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 ‘Art Galleries’ Category

Historic moments – in the Hermitage

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 30, 2012

I’ll bet many tourists walk through a small and (by the standards of the rest of this lavish Palace) somewhat nondescript room in the Hermitage without having any idea that they are on the site of one of the most momentous events in the 20th century…

Small dining room where Lenin’s Bolsheviks stormed the Provisional government

Source: Virtual Excursions, Hermitage Museum

This is the ‘small dining room’ in the Winter Palace where in 1917 the Provisional Government of Nicholas II met.  (See the photo at left). This Provisional Government was a token effort by Nicholas to meet the demands for political reform, but it had no real power because he simply revoked any reforms that they made if he didn’t like what they had decided.   It certainly didn’t meet the demands of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and so on the 7th of October, they entered the palace from the main entrance (at right) and the west side and captured the Provisional Government as they met in this dining room.

Over on the mantelpiece there is a clock, stopped at ten past two, because that was the actual moment when the October Revolution began.  There is a plaque next to it which explains the significance of the room, but because it’s in Russian, most tourists won’t realise where they are unless they have a tour guide or (presumably) a guide book.  (Actually, the Hermitage is pretty good with signage – a lot of paintings and artefacts are captioned in both Russian and English but not this room).

It was an amazing experience to be standing right where one of the most significant events in the history of the 20th century took place!

Posted in Art Galleries, Historic buildings, Museums, Palaces, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | 2 Comments »

St Petersburg – Antiquities in the Hermitage

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 30, 2012

Our friends and relations all know that this year Tim is studying classics at Monash, and that he very nobly briefly abandoned his studies to travel with me to Russia….

Well, this post is for him to show his tutor that he has not been slacking off while we’re away.  Today we spent most of the afternoon exploring the antiquities in the Hermitage, and since not many people travel to Russia, it’s quite possible that she has never seen some of the treasures that I have photographed here.  You’ll notice that I’ve also photographed some of the captions, but most of them were in Russian which made it a bit tricky to identify some of the pharaohs!

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Posted in Art Galleries, Museums, Palaces, Russia 2012, St Petersburg 2012 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Tretyakov Galleries Old and New, Moscow 23.8.12

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 24, 2012

Most tourists with only a day or two in Moscow see only the permanent collection at the Tretyakov Gallery, because it’s centrally located near the major hotels and everybody recommends it.  It houses Russian Art from the 11th Century to the beginning of the 20th Century, so it has all the gorgeous icons and the kind of 18th & 19th century paintings that most people really like.  Of course it’s a must-see, but if you can venture a little further afield, it is well worth going to see the other Tretyakov Gallery as well…

Nobody here has even mentioned the New Tretyakov Gallery which houses the collection of Soviet art, and we would have missed it too if we hadn’t had a copy of Frommer’s Moscow Day-by-Day which showed us that it was nearby.  Our hotel (the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy) is in the business district and so for us the  New Tretyakov Gallery was just a short taxi ride away.  We left the cab by the river at the monument to Peter the Great (which is a most impressive sight, vaguely reminiscent of the Christopher Columbus monument in Lisbon, but (as you’d expect in Russia), much bigger, and then we took a short walk along the waterfront to the gallery.

It’s a big boxy lump of a building, and it’s more than unprepossessing inside, but the ticket seller and the information desk were friendly and helpful although they didn’t have a word of English between them.  However there was an information pamphlet in English with a map, and if you do as we did and head straight for the 4th floor, it’s brilliant.

We’ve seen a bit of fascist art in the Museum of Modern Art in Rome, but like most westerners, I suppose, we’ve interpreted it as propaganda.  Well, so it is, but if you take the time to look through this marvellous collection, you can also see something else.  This kind of art is also an expression of pride in the Soviet accomplishment, a celebration of the remarkably rapid transformation from a backward agrarian economy into an industrialised superpower.  There is a painting of the first Soviet airship; and another of two lovely college girls getting an education that was formerly denied them.  There is a terrific one of a car race with elegant automobiles, and there are city landscapes showing the building boom and Stalin’s skyscrapers.  Yes, because we know our history we know that these examples of economic progress were achieved at enormous personal cost to thousands of people, that some were built using slave labour and that Stalin’s collectivisation meant mass famine, not to mention the loss of personal freedoms, but nonetheless these paintings are not mere propaganda.  They show the people’s pride in what has been achieved in a very short time.  And while some of the art is not very sophisticated in its execution, some of it is rather beautiful.  I think this is one of the most interesting galleries I’ve ever been in because it challenged my preconceived ideas, and I like that.

