In the University of the Philippines (U.P.) Diliman campus, there is a cultural treasure trove that can be found in the Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center. In the Vargas Museum is a permanent collection of paintings and sculptures that range from the 19th Century during the Spanish Colonization of the Philippines (1521-1898), the American Occupation (1898-1946), and contemporary times. This collection was donated by Jorge Bartolome Vargas (1890-1980), who was the 1st National Executive Secretary during the Commonwealth Era (1935-1946). Vargas donated his collection in 1978, but the museum was only completed in 1987.
Part of the collection is an impressive compilation of paintings from the 19th century Spanish Colonial Period. Within this collection is a large array of small works by Juan Luna de San Pedro y Novicio (1857 – 1899). Luna, who hailed from the province of Ilocos, was an awarding winning painter in Europe for his large works. In 1881, Luna won the silver prize for his painting “La Muerte de Cleopatra” (The Death of Cleopatra) at the Madrid Exposicion de Bellas Artes. In 1884, he won the gold prize for his work “Spolarium” at the Exposicion National de Bellas Artes, in Madrid. In 1887, Luna received a Diploma of Honor for his work “La Mestiza en su Tocador” (The Mestiza at the Dressing Table) and two more awards for “La Batalla de Lepanto” (The Battle of Lepanto) and “Rendición de Granada” (The Surrender of Granada), at the Exposicion General de Filipinas, in Madrid. In 1890, Luna was welcomed to the exclusive Societe Nationale de Beaux Arts, in Paris, for his work “The Ragpicker”. And in 1904, Luna won the posthumous silver award for his 1886 work “El Pacto de Sangre” (The Blood Compact) at the Saint Louis Exposition, in the United States. With all these awards, he had a certain clout in European society, even if he was part of the Reformist Propaganda Movement that sought the equal rights between the indios (natives) and Spaniards in the Philippines. That clout and his Masonic linkages kept him safe from harm, after he murdered his wife and mother-in-law after a fit of jealousy. He was exiled back to the Philippines, where acted as a negotiator with the Americans, during their occupation of the Philippines. He was later exiled to Hong Kong, where he died in 1899.
Another international award-winner is Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo y Padilla (1853 – 1913), whose works are also found in the Vargas collection. In 1884, Hidalgo won the silver prize for his work “Las Virgenes Expuestas al Populacho” (The Christian Virgins exposed to the Public), at the Exposicion Nacional de Bellas Artes, in Madrid.In 1887, he won the gold prize for his work “La Barca de Aqueronte” (The Boat of Charon), at the Exposicion General de las Filipinas, in Madrid; which would go on to win won the silver prize, at the 1889 Exposicion Universelle, in Paris; and was also awarded the Dilpoma of honor, at the 1891 Exposicion General de Bellas Artes, in Barcelona; and finally the gold prize, at the 1894 Exposicion Internacional de Bellas Artes, in Madrid. Although they were award winners, both Hidalgo and Luna were not as significant in the history of art, because Impressionism and Post-Impression had already taken a hold of the modern Paris art scene during those times. However, the two artists were important to the Reformist Propaganda Movement, where their success were rallying points as proof that the indio was equal, if not better, than the Spaniards.
Juan Luna and Felix Hidalgo were part of a group of indios who went to Europe to study and work. Joining them was a Spaniard born in the Philippines, but who identified himself with his indio companions, and championed their reformist cause. This was Rafael Enriquez y Villanueva (1850-1937), a painter and 1st director of the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts. In his younger years, Enriquez studied at the Ateneo Municipal and the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura. He would later received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Santo Tomas (UST) where he also enrolled in law. He continued his legal studies at the Universidad Central de Madrid in Spain, at the age of 18.
Another one of the 19th century artists in the Vargas collection is Simon Flores y Dela Rosa (1839 – 1904). Flores was a noted genre artist, but he was more famous for his religious works and portraits. His painting “La Orquestra del Pueblo” (Music of the Town) won a silver medal at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876. He was a student of Damián Domingo y Gabor (February 12, 1796 – July 26, 1834), in the first school of the arts in the Philippines.
There are many more artworks hidden in the archives of the Vargas Museum, which are every-now-and-then displayed in the regular rotation of the collection. In fact, the first time I viewed the Vargas collection, there was a large collection of small Juan Luna impressionist paintings. There is much to be discovered in this museum, as each visit has a new exhibition of contemporary art, as well as a mew rearrangement of their permanent collection.