Genius knows no country. This was part of Jose Rizal’s speech to honor painters Juan Luna and Felix Ressureccion-Hidalgo for achieving prominence at the 1884 Madrid Exposition.
It was Luna’s Spoliarium that won a gold medal. This enormous painting is one of many treasures on display at the National Art Gallery of the Philippines.
Each artifact at the National Art Gallery has stories that can inspire interest about our nation’s history. The museum building itself is one big historical artifact.
Built in 1916, the imposing five-storey building was based from the Plan of Daniel Burnham. Its original Neoclassical architectural is evocative of the Greek Parthenon which coincides with the American branding statement that the ideal government is founded on democracy.
World War II brought down the building. It was reconstructed the following years after the war adding the bronze statues of Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmeña who had their inauguration in 1935 as President and Vice-President of the Commonwealth on the porch, in front of the three massive doors of the building.
These bronze monument of Quezon as Senate President and Osmeña as House Speaker were created by National Artists Guillermo Tolentino.
For several years the Philippine Senate held its sessions on the second floor until 1996 when the senate offices vacated the building and was fittingly dedicated as the permanent exhibition space of the National Museum.
Directly below the old session hall of the Philippine Senate is the Hall of the Masters. This hall is dedicated to 19th century painters Juan Luna and Felix Ressureccion Hidalgo. Although Luna and Hidalgo have distinct styles, the paintings showcased in this room demonstrate their mastery in drawing the human form and rendering the interplay of light and shadows.
Luna’s Spoliarium immediately surprises visitor upon entering this halls. Critics described the Spoliarium as the largest, the most frightful and the most discussed work of the Exposition.
This super-sized painting depicts a dark chamber beneath the Roman arena referred as the spoliarium, where the bodies of slain gladiators are being dragged away for disposal. For Luna, the lifeless gladiators represent the Filipinos during the Spanish period.
Across the Spoliarium is an equally stunning painting by Hidalgo of The Assassination of General Bustamante and His Son. This disturbing painting depicts the murder of the Governor in the hands of the friars and their supporters. This painting was inspired by true-to-life event that took place in 1717 Manila.
Another Hidalgo painting shows a governor-general and a friar. This particular painting depicts the union of the Church and State during the colonial times. These timeless social realities were expressed in the paintings of Hidalgo.
The old Holding Room is dedicated to the National Artists of the Philippines. Exhibited in this hall are the selected works of Fernando Amorsolo, Ben Cabrera, Vicente Manasala, Abdulmari Imao, Carlos Francisco, Ang Kiukok, Vitorio Edades, Arturo Luz, Hernando Ocampo, Napoleon Abueva, and Jose Joya.
There is a hall that opens to a strange Robert Feleo installation. The Tau Tao depicts the Bagobo myth of the afterlife. Surrounding this installation are paintings and sculptures that are related to Filipino concept of the afterlife.
In the Vessels of Faith exhibit, various object used in the expression of Filipino spirituality are represented in form of religious icons from the bulol and the santo. The 1946 painting of I Believe in God| Give Us This Day by Vicente Manansala shows farm workers praying before work.
At the center of the room is a Jose Tence Ruiz Kariton Kathedral –a contemporary artwork representing the church and the reality faced by the faithful.
The museum’s visual arts collection extends to the galleries on the second floor. It is in this exhibit hall where visitors view sample works of pre-war artists like Simon Flores, Fabian de la Rosa, Dominador Castaneda, Diosdado Lorenzo, and Felix Martinez. Together they are displayed side-by side with the works of contemporary artists like Nunelucio Alvarado, Nena Saguil, Romeo Tabuena, Jaime De Guzman, and Julie Lluch.
Visiting National Art Gallery should make us feel good. The artworks found in the different exhibit halls demonstrates the intensity of Filipino imagination and creativity, proving that genius knows no country.