Style Living Self Celebrity Geeky News and Views
In the Paper BrandedUp Hello! Create with us Privacy Policy

The year in Philippine Art

By JAIME PONCE DE LEON Published Dec 22, 2023 9:42 am

The stars aligned in the 125th year of the birth of the Filipino nation for a personal passion project: The unveiling of the country’s most important artwork—certainly its most elusive—that defied the hunt for it for several decades.

This would be none other than Hymen, oh Hyménée! by Juan Luna, master painter, patriot, propagandist, and genius.

Last seen by the public in 1889 when it won a bronze at the Paris Exposition—which marked the 100 years of the French Revolution and saw the inauguration of the iconic Eiffel Tower—this long-lost Luna masterpiece was discovered only after several years' frustrating, exhausting, and humbling pursuit over many countries and palaces and private collections, finally to be brought to Manila.

Juan Luna’s long-lost masterpiece Hymen, oh Hyménée! arrived in the Philippines for the first time, on the occasion of the 125th year of the birth of the nation.

Eight out of 10 connoisseurs will declare Hymen, oh Hyménée! is Luna’s best work, if not his most beautiful. It was an artwork so stupendous that it deserved the right pedestal, and I would cast around for years after acquiring it, wondering what its best backdrop would be.

And then, the 125th anniversary of June 12 arrived. I just knew in my bones that it would be the perfect moment to share it with the Filipino public. And this occasion would do Juan Luna, our greatest Filipino artist who did so much for the Philippines, proud.

Thanks to a wonderful collaboration with Ayala Museum, the country’s foremost private museum whose three primary holdings are led by Juan Luna, the magical masterwork Hymen, oh Hyménée! would finally be seen in the Philippines for the very first time. The exhibition title said it all: “Splendor: Juan Luna, Painter as Hero.”

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Ayala Museum (@ayalamuseum)

Furthermore, it would be a unique partnership with Ayala Museum that would see the painting on loan to its august halls for three years.

I would never have imagined the overwhelming response to its arrival in the public eye—even though Luna himself treated this as his favorite work, accompanying him through all the studios and seasons of his life.

Luna would have been thrilled at the frontpage coverage, TV news, in-depth interviews, articles, Facebook posts, YouTube features and’‘grams that reached, without exaggeration, millions of avid art fans. Once more, Juan Luna would be the country’s most famous, revered and beloved artist. The preparations for its reveal were shrouded in secrecy—not even my closest friends were told. And furthermore, it had all to be conducted at a great distance across an ocean, in fact!

Because I had enrolled myself in a Harvard program pre-pandemic, I found myself in Boston for the first year of its reopening, while taking part in the complicated process of putting together this major exhibition on Luna via text as well as WhatsApp and Zoom conference calls.

This 2023 in Filipino art was thus all about paying forward and bringing to international significance the Philippines’ rich heritage and culture.

Beyond the rave reviews and accolades, the Ayala Museum x León Gallery flagship project for the year brought in a record-breaking 45,000 visitors—not just serious art collectors and historians but also students and teachers, entire families, business executives and balikbayans, of all ages and persuasions. That’s just the headcount in its first six months, counting only till November. I am happy to say that even more are expected to flock to the show this December holiday season. (And a little bird has just brought the happy news that the show has been extended, by popular demand, through March 2024, making it available to even more people.)

But—as important as the number of people who have come to see Splendor for themselves—is the equally important milestone that the exhibition has brought in a remarkable P11.5 million in corporate sponsorships. Every single penny of this has gone to support Ayala Foundation’s educational, livelihood and disaster relief programs, benefiting thousands of students, working women, and households throughout our great republic. It’s a perfect way to celebrate the country’s 125th year indeed.

For me, that is what has made all the effort worth it—and more.

León Gallery, after all, has always supported a spirit of sharing and the building of love of our country.

Our first auction of the year is traditionally named after the Asian Cultural Council (or ACC), the heir to the venerable John D. Rockefeller Foundation, whose very first Filipino grantee to study the arts in the United States was National Artist Jose Joya. Thus—and for nearly a decade—a portion of the ACC Auction proceeds is earmarked each year to support the residencies of Filipino artists and art professionals to enhance their education abroad. Four in various fields were supported in 2023: for dance, Japhet Mari Cabling; ethno-musicology, Maria Christine Muyco; sound and visual arts, Corinne de San Jose; and conservation, Riza Romero. Cabling attended dance courses in New York; Muyco is a two-time grantee and workshopped Southeast Asian songs with the Columbia University chamber music ensemble; while the two others researched and observed contemporary practices, also in New York.

Since our partnership with ACC began in 2015, we have supported 38 artists in wide-ranging occupations, from painting, sculpture, curatorship, and conservation to music, dance, and other performing arts.

In addition, León Gallery also had the privilege of supporting the Museo Pambata Sama Sama para sa Bata Online Silent Auction, from Sept. 24 to Oct. 18. This event gave a thousand children access to education and culture and supported Balay Yatu (Earth Home), a creative space for children at Museo Pambata.

The marvel of 125 years of independence also struck a chord with the wonderful reception to the extraordinary Don Benito Legarda collection of books, maps and prints that achieved P50 million at a white glove or all-lots-sold auction. (This built on the white-glove tradition for the 2022 Ilustrado Trove of Don Pedro Paterno.) A world record for Philippine newspapers was made for Don Benito’s 94-piece collection of the landmark Propaganda magazine La Solidaridad at P7.8 million.

In 2023, news of the most expensive Barilla coin would go viral. (The Barilla was the 1899 edition of the coin from the days of the First Philippine Republic; that was also certified by Legarda’s wife, a leading numismatist in her own right.) The Barilla would give its name to “bariya,” or “small change,” which makes the concept a Filipino invention and contribution to the world of money. It was auctioned off for P1.4 million in October 2023.

The Philippines’ National Hero Jose Rizal continued to resonate, as his two-page poem, Mi Retiro, established its own record at P5.4 million for handwritten Rizaliana. Likewise, a world record was made for the most expensive Spice Map to come to auction, at P12 million—this from the newly discovered Bill Wilhelm Collection. The Spice Map has been described as “the most famous, most important, most beautiful, most wanted and one of the rarest of all maps of Southeast Asia” by collectors.

This 2023 in Filipino art was thus all about paying forward and bringing to international significance the Philippines’ rich heritage and culture.