IN the Philippines the weeklong observance of Lent is much revered. It is also a time when families go on a summer holiday as everything in the city comes to a standstill. So on Easter Sunday, my husband took me on a road trip to the National Museum in Manila after I casually told him that I had never been there. As with every new experience, I was left awed and amazed at how rich our national treasures are.
Here, I share the seven things everyone should know about the National Museum. Why seven? It would be a good tribute to traditions and beliefs—the Holy Week of course runs for seven days, there are the seven deadly sins, there were Jesus’ seven last words, people visit seven churches for Visita Iglesia. Interestingly, National Artist Vicente Manansala also had seven paintings that were commissioned for a project. More on this later.
- The National Museum is the old legislative building in Manila. The National Museum’s Art Gallery was once the congress building. When Daniel Burnham, an American architect and urban designer, planned the city of Manila in 1905, the building was intended to be a public library. The project, which began in 1918, landed on the lap of American Arch. Ralph Harrington Doane who, at that time, was the consulting architect of the Bureau of Public Works together with Filipino Arch. Antonio Toledo as his apprentice. Antonio Toledo, along with Juan Arellano, who later on made revisions to convert the building into the Legislative House, and Tomas Mapua were among the first batch of Filipino students whose studies abroad were paid by the government. The building was completed in 1921 with features that drew inspiration from Grecian architecture with stylized Corinthian columns and highly detailed Renaissance-inspired ornamentations. After World War II, the building was rebuilt following the heavy damage it suffered from the bombings. During martial law, the Legislative Building was closed down and later revived as the National Museum’s Art Gallery.
Meet our national artists for painting and sculpture. The National Musuem’s Art Gallery is home to our national cultural treasures. Paintings and sculpture from the Spanish era all the way to the modern period greet guests and tell a story of how art was used as a medium of expression throughout Philippine history. The story of each painting and how the artists portrayed the plight of the Philippines are astounding. Showcased are the monumental works of such artists as Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo that helped stir our sense of nationalism and spark revolution. And take note of the “NM” handles of the doors leading to the main galleries—they were done by National Artist Napoleon Abueva. Other works on display are those of Federico Alcuaz Aguilar, Ang Kiukok, Vicente S. Manansala, Hernando R. Ocampo, Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera, Abdulmari A. Imao, Fernando C. Amorsolo, Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco, Guillermo E. Tolentino, Jose T. Joya and Arturo V. Luz, to name a few. The National Museum is a melting pot of talent, avant-garde ideas, stirring thoughts and masterful expression.
- Juan Luna’s Spoliarium. Upon entry into the main gallery on the ground floor of the museum, the 4-meter x 7-meter painting of Juan Luna caught me by surprise. I knew it was huge and of monumental significance, but I was nonetheless overcome by emotion in its presence, with its epic scale and meaning. Considered a national treasure, the Spoliarium was completed in 1884 and won the first gold medal at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid. The painting depicts fallen Roman gladiators being dragged away from the arena to be stripped of their gear prior to their disposal. On the left side of the painting are spectators and gossipers often labeled as the “Social Cancer” and on the right, a lady with her back turned weeps in silence and agony as if mourning for the dead. The lady is often referred to as “Inang Bayan” or our Mother Country. It was this painting that inspired our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, to write Noli Me Tangere.
Juan Luna’s The Parisian Life. Completed during Luna’s stay in Paris from October 1884 to February 1893, this painting is set apart because of his chosen color palette. Luna’s paintings are often filled with dark hues but this particular painting is rendered otherwise. The painting’s subject is a Parisian courtesan in a lavender dress and a floral hat, representing a “fallen woman” in a café about to rise from her seat. Also inside the café are three men in the background. The men are said to be the artist himself together with Dr. Jose Rizal, and Ariston Bautista Lin all dressed in European vestments and enjoying the moment. These three men represent the idea of Filipinos embracing the Western lifestyle while remaining a Filipino at heart. One interesting idea that’s been bandied about the painting is that the Parisian courtesan’s outline bears a similarity to the map of the Philippines. The courtesan’s features have also been said as being a reflection of how a colonized Philippines was under stress and being strangled.
- Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco’s The Progress of Medicine. In another hall are three huge paintings completed in 1953 by National Artist Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco. The paintings, a quadtych known as The Progress of Medicine, were originally hung at the lobby of the Philippine General Hospital where it was subjected to the open air and pollutants for many years. The quadtych spoke of the evolution of medicine and traditional healing practices from the precolonial period all the way to the modern day, with the mix of babaylans, folklore and ancestral beliefs correlated with actual medicinal practice during the Spanish, Americans and Japanese periods. The paintings were restored after being infected by molds, tears and other pollutants, and was recently moved to the National Museum. Its restoration efforts are said to be one of the major achievements of conservationists of the modern period.
- Manansala’s Philam Life paintings. Still in another hall is the breathtaking presence of the seven paintings by Vicente Manansala commissioned for the Philam Life Building along UN Avenue in Manila, which is now scheduled to be demolished. The National Museum recently added this collection for viewing after the paintings were restored. In 1961 Manansala completed the seven paintings for the building, commissioned upon the recommendation of Arch. Carlos Arguelles who wanted the artworks to complement the design of the building. The painting portrays rural life in the Philippines, and also highlights the social and economic progress at the time. The painting depicted the efforts of the magsasaka, or farmer. Manansala also highlights the importance of the family praying together before a meal as a symbol of solidarity and solemnity.
- It’s free on Sundays. Finally, I do encourage Filipinos to reconnect with our roots and our National Artists. The good news is that this is accessible to every-one as entrance is free on Sundays, while a minimal fee is charged on weekdays. I do suggest taking a Sunday morning (or afternoon) to bask in our local culture and art. Some of our great masters have passed on but their legacy will remain. The challenge for younger generations is passing on the legacy of these masters and defining the future of Philippine art and culture.
Image credits: Photos by The Author