Tretyakov Gallery (source: Wikipedia)

We had a restorative coffee in the cafe (not recommended, try the one outside instead perhaps?) and then set off for the permanent collection.  Although there were no monstrous queues like the Louvre or the Prado, the ‘old’ Tretyakov was bustling with visitors and the occasional tour group, and the atmosphere was quite different.   There was a cloakroom, a luggage room (for travellers, what a good idea!), an audioguide desk, three souvenir stalls and two cafés.  We sampled one of these for a buffet lunch, and although I left my satay uneaten because I wasn’t prepared to risk my front teeth on it, the steamed rice was quite nice and so was the Greek salad.  (Russians do seem to like their meat very well done indeed.  And I am looking a bit grim in this photo because the cakes seem to be rather well done too, but I thought you might enjoy seeing the bridal chairs which provide the cafe with sparkle that it otherwise might lack).

Once upstairs in the gallery proper, the curatorial guards (who were all sturdy looking women) were mostly awake, though more than one of them seemed to be more interested in their Sudoku than keeping an eye on any would-be thieves.  The casual attitude of European gallery guards never ceases to amaze me because I am used to the ones in the our gallery at home, who pounce immediately on any infraction of the rules, even breathing too close to the pictures earns a rebuke and woe betide anyone who flourishes a camera there!

Lunch over, off we went to look at the pictures.  Presumably the Soviets got rid of most of the portraits of aristocratic worthies, but there’s still plenty left to fill half a dozen rooms (see some here) and there’s a couple of royals as well, including a rather nice one of Catherine the Great walking the dog.  (It’s a borzoi, not a corgi).  But these wear a bit thin after a while, and then there are the usual landscapes, allegories and so forth.  Before long it dawns on the (western) visitor that there are no recognisable names – no Titians or Vermeers or Rembrandts, all the artists are Russians that we’ve never heard of.  It might be different at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, but here in Moscow that long Cold War seems to have meant that they never got to see any of our art, and we never got to see any of theirs.  No cultural interchange.  Imagine being just being an ordinary person like me who enjoys art, and never being able to see any of the great European masters! How much more dreadful that would have been for an artist!

What makes the ‘old’ Tretyakov really special is the collection of icons.  I find these enchanting.  Before we left home I bought a book about them and if you scroll down to the bottom of my review of it on the ANZ LitLovers blog, there’s a link where you can see some of the ones featured in the book.  But to see dozens and dozens of the real thing is just fantastic.  Some of them date back to the 11th century and even so the colours are still fresh and alive and you can sense the sincere faith of the people who made them.   There were also some very old mosaics and a lovely tapestry as well.  It was worth getting footsore for this part of the gallery alone.

Eventually it was time to make our way back to the hotel, so we decided to brave the Metro.  Everybody raves about how splendid the Moscow Metro is, and certainly it is true that the architecture is magnificent BUT all the station names are in Russian, and it took all my ingenuity to find out (a) which station we were in and (b) which of the two entrances we should take to get to the green line and (c) which of the innumerable platforms was ours and (d) which stop we should alight from because lo! the number of stops did not correspond with the map.

Anyone who tells you that you can get by in Russia without knowing any Russian is pulling your leg, it simply isn’t true (unless you stay in your hotel all the time).   If I had not known how to ask где есть? (g’dyeer – yest/where is?)  we would still be wandering around underground even now!  The taxi drivers don’t speak English either, especially not numbers for telling you how much to pay, and not all of them have meters, so you need to have a list of numbers to point at if like me, you’re not very good at remembering the larger numbers.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to the lovely people here at the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy and join our tour group at the Marriott on the other side of the CBD.  Red Square and the Kremlin, here we come!

You will be pleased to hear that I managed to have another Bookish Moment in the restaurant we went to for dinner.  I had some more very well cooked meat (allegedly veal) with a Pasternak sauce.  It was rather pale, so it did remind me of all that snow in Doctor Zhivago….

