Felix Hidalgo, Juan Luna, and the Manila shawl

Three paintings have drawn my attention from the many artworks and artefacts on display at Ayala Museum’s “Intertwined: Transpacific, Transcultural Philippines” exhibition. Two of them were painted by Juan Luna, the other one by Felix Resureccion Hidalgo. I wrote a blog four years ago about the artworks of Luna and Hidalgo at the National Museum of Fine Arts, in which I tried to be as critical and objective as possible. But reading the article now makes me realize that what I only managed to do was to shower the two ‘Indios Bravos’ with praise. I have a strong feeling that I’m going to do the same thing this time. And it still feels like the right thing to do.

The exhibition “illuminates the Filipino’s transcultural heritage” forged by maritime exchanges with cultures in Europe and across the world. A cultural encounter with the West had long been established before the peak of Luna and Hidalgo’s career as artists in the 19th century. But no one can better capture the essence of such an encounter than the painters who, according to Rizal, “illuminate two extremes of the globe”.

The three paintings that captured my interest are portraits of Madrileñas, exhibiting the distinct style of their creators, both of whom were trained in the grand classical tradition. With one casual look, the observer immediately sees the Impressionist technique that conflates everyday life scenes with the sensory effect of atmospheric light and colour. But the portraits are more than just paintings that sport Western aesthetics. When one starts to look closer into the details, an element becomes more visible: a Manila shawl embraces the figure of all three muses. They are white women wearing an Oriental piece of garment. In some of their most remarkable creations, Hidalgo and Luna did not forget to include fragments of their roots.

Luna’s Woman with Manton (also known as Woman with Manton de Manila) is the most dramatic among the three, with its back facing her audience. Her embroidered shawl creates a perfect drape across her back, and her side profile–as if in the act of turning around–teases the observer. The fan she’s holding coquettishly is a “prop” that adds to the flirtatious attitude of the character.

The other Luna muse, simply called Chula, is part of a series of paintings he painted before leaving Madrid in late 1884. Chula is Spanish slang for “cute” or “beautiful woman”. In our contemporary colloquialism, it probably translates to “chix” or “shawty”. Unlike the first painting, the Madrileña in the painting is accompanied by another person. It was only when I was writing this blog did I realise that it is difficult to tell whether the other subject of the painting is a man or a woman. The manton of this chula has lace details that blend with the woman’s dress.

The last manton-wearing lady from the collection is Hidalgo’s own Chula. It has the same name as Luna’s painting, but the technique in light and shade is distinctly different. The tonal contrast of the painting is a product of a technique called chiaroscuro, an Italian term literally meaning ‘light-dark’. One can easily notice how Hidalgo’s Chula is different from the first two paintings, especially because it was set against a dark background. The contrast foregrounds both the woman and the beautiful patterns of her Manila shawl.

The Manila silk shawl was not actually created in the Philippines. Mantons were originally made in China and exported to our country through the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade from the 16th century to the early 19th century. But the transcultural nature of the mantons is the very spirit behind Luna and Hidalgo’s paintings: a network of trade and heritage that defies boundaries, thus intertwined.

Spanish Galleon. Scale model. Ayala Museum Collection. “From 1565 to 1815, the galleons laden with treasures shuttled across the Pacific between Manila and Acapulco”.

Luna and Hidalgo hold a significant place in the history of Philippine art because they successfully captured the consciousness of their time through their artworks. Their paintings, showing the cultural encounter of the Philippines with the West, are representative of the 19th century zeitgeist. 

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