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November 10, 2003


Reflecting on Philippine colonial art lodges the Philippines in the memory of the Hispanic empire and its history of conquests. Such history would endow what was claimed as “islands” with identity as colony, at the time of the emergence of New Spain in the Americas, and around four centuries later, as post-colony, at the end of the nineteenth century. This process entails theoretical elaboration as it implicates the intervention of “art” in entitling objects and subjects, regarded as aesthetic agencies, to a contested sense of progress. The latter is made possible through discrepant discourses of Enlightenment, civilization, cooptation, and revolution.

The paper readdresses the problematic of coloniality and modernity by exploring a kind of engagement that enables the history of Philippine colonial painting to inscribe conditions of conversion, artness, and social movement in the very political economy and performance of the practice. I regard painting as idiom of both colonial visuality and folk/popular aesthetic culture. In fleshing out this idea, I turn to two works: Esteban Villanueva’s Basi Revolt (1821), consisting of fourteen panels which depict the failed rebellion in Northern Philippines against the Spanish government’s regulation of a sugarcane wine called basi; and Juan Luna’sSpoliarium (1884), the Gold Medalist at the 1884 Madrid Exposition which allegorizes the oppressive Philippine colonial condition through a dramatic scene at the spoliarium, the part of the Roman coliseum where dead or mortally wounded gladiators are despoiled in the presence of wailing relations.

Underwriting this project is the aesthetic of suffering which I believe is key to the visuality of transformation and the salvific vision to be discerned in the pain of bearing the colonial cross and the sacrifice of pursuing its redemption. Both the works of Villanueva and Luna reveal a similar calvaric affect of terror and grief, but gesture toward different trajectories.

Villanueva’s iconography supplements a conflicting devotional imaginary as it ambivalently projects to chronicle and document an “actual” event fourteen years past and seeks to confront potential insurgents and traitors to colonial rule with the dread of retribution. I say devotional because the fourteen panels tend to cohere with theVia Crucis iconography which stages the passion of Christ. The artist’s historia, therefore, preaches contradictory catechisms in light of its portrayal of the spectacle of execution in which the rebels are finally hanged and decapitated: to preserve the colonial order from its own violence, on the one hand, and to “save” the body politic through the collective redemption the colonial faithful aspires to through the Passion, on the other. Critical here is the question of mimetic fidelity to the event of the revolt which it seeks to archive in painting, at one level, and the rhetorical strategy of soliciting the colonial emotion appropriate to the process of remembering and recollecting transgression, at another plane. In view of this problematic that underlies the efficacy of the “passional” narrative as “memory work,” Peter Parshall (1999), in his analysis of the ars commemorativa, “an imaginary theater of images” of the medieval and Renaissance period, attentively observes that “because of their poignancy and the overdetermined character of their affective appeal, certain images of the Passion were bound to provoke a tension between the objectives of mimesis and more abstract spiritual understandings” (470). Incidentally, Villanueva, unlike Luna, had no academic training and did not practice in the capital of Manila, the site of Asia’s first design academy which introduced the concept of perspective.

In contrast, Luna’s allegoria, as a way of telling the moral of the colonial story, draws on the modern imaginary to the degree that it transcends literal recordation of the referent. It rather appeals to the rhetoric of the canonical historical narrative as an exercise of the “right” to protest and at the same time as “privilege” to meet the norms of the Madrid Exposition, and by extension, of the European art world, a strategy which sustains the expatriate artist’s political practice as ilustrado (pertaining to the European-enlightened Philippine elite who demanded reforms from Madre España and disapproved of the mass and millennarian revolution) and as hijo del pais, son of the (mother) country. Luna’s colleagues would be led to construe his portrayal of suffering as the suffering of the Philippine people at the clutches of Spain, which is paradoxically evoked by the Roman Empire; the latter, in fact, had named the peninsula Hispania, and the nostalgia for its antiquity would partly condition the Catholic culture of Hispanidad. Furthermore, Luna’s participation in post-1880 Salon competitions (Mainardi 1993) and the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition tried to invest the Philippines with sovereignty as a distinct culture and no longer as a colony, as well as a certain self-worth deserving of the aesthetic attention of the world and the “free” market of art. Luna’s conquest of the art world would in a way revoke his colonial identity, aesthetic knowledge being the end(s) of the civilizing mission and the means to a nationality, modernity, and citizenship as Filipino.