Update (now that I’m back home)

I was wrong about there being no big name artists in the Moscow galleries.  They’re at the Pushkin.

Posted in Art Galleries, Moscow 2012, Russia 2012, Significant statues | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Barcelona Museums, 29-30.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 1, 2010

Our last two days in Barcelona were spent in museums, and despite its history of civic arson Barcelona turned out to be a treasure trove of interesting places. 

We went to the Rambla (a pedestrianised street)  first because everybody does, but I wasn’t very impressed. There are people who get a buzz out of being in places that are very popular and full of crowds but I’m not one of them.  (Especially not when a careless tourist cracked my foot – my good one! – with her beastly trolley case, one of those really solid hard metal ones – it turns out that it crushed a nerve, no wonder it’s still hurting *a lot* nearly a week later *sniffle*).   No, the best thing about the Rambla was that I found a big bookshop that had some English books, and there amongst the dross was a copy of Washington Irving’s A History of New York.  (Did I mention that there was a plaque in the Alhambra recording that he stayed there?)

The first museum we went to – and the one you mustn’t miss if you are interested in ancient history – is the City Museum, (Museo de Historia de la Ciudat).  It’s a bit hard to find this place on maps and in guide books because there are also two other museums, the History of Barcelona Museum, and also the History of Catalonia Museum.  Opening hours are surprisingly limited: it’s only open from 10.00 till 2.00, so make sure you have the location right before you plan your day: it’s the city museum, the one with the underground Roman ruins. Even when you find it in Plaza Rei, there are two and the one you want is not the one up the steps; it’s the one on the other side of the square at ground level.  (BTW the  official webpage is all in Catalan so don’t expect to make sense of that even if you speak Spanish.)

Once you’re finally inside it, there’s all the usual introductory stuff you’d expect to find – in Catalan, Spanish (which they call Castellano) and in French.  That’s right, not in English – though when it’s 1.30pm and they want the visitors out of there promptly so that they can knock off at 2.00pm, the announcement is in two languages: Catalan and English.  There is a video in three languages, but having to sit through the same video twice over in the wrong language was clearly too much for Americans visiting at the same time as us.  (And it was too much for me because I’d read 500 pages about Barcelona’s history in Robert Hughes’ book already.)

But once you take the lift and whizz down underground, it’s brilliant.  The Roman remains were discovered when some building was being done, and fortunately work was stopped and the archaeologists moved in.  What you can see, using a cleverly designed series of pathways, is the remains of streets, houses, a processing plant for making fish sauce and another for making wine.  It is the best thing I have seen since Pompeii.  But it’s a good thing I can read French, because most of the signage again is in three languages but doesn’t include English – and the audio guide is pitched at the level of an ignoramus who knows nothing about ancient Rome at all.   It doesn’t tell you anything about the small items on display.  Very, very annoying.

From there, we went to the Picasso Museum.  Considering we’re amateur art lovers we’ve seen a good bit of Picasso’s work – a visiting exhibition at home, at the galleries in London, Austria and Italy, at the Louvre and the Picasso Museum in Paris, and at the Prado. So I was not expecting to find anything especially interesting – but it was excellent. 

There is a lot of his early work, which Tim was pleased to see showed that Picasso could actually draw and paint!  There was some fine portraiture though we weren’t much impressed with his gloomy landscapes.  There were also quite a few pictures on what looked like wooden cigarette box lids, like the ones Australian Impressionists of the Heidelberg school used when they were too hard up to buy canvas.  I really like these: I like the idea of young artists being so resourceful and so keen to practise their art that they will use whatever comes to hand.

Anyway, we could see examples of Picasso’s blue and rose periods, and the gradual emergence of his modernism.  The museum actually has less of these because of course his later works are in all the major museums of the world (we in Melbourne have his Weeping Woman).  There are ceramics and sculptures too but I don’t find them quite so interesting. 

In the evening we had a most enjoyable evening meeting up for the first time f2f with my Good Reads friend Troy and his lovely wife Anna.  We went to a great new restaurant Cal Boter in 62 Carrer Tordera in Gracia which specialises in real Catalan food.  We shared sea urchins and local mushrooms in season and prawns for entrée, Tim had duck with a vermouth sauce and I had the local lubino (sea bass) which I have come to love since being here in Spain.

