It is early evening in mid-November, 2017, and the sun is just about to set in the island city-state of Singapore. Inside the country’s largest visual arts gallery, a transfixed crowd has stopped in its tracks, admiring the impressive scale of La Muerte de Cleopatra (The Death of Cleopatra) – a painting by Filipino master artist Juan Luna that has not been shown to the public since 1887.
This is what the painting looks like: Dressed in royal regalia, the Egyptian queen – famous in history for having put in her inimitable thralldom the great Julius Caesar and the brilliant but flawed Mark Antony – has just passed away. A maid has collapsed on the floor, while another is on the verge of falling over. Smoke from a lamp in the royal mausoleum hovers above, symbolizing the ghost that Cleopatra has just given up. At the foot of a pillar, barely visible, is the tail of an asp slithering away – the beautiful monarch has killed herself by the bite of a poisonous snake.
The Death of Cleopatra was awarded a Second Class medal at Spain’s national exhibition in 1881 – the highest artistic achievement received by any Filipino at the time. But how did Luna’s masterpiece ended up in Singapore? For that we have Clarissa Chikiamco, a Filipino curator at the National Gallery Singapore, to thank. Working on “Century of Light”, a special four-month exhibition about artists who have made an impact in the art worlds of both Europe and Southeast Asia that ended in March, 2018, Chikiamco immediately thought of Luna and remembered once reading about the long-forgotten The Death of Cleopatra.
“I had previously seen it in a book with one small color reproduction, and another in black-and-white, but I was stunned when I finally saw it in person,” Chikiamco told me a day before the exhibition’s opening, as we stood in front of the 8×11 feet mural. Eighteen months earlier, the painting was lying in the vault of the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, and Chikiamco was there to inspect its condition.
After restoring the mural, the Prado Museum sent it on a freighter plane to Singapore, where it was offloaded after museum hours because the high-cube container truck carrying it was too high for the truck lift. The work, unframed, had to be carried by the strength of a few dozen men
“I saw the work together with Russell Storer, one of my co-curators for the exhibition and the deputy director for our curatorial and collections team. I knew the size of The Death of Cleopatra beforehand, but it was completely different seeing the actual work and experiencing its scale, its striking composition and rich color and details. It isn’t only one’s eyes taking in the work but one’s whole physical self in relation to a painting of such a grand scale. We weren’t allowed to take photos then, so my first encounter with the work is only captured in memory,” Chikiamco said.
The Prado Museum was open to loaning The Death of Cleopatra to the National Gallery Singapore for the work’s first full public display since its last recorded exhibit in 1887 – and the closest it has ever come to Juan Luna’s motherland. After restoring the mural, the Prado Museum sent it on a freighter plane to Singapore, where it was offloaded after museum hours because the high-cube container truck carrying it was too high for the truck lift. The work, unframed, had to be carried by the strength of a few dozen men.
TO UNDERSTAND the artistic and cultural significance of Luna’s work, Chikiamco says viewers must know the context of the term “Filipino” during the Spanish colonial period. “Luna started appearing in Spanish publications for Cleopatra while being acknowledged as a Filipino artist. At the time, the term Filipino referred only to Spaniards born in the Philippines – natives were merely referred to as indio. Luna’s acknowledgement as a Filipino reflects that the idea of Filipino was changing amid rising nationalism,” explains Chikiamco. “Moreover, Luna received that recognition at the major art competition of the Philippines’ colonizer.”