Let us now focus on three concerns to further consider the premise of the paper.



Much has been written of modernity and its foundational instantiation of the aesthetic of culture, along with the State, as “the site in which the highest expressions of human being and human freedom are realized” (Lloyd and Thomas 1998, 1). Also, there has been discussion of colonial rule as a modernizing regime. But this project does not wish to reduce its agenda to a modernist teleology. Rather, it appropriates modernity as a history of the “invention of the means” to represent “history” in a specific colonial context. This entails a self-consciousness of the past and, to follow Kant, the “reflective judgment” of an event, condition, or possibility. What we aim to stress here is the political economy of the competence of representation and the conditions under which it had to become necessary.

Esteban Villanueva’s documentation of the Basi Revolt begs questions pertaining to patronage and the mode of display through which it gained presence in a particular locality. If seen as a form of State control over colonial history and its proper visual representation, the series may be simply regarded as cautionary tale and propaganda. But if viewed allegorically, it may direct our attention to the refunctioning of modernity as a postcolonial transcoding of the Way of the Cross and its attendant hope of salvation from colonial obligation. We may reference at this point two examples of the allegorical tradition in the colonial literary canon: Francisco Baltazar’s Florante at Laura and the vernacular text of the Passion of Christ called the Pasyon to which cultural historian Reynaldo Ileto assigns a revolutionary role in embodying a “life-and-death struggle for independence—a struggle imaged as a single redemptive event” (Ileto 1998, 2). Baltazar’s awit or metrical romance, on the other hand, tells of the passionate struggle of the hero Florante to reclaim his beloved Laura, the king’s daughter, and his country Albania from the stranglehold of usurpers. While tied to a tree in a forest and about to be devoured by two lions, if not for the succor of the Persian warrior Aladin who is banished from his kingdom by a Sultan father covetous of his son’s Flerida, the hero laments the condition of the land (Melendrez-Cruz and Chua 1988). Florante cries out to the heavens:

All over the country

treachery reigns,

while merit and goodness are prostrate,

entombed alive in suffering and grief.


Moreover, the spectacle of suffering as graphically rendered in the series points to the intersection of early Catholic modernity—comprising the periods of Catholic Reform, Counter-Reformation, and Catholic Restoration—with state formation and urbanization. The latter saw the hand of civil authority, the church, and the ruling elite in exemplifying the monopoly of violence (Spierenburg 1984) to regulate an emergent and a potentially res(is)tive social formation as discerned in the series in which rebels are executed in full view of the community. The establishment of the early modern state through confessionalization and catechism saw the “enforcement of political identity, extension of a monopoly of power, and disciplining of subjects,” (Reinhard 1989, 398) a mode of regularizing “the very intimacy of the religious and moral lives of subjects” (404).

The political economy underlying this other modernity is different from that which Luna contracts as an agent of the Academy not only in Manila where he had studied, but also in Spain where he would secure the credentials of “artist” in the Eurocentric sense. The Academy system was established in Manila in the 1820s through the efforts of Damian Domingo, who was for the large part a religious painter and a maker of albums of costumes. The Academia, which was supported by the Real Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del Pais, a group of renowned citizens who espoused Enlightenment values and propagated economic amelioration to hemorrhaging colonies, is credited for publishing the Elementos de Perspectiva, a manual on perspective which seems to be inspired by texts of the same nature written by Vitruvius and Van der Ries. Surely, the initiation of the local art world, which previously was peopled by anonymous folk painters of the colonial church, into the concept of perspective and plasticity signaled a shift of disposition in the practice of making and receiving art. As new theoretical interventions on the subject put it, perspective configures the “fundamental scene of Western painting’s philosphical ambitions, namely, to participate, alongside other sign systems, in the constitution of subjectivity, generating the grammar of intersubjective exchange” (Wood 1998, 481). This turning point would lead Juan Luna to study in Spain and transact in the currency of modernity as artist and as postcolonial reformist elite.


Postcolonial possibility

The appropriation of allegory is effected here to frame the possible meanings of the representation of an actual historical event, in the case of the series, and of a strange scene in a Roman coliseum, in the case ofSpoliarium. These meanings and the processes of making sense, to be sure, can only be accessed through the context in which the works situate themselves. Such problematic can only be pondered if we deal with the communities to which the pictures made themselves available and accountable. The tension between the locality of the series and the Philippine “nation” of Luna threatens the cohesion of the colony, as it is besieged by assertions of transformation in different ways. It is in this light that the allegorical reading becomes ideologically strategic.