We spent our last morning at the Ceramics Museum complex conveniently close to our hotel, on the Diagonal.  The Ceramics museum is sensational – when I have time I will make a little video of the photos I was allowed to take – it begins with old pottery and goes right through to the present day.  But the best bits were the Catalan tiles, both dear little individual ones which were used to identify the premises of craftsmen in the days before people could read, and huge mosaics depicting Great Moments in History.  If you have to choose just two museums in Barcelona, then this and the City History museum would be my recommendation. 

As well as the pottery and tiles in the Ceramics Museum,  in the same building (an old palace) there’s also a fascinating Museum of Decorative Arts and a Museum of Textiles – which was more a history of dress, showing how and why the body is decorated.  Great stuff, don’t miss it. 

So this post ends our journey to Europe 2010 and this series of travels.  I’m writing it in our stopover hotel, the Singapore Crowne Plaza, and tomorrow I’ll be home. 

Thanks to everyone who took the trouble to comment on this blog…some nights I’ve been almost too tired to do it, but your encouragement made me make the effort and now I’m glad I have a nice record of this wonderful trip.  


Posted in Art Galleries, Barcelona 2010, Europe 2010, Museums, Spain 2010 | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Alhambra, Granada, 26.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 27, 2010

My goodness, it was cold hanging around waiting to get into the Nasrid Palace this morning!  The way the system works to manage the huge crowds that want to see this place is to allocate times for each ticket.  So (assuming you have been smart enough to reserve a ticket from Australia two months beforehand) you collect it from the ticket machine and then you can get into the complex.  (Actually, you can also get into it from round the back, for free, but you can’t get into the significant bits of it so there’s not much point.)

The trouble is, you need to collect the ticket an hour beforehand.  Quite why this is so I do not know, but we are compliant, low maintenance tourists and so we did what we were supposed to do.   We then took the advice of our host at the hotel and walked to where the entrance is (because that takes 20 minutes across some mostly evil cobblestones).

There were then 40 minutes to kill and  once we’d had a quick look at the inside of Carlos V’s palace we were back outside in the queue and it was freezing. Everybody was cold, especially the poor young lady whose job it was to hold the tourist hordes at the entrance till their allocated time. She was rugged up much better than I was but she was stamping her feet and pocketing her hands and obviously wishing she had a warm woolly hat as well.  Fortunately there was a handy souvenir shop, and if there is one item you can count on finding in an Italian or Spanish souvenir shop, it’s a scarf so I whipped in and bought one while Tim stayed manfully out in the cold and pretended not to care. (Well, he would have looked pretty silly in a pink scarf with little bells on it, which was the least girly scarf I could buy.)

Eventually it was our time and we were in. Is it ok to say that it was a bit of a let-down? Not at first, because the first time you see a chamber full of Islamic whatnots on the ceiling and the columns and the doors and the floors it’s all a bit of a thrill. The trouble is, they’re into repetition. Lots of it.  It’s like Indonesian music which repeats itself over and over again.  Fascinating the first time but a tad wearisome for those not familiar with whatever it is that makes it so special.  And there are, of course, no pictures.  Representation of the human form is not allowed.  This is a bit limiting from an artistic point-of-view, in my amateur art-lover opinion….

But judging by the earnest commentary we heard about us (especially from one character got up to look like Oscar Wilde) scholars and aficionados of this kind of art are probably mightily impressed because it’s all terribly clever and M.C. Escher showed how very mathematical it is. But after three or four chambers of it, all looking more or less the same to the untrained eye, I was ready for a nice bit of high Gothic Christian razzmatazz, thank you very much! Fortunately the Crusaders turned up in due course and further up the hill they built a nice friary with the kind of architecture I like and that was much more interesting.

(There’s an intriguing contrast between one guide book and another as to why the Christians left this Moorish pile intact instead of ripping it down. One says it’s because the people of Granada were tolerant and reasonable and good at recycling buildings – and the other says it’s because the winners regarded the Alhambra as a prize of considerable prestige, and they wanted to flaunt it to show the Moors who was boss.)

