when they handed him their script. Since then, he has been in and out of the archives of France and Spain, doing his own research to reconcile the conflicting narratives from France and the Philippines. It’s almost an obsession; he has even brought his family to Madrid on the pretext of a holiday, so he could deep-dive into Luna’s life at the archives.

Comparatively, Luna remains a hidden, almost obscure figure vis-a-vis his contemporaries, but the documentary Hymen, oh Hyménée! has parted the curtain, showing, as Arnaldo narrated in the film, “the Filipino spirit through the painting and Luna’s success in overcoming social barriers (and) the indio identity.”

Museum visitors can take pictures of ‘Hymen, oh Hyménée!”‘but without flash photography.

Juan Luna’s obra ‘Hymen oh,Hyménée!’

The documentary is just the beginning. There still remains a thick layer to be peeled off Luna, particularly his arrest in connection with the 1898 Philippine Revolution and the consequential “policy of absolute silence in Spain about Filipino artists after the break of the Philippines from Spain,” that the conservator Navarro mentioned in the film. It was, Arnaldo emphasized, “a painful separation for Spain.”

Arnaldo isn’t taking time off. He’s working on his big cinematic reveal on Juan Luna, on his narrative of a “19th-century Filipino in the City of Lights.”

Meanwhile, I’ll do my own deep dive on Juan Luna while awaiting the film’s premiere.

The author before the Luna masterpiece

Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero’ runs until Dec. 30, 2023 at Ayala Museum. The documentary ‘Hymen, oh Hyménée!’ is being shown at Samsung the Premiere Room. Walk-ins are allowed, but online booking is highly recommended at Admission rates are P650 regular rate (all galleries), P350 for senior citizens and PWDs (all galleries), and P350 for the ‘Splendor’ exhibit only.

About author


She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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