The Via Crucis allegory connects the series to the folk visuality of icon paintings and to the folk Catholic lifeways which have defined the culture of the Philippine colonial polity. To politicize the reading of the series and at the same time to root it in the tradition of piety is to make the postcolonial project possible as an internally conflicted program that sets the terms of its termination.

On the other hand, Luna’s allegory of the spoliarium emplots the narrative of reform of the Propagandists in Spain who called themselves indios bravos as a way of gaining pride as natives and who thought they truly deserved the benediction of colonial reform because of their qualifications as citizens of the “world.” This worthiness is inscribed in the triumph in art and culture as “a process of cultivation, the gradual formation of an ethical human subject, characterized by disinterested reflection and universally valid judgments” (Lloyd and Thomas 1998, 2). Such triumph is also a triumph of the postcolonial nation in the hands of the ilustrado who sought Spanish reform and representation in Spanish politics. As Graciano Lopez Jaena, the one who compared the misery of the Philippines to the scene at the spoliarium, phrases his homage to Luna at the famous toast for the painter: “We are the children of the light; let us be the children of the light… liberty and progress are the children of the revolution; let us be the children of the revolution” (Flores 1998, 31). No less than National Hero Jose Rizal would sing paeans to this conquest: “Genius has no country; genius bursts forth everywhere; genius is, like light and air, the patrimony of all” (29). To his Spanish patrons, he would address: “To you due the beauty of the diamonds which the Philippines wears in her crown; she has given the precious stones, Europe has provided the polish to them” (30).

This triumphalist reformist rhetoric can be interestingly juxtaposed against Francisco Goya’s Junta de la Real Compañia de Filipinas (1815), a somber and bleak painting commemorating the first meeting (March 30, 1815) of the organization after the Napoleonic War. Several art historians (Miranda-Tchou 1998; Tomlinson 1990; Baticle 1984; Licht 1979) note that the work is the artist’s requiem for the Enlightenment in the face of the “perpetuation of cruelty and madness under Ferdinand VII and in the restored monarch’s repudiation of the Cadiz Constitution” (Miranda-Tchou 1998, 490). The Royal Company of the Philippines was born under the aegis of a “mercantilist philosophy that sought the reform of Spanish colonial trade through the centralization of operations at the port of Cadiz and the outfitting of merchant ships for battle as well as for trade” (485); it was the “most powerful economic organization in Spain and in Spanish colonial trade” (393). The Cadiz Constitution, on the other hand, advocated Spanish citizenship and representation at the Spanish Cortes for the natives of the colonies, among other liberal commitments. Luna’s ilustrado ideology appealed to this mode of reform, which was to be dashed by the reascension of the monarchy but on which the aspirants in the Philippines still pinned their hopes. In the painting, the President of the Royal Company, the Mexican Miguel Lardizabal, is tellingly sequestered in the corner as the “figure who stands in the shadow at the far left, in the embrasure of a doorway” (Roskill 1989, 51). Lardizabal was imprisoned by the king, “banished by the vicissitudes of the Republic” (51) and was exiled. Through this painting, Goya could have sought to register his critique of the failure of the Enlightenment and in effect indemnify Lardizabal, Minister of the Indies, by figuring his presence as a haunting specter at the margins, allegorizing perhaps the “darkness that had descended after the twilight of the Enlightenment” (Miranda-Tchou 1998, 496) as to be gleaned in the malaise of the assembly and the climate of impending catastrophé.


Aesthetic of suffering

The postcolonial prefiguration in the works of Villanueva and Luna secures cogent feeling as it invokes suffering as the key trope both in the lamentation of colonial oppression and the political strategy through which it is negotiated. In this evocation of suffering, we identify the discourse of the Passion of Christ in Villanueva’s series as epistemic access to the consolidation of the mass emotion of revolution; this Passional narrative also involves early Catholic modernity which privileged martyrdom and penance as powerful practices of salvation. In fact, post-Tridentine religious art was inspired by the image of Mary Magdalen as a solitary penitent, with “beauty consuming itself like incense burned before God in solitude far from the eyes of men” (Male 1949, 171-172). And it is reported that the Jesuits decked the recreation room of their novices at Sant’Andrea al Quirinale with scenes of martyrdom (Male 1949). Colonial painter Juan Arzeo from the Philippines specialized in these tropes of sacrifice and salvation (Flores 1998).