Anyway, alas for the friars, they got turfed out in 1835 when Madrid took control of all church property and the place fell into disrepair until it was restored in 1929.  Somehow it miraculously survived the Spanish Civil War and a lot of other destructive acts against church property too.  Historically speaking, (according to Robert Hughes in his terrific book Barcelona) the clergy in Spain were in cahoots with the rich, powerful and important rather than with the poor and dispossessed so when the poor were feeling particularly oppressed they burned down a church or a convent.  Lots of them.)

But they left this one intact so you can still see the tombstone of Queen Isabella who in 1504 very piously asked on her deathbed to be buried in a simple shroud in the monastery – but would of course being a loyal wife defer to her husband King Ferdinand if he wanted to be buried somewhere else.

Well, she died first so she got her wish, and a great horde of flunkeys and courtiers and slaves got the unenviable task of carting her body to Granada in one of the worst rainstorms and floods on record. Ferdinand likewise wished to be united with her in death as well as in life (because after all there was the unity of the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon to be worried about) so he was entombed in the monastery as well until his grandson (whose name I forget) thought he knew better and removed it to the royal chapel.

There are lots of lovely gardens with water features at the Alhambra, and it takes a good five hours to meander about and admire them all. But for me, the best bit was the temporary exhibition of Matisse paintings which showed how he was influenced by his fleeting visit to the Alhambra. Back in his garret on the French Riviera he recreated a kind of oriental room as a backdrop for his nudes and there were quite a few of them (drawings and paintings) on display in the Museo.   There were also some exquisite embroidered shawls in this exhibition but of course the women who made them remain anonymous.

After five weeks on the road our stamina is not what it was and five hours on foot knocked the stuffing out of us. We had some lunch, and spent the rest of the day loafing about.

Tomorrow we’re off to Barcelona, so I’d better get to bed and finish reading the last chapter of Robert Hughes’s book!

Posted in Art Galleries, Cathedrals & churches, Europe 2010, Gardens, Granada 2010, Historic buildings, Museums, Spain 2010 | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

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!

Posted in Art Galleries, Europe 2010, Gardens, Lisbon 2010, Portugal 2010 | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Maritime Museum, Lisbon 21.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 22, 2010

Ok, I’m back from dinner, and if my spelling is wonky now you can blame the excellent Portuguese grappa which tastes like a very good brandy!

From the Jeronimo monastery we then went to the maritime museum, called Museu de Marinhu. It’s fabulous.

First of all, there is a huge map in the entrance lobby showing the routes discovered by Portuguese mariners in the 16th and 17th centuries.  People of my generation remember laboriously tracing world maps and plotting these voyages of discovery when we were in primary school, perhaps too young to really appreciate the courage, tenacity and imagination of these explorers, but certainly more likely to remember them than today’s children who merely photocopy a map, if they study them at all.  Does it matter? I think it does.  I think it’s important to acknowledge human endeavour in any form, and I think that these men who set off into the unknown without proper maps, navigation aids or even knowledge of how to keep sane and healthy on a long voyage are real heroes.

If you google Portuguese explorers there are 121 pages to choose from, and that’s just the ones whose names have made it onto Wikipedia.  At school we learned about Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Bartholomew Dias, and it’s quite possible that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to sight the western coast of Australia.  Henry the Navigator was among the most famous, and it’s not so long ago that Lisbon erected a monument called The Discoveries to commemorate his achievements.  There is an impressive portrait of him in the museum too, and this is an indication that contemporary Portuguese take an intense pride in their maritime history and the role it played in opening up the new world to Europe.

The museum has lots of terrific scale models of Portuguese ships of battle and discovery, a great collection of naval uniforms from times past to the present day, some magnificent royal barges – and also some flying boats from the 20th century.  The Portuguese ditched their monarchy back in 1910, but the museum hosts an intriguing display from the royal yacht Amelia, complete with his and hers bedrooms (each with own piano), a roulette table and some very swanky crockery.  Not all that different to the Liz and Phil’s yacht that’s on display in Edinburgh, perhaps a bit classier.

Museu Nacional de Arte antiga

Source: Wikipedia Commons

We had lunch in the Belem Cultural Centre overlooking the River Tagus but declined to inspect their modern artworks.  They might be great, but our feet were sore and we still had the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga to do.  We got back on the red tourist bus to get most of the way there but then there was a trek across roadworks, more of those perilous paving stones, a very high footbridge across a railway and then a LOT of stairs – not just to reach the entrance but also inside it – no lifts anywhere!


