Arts and Culture

Restoring the ‘Spoliarium’

PENMAN - Butch Dalisay -
Creating a masterpiece is hard enough, but sometimes restoring or preserving one can be just as tough if not more difficult.

That rare breed of specialists we know as art restorers or conservators certainly know this. It took Michelangelo four years to paint the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – now one of the hallmarks of Western civilization – but it took an international team of experts 12 years to restore the work to its nearly-original glory, paring away centuries of grime and soot. And the end of the restoration proved to be only the beginning of a continuing debate over whether it was right, in the first place, to mess with the dark, brooding magnificence of the aged frescoes. (For a quick look at the work in question – before, after, and during the restoration – check out www.arches.uga.edu/~msopal29/beforeandafter.html.)

Here in the Philippines, we’ve been blessed by the proliferation of gifted and productive artists who’ve left us with a trove of valuable and irreplaceable art – valuable not only in the financial sense but more so in terms of their significance to our cultural and even political history. It’s a far cry from where we are now, but in the days of Jose Rizal (himself an artist of no mean talent), painters and poets were important people, their greatest works held with the same esteem we now reserve for Manny Pacquiao.

One such artist, of course – if not the greatest of them – was Juan Luna y Novicio (1857-1899), a young man whose obvious gift for painting took him to Europe in the 1880s as a government pensionado. In Rome, in March 1884 and after eight months of labor, Luna completed what would become his signature work: the "Spoliarium," a massive (9.05 by 5.59 meters framed) oil on canvas painting depicting dead gladiators being dragged to an ignominious disposal as men and women look on in helpless horror. The word spoliarium itself refers to that part of the Roman Colosseum complex where the corpses of vanquished gladiators were divested of their armor and weapons, for reuse by the survivors.

In May 1884, the painting was exhibited at the Exposicion General de Bellas Artes in Madrid, and won the first of three gold medals, besting compatriot Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, whose "Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho" won a silver medal. The victory sealed Luna’s reputation as a painter of the highest order, and praise – as well as Filipino pride – abounded.

Almost immediately, Filipinos on the verge of a revolution saw the work as an allegory for colonial suffering. Critic Eric Torres reports that "Rizal interpreted the ‘Spoliarium’ as a symbol of ‘our social, moral, and political life: humanity unredeemed, reason and aspiration in open fight with prejudice, fanaticism, and injustice.’ On another occasion, Lopez-Jaena likewise read political implications in the ‘Spoliarium,’ as follows: ‘For me, if there is something grand, something sublime, in the ‘Spoliarium,’ it is because behind the canvas, behind the painted figures… there floats the living image of the Filipino people sighing its misfortune. Because… the Philippines is nothing more than a real ‘Spoliarium’ with all its horrors.’"

For Luna, it meant a welcome stream of commissions, and entry into some of Europe’s most exclusive circles. His life would take a tragic turn when, in 1892, he shot his wife and mother-in-law to death in a fit of jealous rage (just as outrageously, he was slapped on the wrist and released by a French court that saw the deed as a forgivable "crime of passion"). He died in Hong Kong in 1899 from a severe heart attack (some say he was poisoned), broken by the news of his brother Antonio’s murder back home.

Today we remember Juan Luna not just for the "Spoliarium," but also other masterworks such as the "Blood Compact" (and one of my favorites, the enigmatic green-gowned woman of "Despues del Baile"). The more practical-minded might note, with some cynicism, that Luna’s "Parisian Life" took a P43-million chunk out of GSIS pensionsers’ funds. But it remains the "Spoliarium" that we identify most with Luna, and, indeed, with the romantic notion of a Golden Age of Filipino painting, when we proved ourselves equal to the world’s best.

The "Spoliarium" itself would acquire an interesting if spotted history. After having been exhibited in Rome, Madrid, and Paris, it was bought (while still in Paris) by the provincial government of Barcelona in 1885 for 20,000 pesetas. In 1887, it was moved to the Museo del Arte Moderno in Barcelona, where it remained in storage until the museum was burned and looted in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Damaged, the painting was sent by Gen. Franco to Madrid for restoration, and remained there for 18 years. In the 1950s, patriotic Filipinos and sympathetic Spaniards moved for its repatriation to Manila. ("Repatriation" is misleading, since it had never been here before.) Franco heard of these plans and ordered the work restored and donated to the Philippines; restorers worked on it in late 1957, and the painting was turned over to our Ambassador Nieto in January 1958.

And then a curious thing happened. Just before it was shipped to Manila, the Spoliarium was cut into three pieces, with each piece going into its own crate. These pieces were much later received by the Juan Luna Centennial Manila Commission in 1960; Antonio Dumlao performed relining and cleaning, while Carlos da Silva took charge of the mounting, framing, and architectural work. In December 1962, the restored Spoliarium was unveiled in the Hall of Flags of the Department of Foreign Affairs. (And this was where I first saw it, on a high school field trip.)

It was hardly the best spot for the masterpiece, because, as a reporter would later observe, "Molds caused by the moisture from an air-conditioning unit has eaten away the paint in the lower right hand corner of the huge canvas, and a sizeable area immediately above. The painting’s signature today has the appearance of a grayish patch from which the paint has been clumsily scraped away. Furthermore, the inexpert joining of the canvas has begun to show. The new coat of varnish applied to the seam fails to match the old coat so that a broad swath appears to separate a third of the painting from the rest."

