THE GREATEST LOSS: LUNA’S PEOPLE AND KINGS
by Peter Jaynul Villanueva Uckung
So many paintings of Juan Luna were lost to history. His brothers-in-law destroyed all of Luna’s paintings that they own; a damning reaction to Luna’s killing of their sister, Paz (Luna’s wife), and their mother in 1892. Some missing paintings later resurfaced; one of them being bought by the GSIS in the millions of pesos; others were bought by rich private collectors. But one painting, considered to be one of his three greatest masterpieces which include Battle of Lepanto and Spoliarium, will never be seen again- because it was destroyed in 1945 during the Battle of Manila. This was the painting called El Pueblo y los Reyes or the People and Kings.
It was large, perhaps the largest of his paintings, measuring 4.2 meters high by 6.3 meters long, and painted in 1892; the same year he would kill his wife and mother-in- law. It was originally slated to be his entry to the Chicago Exposition, but the tragedy effectively nullified his plan. He would never see this canvas be displayed in public in his lifetime. He stored it away, waiting for a meaningful occasion to show it to the public. It never came. He died in 1899.
In 1904, this painting, together with other Luna paintings, won Luna a posthumous Gold medal in the St. Louis Universal Exposition in the United States. This was the same exposition where Filipino tribal groups were irregardlessly displayed like specimen in a science fair.
His son, Andres, stored this painting in his home in Manila. It was here when the catastrophic flood of 1943 damaged its lower part. Andres then transferred it to his office in Dasmarinas, where it was burned with other Luna paintings in the holocaust of 1945.
Gone. But what was the People and Kings all about?
It was about the revolution. No, not of the Philippines, but of France in 1830. The People and Kings was a painting conveying the madness, the horror, suffering, and helplessness which were inevitably felt during the 1830 French Revolution.
A mob, moving with unreserved violence, goaded by a decree to destroy the Royal tombs and other religious relics in the church, were seen in an orgy of destruction. A bare-breasted woman screaming in terror; a young boy transfixed with fear; a vicious crowd; and everywhere debris and confusion inside the St. Denis Cathedral in Paris. It was an unapologetic depiction of the ensuing brutalities in the wake of the revolution.
In 1830, France was in turmoil. The Bourbon king, Charles X, was instituting the old privileges of the aristocracy and curtailing the rights of French citizens everywhere, which were gained during the French Revolution of the 1790’s. A revolt ensued. King Charles X abdicated and a citizen king, Louis-Philippe, was installed.
In passing, that revolution seemed heroic, glorious even. But Luna’s painting revealed its darker side. Luna’s painting was often compared with the painting Liberty Leading the People of the French romanticist painter Eugene Delacroix. This was a painting symbolizing liberty as a bare-breasted woman rising amidst the dead and the fallen; rallying the people to fight and leading them to victory.
Delacroix painted a woman, whose bosoms were exposed, carrying the French flag, and around her were dead revolutionaries. She was clearly goading on her comrades to charge.
Where Delacroix’s painting tells of the indomitable will of the revolutionaries to fight; Luna’s painting was about the tragedies of the revolution. His painting also depicts a bare-breasted woman raising not a flag, but clenched fists of the maddeningly fearful. It was a screaming agony in color. It was almost a denouncement of the revolution.
Like Jose Rizal’s novel, El Filibusterismo whose dark hero fails in his bid to instigate a revolution, Luna’s People and Kings echoed fear to a rampaging, furious crowd caught in the throes of a revolution. But it was a sense of fear directed towards those whose actions to the people invite the specter of revolution.