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 Lisbon, 22.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 23, 2010

Did I say yesterday that I thought Lisbon was raffish? Perhaps that was an understatement.

Galleons on lamp posts

We took the Lisbon Sightseeing bus again, this time on their ‘orient’ route which took us to the north and along the coast of the estuary. In the city centre we saw the same curious mixture of beautiful old 19th century buildings side-by-side with concrete monoliths and glass and steel tower blocks, but everywhere we looked there was graffiti.   Nothing artistic or creative about it, it’s just dirty tagging and it is enough to make you weep to see the way it is plastered all over lovely old buildings. You can tell by the way it has faded that nobody makes any attempt to clean it off either.

The bus then hurtled its windswept passengers along and upwards towards the north and brought us to Oceanario de Lisboa, a brilliant modern complex of stunning architecture coherently designed on a maritime theme.

It was built to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s landing in India, and it is breath-taking.  Yes, I know I’m over-using that word, but what else is there to describe seeing building after building with elegant symbols evoking galleons, rigging, sails, waves and the prows of ships? There are also massive water features to represent the oceans of the world, and all of it faces out to the River Tagus (which is really an estuary). Pristine, stylish and new, it is home to a commercial precinct of banks and classy business addresses. It is what Melbourne’s Docklands could be if we had the same architectural genius to conceive the development with the priority on making something beautiful instead of making money. It is stunning.

And it is an extraordinary contrast with what came next on this bus tour. I do not understand how it has happened that Lisbon has (a) allowed so many of its lovely buildings to fall into appalling disrepair and (b) surrendered itself to the scourge of graffiti in the way that it has.  (Click here to see what I mean). Where in the city centre shabby old buildings in need of restoration remain as infill amongst the new, here street after street after street was full of apartment blocks with fallen masonry, windows broken or filled in with bricks, and rusted balconies. The buildings were filthy, there was graffiti on every available wall, the streets were full of rubbish and weeds and those silly tiles were all broken and dangerous and no attempt had been made to tidy them up and make them safe. I have seen poverty in Africa, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam but I have never seen such a sleazy, dirty, disgusting place as this in Europe. It made me very cross indeed. Nobody should have to live in such conditions and the Portuguese government ought to set up an economic stimulus package for the obviously unemployed young people to clean it all up.

We were pleased to get off the bus and take a restorative walk up through the King Edward VII gardens. This is a large park right in the heart of Lisbon, established to commemorate his visit here in 1903, and the quiet beauty of it helped to restore a sense of equanimity. We found a congenial restaurant (Cafe Esplanado) at the top of the hill where a friendly waiter recommended traditional fish for our lunch and his sense of pride in his culture made us feel that Lisbon was a lovely place after all.

Encouraged, we set out for the Museu Gulbenkian but mistook the Modern Art Gallery for it instead. We couldn’t find any of the pictures we were expecting to see and felt a little disappointed but (not realising that we were in the wrong gallery altogether) put it down to the way galleries lend their artworks to other galleries all the time. We decided that it is even harder to make sense of contemporary art when there’s no English signage or gallery guide – but were very impressed by some five year olds earnestly discussing some incomprehensible pictures of horses with their teacher. This little scene told us three things: school children here are very well-behaved; they all speak their national language (which is not the case with a prep class in Melbourne) and their school thinks that it’s worthwhile teaching them about art when they’re very young. (What happens to turn these little art scholars into graffiti vandals when they are older, I do not know.)

From the quiet of this almost deserted gallery we strolled out into another lovely park. This one is a series of paved walkways, intersecting with gardens, waterways and secluded places to sit quietly and enjoy the bird and plant life. The paths wend their way around a complex of squat modern buildings and it was from one of these that we spotted some very interesting art works. Could this be the Museu Gulbankian that we had been expecting?

It was, and it was brilliant. It is a superb collection of artworks from the ancient to the impressionists. There were gorgeous funerary objects from Egypt, Greece and Rome; wonderful rugs and velvets from Persia (Iran); exquisite porcelain and lacquer boxes from China; and glorious illuminated Books of Hours. There were magnificent French clocks (still ticking); some delicate tapestry chairs from the 17th and 18th century; sumptuous pieces of Sevres porcelain and a really good representative collection of portraits, still life and landscapes, including Dutch and Flemish masters, Rubens and Rembrandt. There weren’t actually many impressionists, but the piece de resistance was the Lalique gallery where there is a stunning collection of jewellery and small sculptures – and that brooch, the one that featured on the cover of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. I couldn’t help it, I know the suitcase will be overweight, but I bought the guide book so that I can admire them all over again at home.

So ends our sojourn in Lisbon.  Tomorrow we will try to find a post office so that we can offload some of the excess baggage, and then it’s a travel day. Two flights, with a boring wait in between, but then Seville!

2 Responses to “Art in Lisbon, 22.10.10”

  1. kimbofo said

    Have you ever been to Brussels, Lisa? There are parts of that city which are filled with graffiti, while the footpaths are barely walkable (too many cracks, too many lifted paving stones). I remember arriving late at night, and alone, and getting approached by men, all wanting cigarettes (or at least I think that is what they wanted!) and not really knowing if I would make it to my hotel in one piece! I was absolutely petrified. All this in a city which is supposed to the headquarters of the EU.

  2. Lisa Hill said

    No, Kim, I haven’t…sounds like a treat in store (not).
    It’s not funny the way graffiti makes a city feel unsafe…for women, it’s a clear indication that there aren’t enough police around.
    So I have mixed feelings about Lisbon. I’m glad I went, but it wouldn’t be on my list of must-see places if time was short.

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