BY THE SPOLIARIUM I STOOD UP AND WEPT
WOULD I HAVE A DIFFERENT RESPONSE IF I HAD KNOWN THAT JUAN LUNA MURDERED HIS WIFE AND MOTHER-IN-LAW?
Let me paint the scene for you: The hall in the National Museum where the Spoliarium resides is empty, and I enter. The parquet floor registers my footfalls, scattering it in staccato. I see the canvas, about 10 arm spans, with its serious frame— declaring the work’s title in Times New Roman should there be any doubt to its identity—held in place by rivets and chains. From my distance near the entrance, I see no supporting wall. Spoliarium looks like a scene from a film noir frozen in mid-frame after the theater lights have been turned on. It’s a premonition made flesh by chiaroscuro and oil paint. It’s a punch of dark matter in the well-lit—glaringly, in fact—space of the hall.
No waterworks yet. Everything is still calm and easy. I stand about three meters from its center and secretly curse at woeful security. No gallery staff is there to prevent anyone from stabbing it with a kitchen knife and leaving behind an ugly slash. Is it perhaps because it’s a Sunday, and the gallery staff needs some rest too? Or are the security cameras—which I presume are many—enough to record and prompt a response should a hullabaloo ensue? Or is it not part of our national psyche to defile works of art?
My mistake is when I decide to walk from the left to the right side of the painting. From a viewer, a museum-goer, I am instantly transformed into a character of the scene. From one of the spectators who casts a wrong bet and is not yet ready to confess that he doesn’t actually have a single coin on his person, in a few paces I become a boy seeing his gladiator hero dead—a piece of red cloth still belted to the waist—the meat of the body dragged across the chamber, the leather of the sandals creating burn marks on pale flesh.
Skipping over fresh blood on the floor, I am confronted by the diagonal force of the man in charge of disposing the body, the expenditure of brute energy most concentrated on where the rope meets the wrist, the muscles of his back, nape, and forearm tight and seemingly about to burst. Unlike his companion to his right, he looks at his gladiator with full concentration, not with reverence but a kind of resignation—to the gladiator’s fate and to his. This is, after all, just another day for him, but he knows that his gladiator is cut from a different cloth, courageous until his last breath.
It is at this point when the tears come— rapid, hot, uncontrollable—prompted by the vastness of the canvas as well as the remoteness and the antiquity of its world, the light that flares on the dead body of the of gladiator that is somehow transmitted to his undertaker, uniting them in a glow of one candlepower, the arrogant indifference of the spectators, the shadows climbing the walls and swarming off in different directions, the yawning darkness that awaits us all—every man, woman, and child—and, yes, even by that belt—its sublime utility, that concentrated shine of the buckle—that will be taken off from him: in the Spoliarium, each dead gladiator will be stripped of his already meager possessions.
When I step toward the woman, noticeable for her ambit of space and white and seagreen dress draping her body and revealing her shoulder, my grief is complete. There is no doubt that she is mourning the dead, so stricken with and paralyzed by torment that she won’t dare reveal her face. She, like me, is shedding tears. But, unlike me, she will go on with her grief, cry her impotent but dignified tears, be inconsolable for the rest of the time that Spoliarium exists—the indictment and the moral force in this depiction of barbarism, the metaphor of war, the subjugation of one person by another for the amusement of others.
I am not the only one who has cried over a painting—or, I would like to hazard, over
Spoliarium. “It turns out that viewers cried in front of paintings in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and again in the 18th century, and again in the 19th each time for different reasons and with different pictures,” writes James Elkins in his book, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in
Front of Paintings. “Few centuries, it seems, are as determinedly tearless as ours. Some people still do cry over paintings—a small group, nearly invisible in the masses of unmoved museum visitors.
Elkins has determined two primary reasons why people cry over a work of art: “Roughly half the cases converge on two kinds of experience that are very close to each other, and yet completely opposed. In one, people cry because pictures seem unbearably full, complex, daunting, or somehow too close to be properly seen. In the other, they cry because pictures seem unbearably empty, dark, painfully vast, cold and somehow too far away to be understood.”
No doubt that Spoliarium is a complex work. Measuring four meters in height and seven meters in width, the work embodies the qualities that a fine arts academy would applaud in the 1800s: the strong narrative rooted in classical imagery, the masterful play of light and dark, the credible perspective, the striking verisimilitude of the figures. When Juan Luna submitted it to the Exposición Nacional de Bellas
Artes in Madrid in 1884, the work walked away with one of the three gold medals.
But its complexity is only part of the picture. Perhaps, I am responding more to its aura, Walter Benjamin’s idea of an artwork’s
presentness in time and space, despite or because of one’s familiarity with it through its many reproductions. That, finally seeing the real thing, I am confronted by its immediacy, its truthfulness that can never be repeated by a duplicate, evoked, as it were, by multitudinous brushstrokes accruing and resolving into muscles and torsos, red robes and pools of blood, poses and attitudes, even the quizzical, unsympathetic gaze of the two old men conferring with each other.