It was just a tad disappointing.  We saw The Temptation of St Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch (so now we’ve seen the trilogy – the other two are in the Prado) , a Bruegel and a Durer, but most of the other artworks were by artists we’ve never seen or heard of .  The porcelain was lovely and there were some stunning gold figurines which must be worth a mint, but we weren’t able to take full advantage of the collection without an audio guide or a guidebook to explain the significance of what was there.

Indefatigable tourists we try to be, but we took a taxi back to the hotel which turned out to be the most expensive of the trip (not counting Melbourne to Tullamarine) because it was peak hour and the traffic was chaotic.  I used to be scared of plane flights, but now I know that Lisbon taxi drivers are scarier still.  They drive fast and furious, but without the dashing flair of the Spanish who for some odd reason inspire one with confidence.

I was almost too tired to go out to dinner but we’d made a booking and I was glad we went after all.  Alma is a superb fusion restaurant which serves both a classic Portuguese degustation and an innovative one.  Tim had the classic and I had the new and they were both brilliant.  The ambience was elegant and the waiting staff were friendly, helpful and very knowledgeable about all aspects of the cuisine and the wines.  We met the chef, who turned out to have worked in Sydney for two years, and he was a lovely person too. If you go to Lisbon, this is a must-do experience.

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Posted in Art Galleries, Dining out, Europe 2010, Gardens, Lisbon 2010, Museums, Portugal 2010 | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Prado, Madrid, 19.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 21, 2010

 What on earth can I write here to tell you about the Prado? It is a sumptuous art gallery full of the most splendid collection of major artists. It took us the best part of five hours to see all three levels and still there are works that we didn’t have time to look at properly.

There is such an abundance of artworks by Velasquez,  it’s hard to take it all in.  My favourites were the portraits of the royal family – the famous Infanta (immortalised everywhere in the souvenir shops) and poor old Phillip IV with his sulky lip.  (He was said to be inbred.)  I also liked his sympathetic portraits of court dwarves and buffoons, investing them with dignity and respect that they may not have always had in real life.  Tim’s favourite was the Hurdy-Gurdy Player and I do wish I had time to do a search and find a link for these because I’m sure they’ll be online somewhere. 

As you’d expect, since Spain was a major military and imperialist power in its day, there are heaps of huge battle pictures.  My favourite was the surrender at Breda, where the victor showed his chivalrous nature by preventing his defeated enemy from kneeling in subjection.  There were quite a few of these surrender scenes, and almost all of them showed people in the background whose responses to victory ranged from arrogant pride to sympathy and respect for the vanquished. 

Portraits of this period are all about power.  Who’s got it,  and who hasn’t, and how the power arises.  Men mostly have it, though not always, as we could see in the portrait of Maria Louisa and her weak and useless husband.  But by and large the men have symbols of wealth and military prowess while the women hold flowers and wear clothes that reflect their husband’s wealth.  Sometimes the clothes the children wear are the same as those of their parents, reflecting dynastic ambitions.  There is always a back story to these portraits and I love finding about them.

People watching in the cafe is fun too, almost an art installation itself!  By lunchtime the gallery is full of tourists from all over the world and artlovers from all over Spain as well.  There are arty types (mostly young and a bit scruffy); reluctant spouses with aching feet; elegant ladies regretting their high heels; elderly folk tottering along  (determined to see it all before they die?) and tourists in sensible flats of all kinds.  They can be loquacious about the art works or sit in stunned delight; they can be solo travellers or well-behaved tour groups.  I was torn between watching them all or reading the guide book…

 Goya, El Greco, Hieronymous Bosch , Brueghel, Durer – oh there are so many and I’m too tired tonight to list them all.  My advice is, include this museum on your list of places to visit while your feet are young and strong enough to last the day.

We finished up our last night in Madrid at a nearby Galician restaurant. Tim had juicy white asparagus and I had grilled prawns for starters, with Galician hake and grilled sole in tartare sauce for main courses. The whisky cake I had for dessert was rather like a cheese cake with a cup of Johnny Walker poured over it – treacherous if there’s a breathalyzer nearby but of course we were on foot so we were able to risk some Spanish cognac as well!

