I am standing in front of the most famous painting in the Philippines, Juan Luna’s Spoliarium (1884), at the National Museum in Ermita, Manila. It is the first picture that welcomes the eyes. I position myself some 10 feet away from the painting to accustom my eyes to its immensity and distance myself from the huddling spectators competing for photographic territory, like desperate paparazzi who don’t bother fixing their eyes to what they are photographing. Something is new and disconcerting here: Today, paintings are celebrated like pop concerts. Young people respond to art by taking pictures. The immense size of the painting demands from the first timer and the expert the same immensity of attention and silence. It is only in attention and silence that paintings can speak. But such demand is too wearisome, too time-consuming for a society of short attention spans. It takes a lot of patience and time to really look, instead of just a touch away to photograph.
The Spoliarium measures 4.22 m x 7.675 m (about 13 ft x 25 ft). The size of history. I am suddenly reminded of the prophetic words of Walter Benjamin:
“Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe.”
There is not a detail in this picture which does not portray a sense of human catastrophe: the shadowy outlines of the horrified and stunned spectators in the background; the bloodthirsty Roman politicians eyeing the spectacle of the “bloody carcasses of slave gladiators,” in Rizal’s anguished description; the surviving gladiators helplessly dragging their slain comrades; and the woman in the right corner who turns away and sinks down in disbelief disgusted by the cruelty of man. Perhaps she is the wife, or the sister, or the mother of one of the murdered slaves. (How many times did we see these figures in real life?) All situated in the gloom. It is a picture of history. A history of catastrophe.
In his Theses on The Philosophy of History (1940), Benjamin proposes another way of looking at history: “To articulate the past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” For Luna, painting was a way to grasp history. His choice of a bygone historical moment as his subject (which may have pleased the judges of the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid so much that they gave him the first prize) conveys the capacity of painting to render history a visibility, the recognition of a memory. The act of painting reinforced by a sense of compassion and ancestral appreciation. To paint is to take control of memory. In most situations, painting intertwines with remembering. It is the crisscrossing of the present and the past. One interrogating the other. The Spoliarium as a whole is a picture of tragic remembrance. What is being transmitted – what is worth remembering – is a historic truth, and according to Theodor Adorno, the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. The aim of the corporate media is to package and commodify suffering to make it profitable, thus disengaging suffering from its historical context, making it void and voiceless.
In a dysfunctional educational system, history is taught as a cluster of insubstantial facts, names, and dates to be memorized instead of constructive and debatable truths.
At school we were forced to learn historical facts, which invite little sympathy from us students. Details that do not awaken our curiosity, lessons that fail to connect with the spirit of our times. I find it a miracle that a painting like Spoliarium can tell us more of the blood and spirit of history than any academic schooling can. It is this capacity of art to remind that poses a threat to our society that is prone to historical amnesia and collective forgetfulness. To think about history is not to think about the so-called “big” moments in history from which the familiar names of the textbook protagonists always resurface. No. To think about history is to think about this side and that side of suffering: the enormous price paid by the nameless and the faceless, like the slaves in the Spoliarium.
Luna’s theme, situated in a particularly tragic moment in Roman history, enables us to see and articulate the tragic character of our own history. It is the tragic character of the histories of the colonized and the oppressed, which the powerful have desperately and unsuccessfully tried to marginalize, the very substance of our collective memory. History is tragic, what is tragic is history. This historical sensitivity evoked by the painting is precisely what the corporate media and the entertainment industry are trying to glamorize and stereotype today. The effect is to deny the present any significant meaning. Luna insists that the only way to approach an understanding of the present is through history, by taking control of our memory. Any kind of shortcut is not an option.
Spoliarium mirrors the two magisterial works of Luna’s contemporary, Jose Rizal: Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Both the painting and the novels reflect the concrete social crisis of their day. Both Rizal and Luna belonged to that group of intellectuals in the 19th century that used art as an agent for social change. They believed in the tremendous capacity of art to shape society, and, in the words of Antonio Gramsci, “to destroy spiritual hierarchies, prejudices, idols and ossified traditions.”
Step a little closer. Look: A mass of dark color surrounds the painting cut by a beam of light (which resembles a glowing lamp inside an interrogation room) to bear down on the figures of the dead slaves. The immensity of the painting is reduced to that sight of death.
Take two steps back. Look all over again: A visitor who sees Spoliarium for the first time will notice that the first thing their eyes respond to is the image of the dead slave, the lifeless body which endured unimaginable pain outstretched in the foreground. It is the pictorial center. It is the point of reference that connects all the painting’s spatial details. And these spaces in the painting evoke different forms of death, which, in the past and in the present, are constant.
1.) Cultural Death: The barbarity of the Roman spectacle is not dissimilar to the kind of spectacle the mass media is trying to concoct in its coverage of wars and aggressions by sensationalizing and de-contextualizing.
2.) Social Death: The indifference of the public towards certain forms of oppression, our present society’s lack of determined self-scrutiny, and the apathy and distance of administrators to the situation of the oppressed, as if neither suffering nor death speak to them nor move them.
3.) Economic Death: An economy embedded in a system which prioritizes the interests of foreign and private enterprise aggravates the insuperable gap between the rich and the poor and fuels the hatred of conflicting classes.
4.) Spiritual Death: The hopeless resignation of the woman and the restless grief of the surviving slaves. The overwhelming bitterness that shakes the foundation of faith.
5.) Physical Death: The unjustified suffering of the oppressed as they perish by inches.
The Moroccan poet, Hassan El Ouazzani, condenses these forms of death in a few provocative lines:
the land will offer
new dead people as sacrifice, processions of the blind,
and more medals.”
– A Truce (from Hudnatun Ma, 1997)
Spoliarium’s image of death speaks as eloquently today as it did more than a hundred years ago. The forms of death Luna and his generation had to wrestle with are more or less the prevailing forms of death we struggle with today. Only appearances have changed.
It is facile to simply acknowledge Luna’s masterly artistic skills and his contribution to the arts in this country; more than anything else, his great contribution belongs to human awareness. He had the lucidity to recognize the inexplicable suffering inherent in history. And this lucidity is a gift to the living. What the powerful want is to deny the present of its history, its memory. A present without history is without future. Today’s prevailing post-modern art, awash with narcissism and nihilism, seem to be complicit in this denial.
Walter Benjamin in his eighth Thesis writes, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the emergency situation in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this.” Luna’s slaves assert the emergency situation. What the powerful deny, the dead affirm. That the slaves are the main figure of this painting, the oppressed that have been unperceived and largely disregarded for five hundred years, claims our memory. Spoliarium provides a historical perspective enabling us to interrogate the present whose deliberate forgetfulness is the source and cause of our country’s wounds.
No other painting of Luna or after him in the history of painting in this country has given us such a tool of awareness. To acknowledge our own suffering and struggle through the suffering and struggle of others is a kind of lucidity that underlies a spark of hope. What more could you ask of a painting this size, this beautiful, this deeply moving in its mood of pain, and pity?
Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino, born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy.