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)

Archive for the ‘Bilbao 2010’ Category

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'


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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Bilbao, Spain 11.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 12, 2010

The Guggenheim across the river

We took the PESA bus to Bilbao today, trouble free, and tonight we are comfortably ensconced in the Hotel Esperia Bilbao with a lovely view of the river and only a short walk away from the Guggenheim.  I can’t believe I’m actually going to see it tomorrow, at last!  According to the guidebook the hotel provides there are all sorts of special exhibitions on at the moment, not just modern art but also Dutch masters, so it will be a real treat.  How lucky we are to be able to travel around and see these masterpieces in Europe’s great museums and galleries!

Although it’s still a little bewildering hearing Spanish compared to the level of confidence I felt in France (and in Italy on our previous trip) I am starting to be able to understand some of what is said.  I think that perhaps that is because here people are speaking Spanish instead of Basque whereas in San Sebastian I couldn’t recognise any words at all.  I was starting to think that I had wasted six months trying to learn Spanish but now I am starting to ‘get my ear in’ and to have a go at communicating, though  I’m still thinking in French when I need something and have to get the phrase book out of my pocket. (I am especially bad at numbers, mixing up French, Italian and Spanish, and bits of Indonesian resurrect themselves sometimes which sends Tim into fits of laughter).

People in hotel reception and restaurants speak a bit of English, but not much, and elsewhere it seems that no one speaks English at all.  So I was pleased with myself when I successfully bought dos billetos por el bus Bilbao without holding up the queue, and even more pleased with myself when I was able to explain to a young Spanish boy that seats on the bus had reservationes and he needed to go to seat 60 at the back.  At hotel reception I was able to choose the habiticiones matrimonial and no-fume which means we have a double-bed on a no-smoking floor, but I have still not figured out what the automated voice in the lift is telling us and we have to watch carefully to make sure we get out at the right floor.

Best of all was my triumph at the shoe-repair shop.  My (brand-new) Jag handbag was showing signs of strain and I was ecstatic when I was able to negotiate repairing the handles so that it doesn’t fall apart – and chat to him about how our amigos Judy and Rosie had recommended Espana as a beautiful place while he mended it.

Still, it was a relief to have an English menu in the hotel restaurant and we had a delicious meal.   Would I have known that this scrumptious risotto was made with black (wild) rice, truffles and ‘grouper’ fish if I had had to translate the description?  Of course not!  My DK phrase book, alas,  limits itself to dishes that are common and ordinary.

After lunch we strolled down to the ‘old town’.  We have heard it said that Bilbao is nothing special except for the Guggenheim, but we like it.  There is some striking modern architecture and also some beautiful old buildings.  The old town is full of winding streets with shops and cafes and despite the light rain which began falling, full of people everywhere.  We stopped in a little cafe for some coffee and orange juice which I managed to order despite calling it valencia instead of naranjes causing much amusement, and then walked back along the river to watch what looks like a Spanish version of Spicks and Specks on TV!

My hero is about to venture out to see if he can find a restaurant nearby, otherwise we’ll eat in at the hotel.  There are some signs that the Global Financial Crisis has closed a few places around here….

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