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Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art 17.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 19, 2010

Here we are about to set off for the Prado and I haven’t even blogged my thoughts about our visit to the Thyssen Museum….

Street art - the one on the RHS is alive

If you’ve been following my blog you might feel that what I’m about to say is much the same as about the other galleries I have visited. The paintings are arranged chronologically, they demonstrate the development of western art (in this case from the Italian Primitives) and there is a fine collection of Dutch and Flemish masters, most of which we have never seen before not even in books. Modern art movements are represented too starting with the Impressionists (especially Pissarro).

But if you love looking at interesting paintings as an expression of human culture and ideas, then any exhaustive collection of European art is wonderful. At home, I like to visit the NGV time and again, to enjoy my favourite paintings and to look more closely at ones I don’t know very well. Here there is the frisson of seeing new ones, of recognising some that we have seen in books or other media (e.g. a small one of Holbein’s Henry famous painting of Henry VIII)  and also of occasionally recognising a famous person from history, such as a miniature of  Thomas Cromwell.  These little miniatures made me think of the days when an ambassador might be sent off to wangle some treaty or marriage and he had to be ‘made known’ to the court before his arrival. Not unlike the ways in which we arrange ways to recognise internet friends when we meet in real life for the first time!

I am not really a fan of the audio guide but the gallery has done a very good job of identifying its ’emblematic’ paintings, starting with the first of the gallery’s Italian paintings to go beyond its religious function and include an architectural image with a not-bad effort at perspective instead of just the usual holy trio. In the next gallery we saw the first one to differentiate people, leading to the eventual birth of portraiture, and that wonderful Bronzino of that duke, his sneer immortalised by the artist for all time. They have a lovely John Constable and a very early, very moody Van Gogh too.

Tim likes landscapes and still life best, while I like portraits and interiors in particular, but we spent a very satisfying three hours in this museum and would recommend it to anyone.

BTW You are not, of course, allowed to take pics at the museum so I have instead shared some street art photos.  In the one above, the being on the RHS is alive, and it is a feat of genius for him to be able to maintain that pose for hours on end.  I’ll make a slide show of some others if I get time…I’m just off to the Prado!

PS Very, very late on Wednesday night after some belated proof-reading of the above… here’s some Madrid street art:

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Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, 17.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 18, 2010


Our first full day in Madrid, and we have been busy!

First of all we went to the Museo Reina Sofia, which is the modern art museum, and then we went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art – an extensive private collection donated to the Spanish people by the baroness who felt that art should be shared. To soothe our aching feet, we then took one of those bus tours which whiz around town showing the ‘sights’.  What an amazing city this is!

It’s when you spend a day like this admiring the art collections of a city like Madrid – not quite the renowned collections of London or Paris or New York  –  that you realise that the collections we have in Australia are just a very small part of the wonderful wealth of art works in the world. The Reina Sofia Museum (Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art) is most famous for Picasso’s Guernica but there is much more to it than that. It is superbly well-organised so that even if (like me) you know very little about the important art movements of the 20th century, you can see and understand how they developed.

Figuras al borde del mar Picasso

 Of all of these the movement I found most interesting was the one called Torremos(?) which was an art movement focussed on the human relationship with the land.  Blobs of paint which never made sense to me before are symbols of those ancient mother-earth fertility symbols that we have seen in museums – and the painting always has its symbol ‘rooted to the earth’.  So in their own weird way they celebrate the way we depend on mother earth.  I rather liked them.

There are also sobering works from the period of the Spanish Civil War. From what little we have seen of Spain so far, the Spanish seem far more keen on their ancient history than on their more recent painful past. As Giles Tremlett says in his book Ghosts of Spain  there has been a kind of national silence about the Civil War in Spain – no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, no War Crimes Tribunals and no commemorations for the losing side. We have been to San Sebastian, to Bilbao and to Avila and not seen any memorials about it anywhere. But here in Madrid, at least in this art gallery, we have seen poignant posters beseeching the international community for help, and photographs and paintings that document some of the horrors of the war that I know about from reading works of literature: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I don’t suppose these books were available in Spain under Franco, and anyway they were written by outsiders. I wonder what young Spaniards read to learn about this war now?

From the very modern to the historic, we then went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art. More about that in my next post, I’m off to dinner.

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