On the other hand, Luna’s site of terror and scene of suffering express both a nostalgia for empire in its quotation of the Roman coliseum and the obligational contract it thinks it nurtures with its mother country; the suffering the natives enact enables them to demand from a kin, in this case a mother, reciprocity in the form of benevolence and the conferment of the rightful inheritance of nation. It is curious that in the Madrid Academy’s competition of 1893 which looked for the official representation of Cultura Española and Hispanidad, or Spanish culture and civilization, the winning entry, Jose Lada Garnelo’s Ad Augusta por Augusta, harked back to the Roman empire as the source of Spain’s lineage; it appropriated “pan-European classicizing traditions and nationalisms that linked a Spanish identity to notions of empire and antiquity” (Vazquez 1997, 119). Oscar Vazquez suggests that inasmuch as the “birth of Spanish civilization is acknowledged as born under colonial rule,” the choice of the work “could have helped justify Spain’s control over its own diminishing colonial possessions” (118). But this mode of address to empire is contradicted by the government’s declaration as national monuments the ruins of Numancia, one of the last strongholds of resistance against the Romans. Curiously, the event could have been the basis of Luna’s Spoliarium; a rendering of Alejo Vera, Luna’s mentor, resembles the artist’s work. Moreover, the spoliarium imaginary seems to have pervaded ilustrado discourse as astutely pointed out by John Clark (1998), who refers to Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere, which speaks of the setting, the Philippine town of San Diego, in terms of Roman history and of a character who is beaten to death, a harrowing fate which is represented graphically as torture.

Furthermore, a review of Passional visuality in Medieval and Renaissance Europe affords us a prospective meditation on the modes of world making and community formation through the display of public punishment as a collective burden of witnessing. Art historian Mitchell Merback (1998), discussing pain and spectacle of punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, posits that “to see a soul ‘cleansed’ while ‘still in the body,’ released and finally carried off to heaven, beyond the clutches of Satan and his demons, was an edifying sight… For ordinary people, it may have been tantamount to a miracle” (156).

The spectacle, in the context of the series, has to be located in the realm of colonial rule and the ritual of suffering it. As punishment flaunted the power of the state, so did it serve as a “quasi-religious ritual in which the community at large ushered the condemned culprit into death and thus a new `social role’” (Merback 1998, 18). The culprit here is the colonial subject, also a potential postcolonial martyr, who transgressed the norms of colonial society and has to be subjected to violence. And his theater of punishment could have galvanized the postcolony as prefiguration of and precondition to salvation. As Umberto Eco puts it in his study of medieval aesthetics: “The bodies of martyrs were repulsive to look upon after their tortures, yet they shone with a brilliant interior beauty” (qtd in Merback 1998, 157). And in the Philippine context, the Pasyon, which is derived from a range of sources—from prayers for the dying, catechism manuals, the liturgy, and colonial narratives—is practiced in relation to an intimacy (damay) with Christ. The text usually plays out as part of the penitential drama in which devotees flagellate themselves; they believe that bloodletting is a regenerative, cleansing, and strengthening act, a postcolonial aspiration to realize freedom of devotion and an entitlement to found a new life in God’s grace.

The collective grief in the execution of the rebels in Villanueva’s series and the despoliation of the gladiators in Luna’s masterpiece are contradictory but potentially affiliative emotions of the postcolonial local moral world on the verge of its liberation as an aborted project of modernity. As Salud Algabre, a leader of a political movement in the period of U.S. imperialism before the Pacific War, thoughtfully remarks as she looks back on colonial culture:  

It is an old town—a very old town. In fact, there is a golden bell… During summer, when the water was clear, you could see down through the depths, down to where it stands. The reason they disposed of it was because mothers—early in their pregnancy—would give birth prematurely upon hearing it toll.

One of the reasons my ancestors rebelled was to protest against the church that held that bell. When the Spaniards came they forced the people to build their church. Many were killed by the Spaniards—flogged to death, there on the shore where the church was built. (Flores 1998, 4) 


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This essay was made possible in large part through the Paul Mellon Senior Visting Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Summer 1999. This paper was also submitted to the International Conference of Art Historians, September 2000, London, England.