Wednesday, July 31, 2013

5 Not-To-Be-Missed Treasures at the National Museum

It's a shame that not more people visit the National Museum. They need to get over the notion that museums are old, stuffy and boring.

Certainly, the National Museum is quite old. It was once the Insular Museum of Ethnology, National History and Commerce, and on its steps Manuel L. Quezon himself declared the onset of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935. Its two major buildings housed entirely different things back then. The National Art Gallery was once the old Congress building, while the Museum of the National People used to the Finance Building.

But now, these two neo-classical structures have undergone renovations that have transformed them into bright, airy, modern spaces -- the first step in making the museum more accessible to the public.

And if you read on, this museum is anything but  boring. Some its most interesting displays include sunken treasures, the oldest skullcap in the Philippines and even a "cursed" painting. Here is a list of ten things that would make your visit to the National Museum, anything but typical.  

The Spoliarium by Juan Luna at the National Museum 

1. Spoliarium

Every Filipino schoolchild grew up learning about Juan Luna's  Spoliarium. They are taught that it is a magnificent painting, one that bested many other European entries during the Madrid Exposition of 1884. They would then see a photograph of this painting in their history textbooks, which --  as Filipino textbooks went -- would almost  always be in black-and-white. It would also be tiny  -- postcard-sized, at best.

And so, to behold this masterpiece, in all its gigantic,  4x7-meter glory, is truly breathtaking.  "It is more than a painting, it is a book, a poem" -- so goes a newspaper review, one among many  in Madrid, Paris and Barcelona, marvelling at the Spoliarium.

Juan Luna, who was as much a painter as he was a political activist, was able to capture the Philippines' struggle against colonial Spain through his vivid and compelling picture of men dragging other bloodied men across a dungeon a floor, as spectators looked on.

Jose Rizal, during a speech he delivered celebrating Luna's triumph said, "[The Spoliarium is a symbol] of our social, moral, and political life: humanity unredeemed, reason and aspiration in open fight with prejudice, fanaticism, and injustice."

See for yourself what Rizal was talking, when you go to the National Museum. You won't miss it -- it's the centerpiece in the Hall of Masters, located on the ground floor.

Basi Revolt, National Museum 

2. A Revolt in Pictures

The Revolt of Basi is a gallery that immortalizes the Ilocano uprising  to protest the Spanish ban on the private manufacturing of basi (sugarcane wine). The 14 paintings here are a virtual storyboard of the series of events that took place in 1786. They are the earliest  known art work that record a historical event in the Philippines

They capture everything, from the gathering of the would-be revolutionaries, to the bloody battle with the Spaniards, and  the sad ending -- the Ilocanos' subsequent defeat, sentencing and hanging.

.A scion of a mestizo family residing in Vigan by the name of Esteban Villanueva is the artist behind them. The paintings show an unschooled, simple aesthetic, known in the art world as the naïf style.

The plaque that gives the background of the paintings note several interesting features of the pictures -- among them, the presence of a comet in the sky, as well as the disproportionately gigantic Spaniards and the tiny Ilocanos.

The Revolt of Basi is the second Gallery, in the National Art Gallery building.

The Parisian Life by Juan Luna

3. A Controversial Painting

One of the National Museum's most recently acquired pieces is also one of the most controversial. The Parisian Life by Juan Luna was bought for a staggering 46 million pesos from a Hong Kong auction, by the GSIS (Government Services Insurance System) in 2002. Critics protested the use of GSIS funds -- which are contributions by government employees -- to purchase  this "minor Luna" painting.

Controversies aside, this 1892 oil painting can be enjoyed for its beauty, significance and symbolism. The woman in the painting is said to be the Philippines. The way she is seated on the couch suggests a geographical likeness to the mirror image of our country.

A man's coat, hat and several beer mugs surrounding the woman seem to indicate several male companions. Her neck and the line running up from the top of her head is most telling. It gives the impression of the woman's strangulation, a fitting picture of the Philippines' plight during that time.

Meanwhile, the three men visible in the background are said to be Juan Luna himself, Jose Rizal, and Dr. Ariston Lim, the original owner of the painting.

Is The Parisian Life a priceless piece of heritage or an example of the government's gross overspending? Swing by the GSIS wing of the National museum to decide for yourself. While you're there, check out the paintings by Fernando Amorsolo, BenCab  and Victor Manansala too.

A Mother's Revenge by Jose Rizal 

4.  A Sculpture by Jose Rizal

Jose Rizal -- doctor, painter, poet, essayist, novelist, sculptor, national hero. You can't help but admire the guy. But while the evidence of his talent in writing can be accessed though his easily available novels, essays and poems, his genius in sculpture needs to be sought. And the National Museum is just the place to see firsthand something Rizal made with his own hands.

A Mother's Revenge is a terracota sculpture, where a crocodile that has a puppy in its mouth, is being bitten by the  puppy's mother. It's said to be inspired by an incident that happened during Rizal's  teaching days in Dapitan.

The story goes that several of his students decided to play hooky by boarding a Talisay-bound boat. Rizal's dog Syria followed the kids, but unfortunately, Syria drowned and was devoured by an crocodile. Rizal then created the sculpture to drive this lesson home to his students.

But even if this anecdote is the sculpture's inspiration, it's not hard to see the allegorical overtones of A Mother's Revenge. Rizal and other Philippine patriots are the puppies caught in the jaws of Spain. The mother dog is the Philippines, who is trying to rescue her sons from their fatal plight.

Visit the Rizal Gallery in the National Art Gallery and to see this national treasure. 

5. A "Cursed" Painting

Juan Luna's Mi Novia (My Girlfriend)  is the stuff that urban legends are made of. The lovely painting, of a girl with a tilted head and auburn locks, wearing a lace dress is said to be cursed.

Legend has it that the Mi Novia was propped on the easel in Juan Luna's studio, when,  in a fit of rage, he killed  his wife and mother-in-law. His wife's spirit has supposedly inhabited the painting ever since that tragic day.

Anyone who has had contact with the painting has allegedly met some sort of misfortune. According to historian Ambeth Ocampo, some of the supposed incidents include -- Manuel Garcia's business going bankrupt, Betty Bantug-Benitez getting into an accident in Tagaytay, Tony Nazareno becoming very ill, and Imee Marcos Manotoc suffering a miscarriage.

Are these unfortunate incidents a coincidence or the result of the curse? Check out the painting and decide for yourself.  

For the complete article, which includes five other National Museum treasures, check out the August-September issue of Balikbayan magazine.  

Photos courtesy of the National Museum. 

The National Museum is located on P. Burgos Drive, Rizal Park, Manila. It is open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Adult P150
Student P 50
Senior Citizen P120
Children before 4 years old
 Free admission Sundays 

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