Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Art in Bilbao, 12.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 13, 2010

Is it possible? Do I feel just a little disappointed by the Guggenheim in Bilbao?

Jeff Koon's 'Puppy'

Guggenheim

I’m glad we got there early.  The streets were deserted as we walked along at 10.00am, but I guess if Spaniards don’t start their evening meal until 9 or 10pm, they’re not going to be very good at getting up early in the morning, which worked to our advantage!  It was easy to take photos without hordes of other tourists getting in the way, and there were no queues either.  (We had prepaid tickets bought online, but you still have to go through the system to get the audio guide, which we knew we’d need for the contemporary artworks.)

We decided to start on the top floor, with the temporary exhibition of Dutch and Flemish masters from the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt.  This was wonderful: we were not expecting this in a gallery devoted to contemporary art and we loved every bit of it.  There was portraiture aplenty: those wonderful stiff-necked women with their monstrous collars; dignified merchants looking as if they owned the world; and some enchanting child portraits to make the heart melt.  But there were landscapes, and the signage explained something I should have understood long before now: the reason for all the allusions to storm and tempest and the power of nature is because Holland is forever fending off the sea!  There were many artists I had never heard of, but my plan to buy the catalogue online and have it posted home for us have been thwarted because it’s not available online – oh woe! We loved the Vanitas Still Life and the other memento mori with their allusions to the impermanence of life, and the genre paintings with their dear little figures going about their daily life are favourites of mine, and now I can’t have a souvenir of the exhibition!

The second floor was devoted to the works of Anish Kapoor, an Anglo-Indian sculptor who likes to experiment with colour.  Now, ever since I watched Robert Hughes’ TV series called The Shock of the New I have often liked the contemporary art I’ve seen, especially when it’s political, but I also like it when the artist messes about with texture and shapes.  Some pieces really tug at the emotions but for me, this depends on there being some kind of comprehensible allusion or narrative.  I mean, it helps if there’s a title like ‘Exhausted Tourist’  beside a picture of some swollen feet or ”Frustration‘ next to an image of a 404 Page Not Found.  (You can tell that I have been pondering making some artworks of my own, eh?)

But with modern art, unless one is an expert, it can be hard to know what’s good and what’s nonsense, and we found ourselves bemused by some of Kapoor’s work.  The audio tour featured him saying that he liked red because it wasn’t blue, and he liked the redness of red and the stuffness of stuff, and these comments made us suspect that he was taking the mickey.  But it’s the Guggenheim…so it must be Art, right?

Well, see what you think.  Click here to see his massive whatsit made out of tonnes of red wax, and here to see his colourful installations, and this one called Shooting into the Corner which is actually quite nauseating to look at because the red wax looks like the innards of some poor creature.

The permanent collection was definitely disappointing.  Flamingo Capsule was the only one that had a narrative I understood, and it didn’t seem respectful to the memory of the astronauts who died at all. The untitled Rothko wasn’t as striking as his Red that we have at the NGV in Melbourne, and Richard Serra’s monstrous sculptures – which you’re supposed to move through to experience a sensation of sense in motion – made me feel claustrophobic and panicky.  It was time to go.

So we found a restaurant that featured Basque food, and had a lovely time.  The waiter was very gallant, pretending that he thought I had been learning Spanish for 6 months instead of only 6 weeks of classes.  I can’t say that I noticed any great difference between Basque cuisine and Spanish, but we have settled on Alborino as our favourite Spanish white wine, with Tempranillo as our first choice when not having fish.

Then it was on to the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, (i.e. their Fine Arts gallery) and I was not surprised when the young lady in the souvenir shop told me that most people prefer it to the Guggenheim and it is Spain’s 3rd best gallery (the Prado being pre-eminent, followed by Avila).  It is splendid.

First of all there was a super exhibition by an artist called Lazkano, beautiful landscapes melding modern architecture with nature, sometimes with tiny little figures tucked away beside a tree.  Many of his paintings referenced the gallery building itself, especially the sculpture at right and also Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water house.

From there we went to the 12th century gallery where there were delightful naif pieces of altar art.  The collection is arranged chronologically so you can see the development of all the major art movements from a Basque perspective right through to the 20th century.  Especially impressive was a sensuous sculpture of Hero and Leander in black marble.    Click here for a virtual tour, it really is lovely!

It’s 9 o’clock now and the Bilboans are just starting their dinners but we have decided to adapt our digestive systems to Spanish mores by having a big breakfast and lunch and skipping dinner altogether.   We’re just too tired to stay up late!

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5 Responses to “Art in Bilbao, 12.10.10”

  1. LOL Lisa … you mustn’t have been told that story about the boy and the dike when you were young. That forever imprinted in my memory Holland and water. Here is Wikipedia on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Brinker,_or_The_Silver_Skates#Popular_culture:_the_legend_of_the_boy_and_the_dike

    As for the rest. I guess modern art is like modern literary fiction and modern “classical” music. There’s a lot of experimentation and time will tell what will resonate over time. I like to be open-minded but a lot of it is a challenge to make sense of isn’t it?

    I do love your meal photos (and you do look lovely in that blouse). Len and I love to enjoy a nice meal – with a glass or two – each day when we travel. I don’t understand those people who find the cheapest place, gulp food down just to replenish the energy and head off again. Oh, and we also rarely go out at night – busy busy during the day and then it’s collapse. I always think we’ll go to a show/concert etc but we rarely can manage it!

    • Lisa Hill said

      *chuckle* oh yes of course I read about the boy and the dike! I had a set of children’s classics for a birthday one year and one of them was Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates – I think we were all told that inspirational story of courage and determination weren’t we? (And BTW Holland is on our next European itinerary for sure!)
      I think it’s because I like to be open-minded that I was a bit disappointed, because I so often go to exhibitions of modern art and love them – and when the Guggenheim came to Melbourne last year (or was it 2008?) I was fascinated by everything I saw. Maybe it’s just that abstract expressionists are not my thing…
      I do so agree about cuisine. Food is part of a country’s culture and we love to take risks and make new discoveries. We try to get off the tourist trail and find the restaurants that the locals go to and even though it can be a real challenge working out the menu we always have more fun and a better meal when we do.

  2. […] was closed on our last day there, but last year when we went to Spain we visited the Guggenheim in Bilbao.  Confronted by this vast magnificent gallery of modern art, and knowing also that she had […]

  3. […] was closed on our last day there, but last year when we went to Spain we visited the Guggenheim in Bilbao.  Confronted by this vast magnificent gallery of modern art, and knowing also that she had […]

  4. […] artist apart from Anish Kapoor (and that’s only because we have dined out on our impressions of his bizarre incomprehensible red wax installations at the Guggenheim in Bilbao).  I have only ever once seen any performance art: at the Melbourne Festival some years ago where […]

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