In 1982, the painting was cleaned by the late Suzanno "Jun" Gonzalez. At some point, the "Spoliarium" was moved to its present location in the National Museum.

And here begins the vignette of its latest restoration, undertaken by a young but experienced and energetic company called the Art Restoration and Conservations Specialists Inc. (ACES). Headed by painter June Poticar Dalisay (uhmm, yes, we’re related – and that’s how I got this story), the Spanish-trained members of ACES have worked on a score of important restoration projects since their formal incorporation in 2001, including the documentation of the ceiling paintings of the 150-year-old St. John the Baptist Church in Jimenez, Misamis Oriental, and a steady stream of works by Botong Francisco, Vicente Manansala, Jose Joya, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, and J. Elizalde Navarro, among other Filipino masters.

No, Beng (that’s what I call June) and her team didn’t restore the whole painting – that will need vastly more time and resources – but they were brought in to address a relatively small but potentially critical problem that had developed. Sometime last year, the "Spoliarium" had to be moved in its entirety by three-and-a-half meters to make room for another painting, but even the best care – which we’d have to assume was taken – couldn’t prevent cracks from forming in the joints and movement on the canvas itself.

ACES prides itself on its scientific approach and its respect for the artwork and its creator – it won’t take on a job if all the owner wants is a coat of varnish and some dabs of pigment to make a painting "look new" – and it responds to every assignment as a team, usually comprising a painter, an art historian or scholar, a chemist, and an architect. The Spoliarium was their most challenging task to date because of its historical importance, but the job itself was easily broken down into predictable and manageable phases, from detailed photo documentation (before and after), grid-laying, data recording, and a thorough discussion of the problems and options, to the actual repair, which consisted of mechanical cleaning, testing the solubility of the damaged paint layer, consolidation, removal of the facing and retouching.

Working almost daily on wiry scaffoldings that brought them nose-to-nose with the painting, the ACES team finished the job in four months, and is now completing its report (from where much of the data here was taken). But even more interesting to me, as a distant kibitzer (I never even got past the door, so strict were the conditions), were Beng & Co.’s personal observations:

"My team of scientific conservators and I were in awe the first time we set foot inside the Great Hall of the Masters. We stood inches away from the painting, a magnificent work of art that takes one’s breath away. Its size stupefied us while the drama and energy that emanate from the powerful images on canvas affected us profoundly and transported us to Luna’s studio in Rome….

"Many questions came up as we studied the physical condition of the painting through our magnifying glass. We knew very little about it and we needed to know its story so we could better understand its present condition. How did it find its way to Madrid? Who took care of the painting? How and where was it hung or kept? What were the circumstances surrounding its journey to the Philippines? Was it restored before it was returned to the Philippine government? Who restored the painting? Who and how was it mounted and put up in its present site?

"Gathering information and data on the Spoliarium proved difficult. The National Museum tried its best to help but could not furnish us with any kind of documentation. Some individuals had stories to tell about the painting, but we needed hard data. Finally, Ricky Francisco, who was a member of the conservation team, found a report on the "Spoliarium," while Roberto Balarbar, a conservator with the Chemical and Conservation Laboratory of the National Museum, also found a copy of a research paper among his files. These data proved very valuable and helpful for they answered many of our questions and filled in many gaps in the history of the painting.

"However, some questions remain unanswered at this point. One issue that continues to puzzle us is Madrid’s decision to cut the painting into three parts. Did Madrid inform the Philippine government about this decision? Who decided this? Is there a document to prove that the Philippine government gave Madrid permission to do so? Did the size of "Spoliarium" make loading it into a ship truly impossible? Was there not any ship capable or willing to accommodate a painting of such length? What kind of ship was it loaded on? Did anyone from the Philippine government accompany the "Spoliarium" as it traveled from Madrid to Manila?

"We hope that in the future, an art historian will come along and accept the challenge to dig deeper into the history of the Spoliarium and uncover other stories that surrounded the painting while it was in Rome and Madrid."

And let me add that if you or anyone you know has any of the answers to these questions – or corrections to make to the painting’s history as ACES knows it – do let me know and I’ll pass it on to them.

Much more work needs to be done on the rest of the "Spoliarium," and credit has to be given to National Museum director Corazon Alvina for her tireless campaign to seek support not just for the "Spoliarium" but the many other priceless pieces of our heritage in her safekeeping. Last May, for example, the museum hosted the COLLASIA 2010 International Course on the Conservation of Southeast Asian Collections in Storage, with 19 representatives from all over ASEAN.

Not incidentally, Beng and I recently attended a benefit concert at the National Museum sponsored by the Museum Foundation of the Philippines, featuring the opera "Spoliarium," with music by Ryan Cayabyab and libretto by Fides Cuyugan-Asencio. It was a marvelous musical treat, worthy of its subject, and proof positive that, as in Juan Luna’s time, we have what it takes to compete with the world’s best. Ryan’s score convinced me that I had heard the work of a future National Artist – of a much gentler bent than Luna, but certainly no less talented. Mabuhay ang Pilipino!
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E-mail me at penmanila@yahoo.com and visit my blog at http://homepage.mac.com/jdalisay/blog/MyBlog.html
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