Foundation: Modern and Contemporary Portugese Art Collection
The late Armenian magnate Calouste Gulbenkian is known to Americans for
his fine collection of 19th century and modern masters. But, in 1956 he
also founded the first cultural center in Lisbon devoted to promoting
contemporary art in his adopted country. In 1983, the Modern Art Center
opened on the grounds of the Gulbenkian Foundation. The support and systematic
acquisition of works by artists from Portugal--many trained in Oporto
or in Lisbon--makes this a valuable art resource. It functions as a regional
museum chronicling how Portuguese artists assimilate predominate trends
while still retaining their own special identities.
José de Guimarães (b.1939) "Don Sebastião--Rei"
An excellent model for a regional or small-country museum, the Modern
Art Center presents contemporary solo exhibitions as well as exhibiting
selections from the existing collection and works of internationally recognized
artists. The Modern Art Center places Portuguese artists in an international
art world context without making their work take a back seat to that of
the prevailing "Art Stars". The contemporary viewing audience
enjoys the opportunity to examine Lisbon-grown talent in a serious setting.
The artists get what artists most desire: the opportunity for time to
be the judge of their work.
Helena Almeida (b.1934) "Inhabited Canvas", 1976
Because the Portugese are remarkably visitor-friendly and take real pleasure
in human contact, I expected Portugese contemporary art to include people
as subject matter. The Modern Art Center has made a point of collecting
works across the stylistic and media spectrum. Given my pre-disposition,
the examples of figuration provided particular delight. Using different
vernaculars, artists such as José de Guimarães (Pop art
cut-outs) and Helena Almeida (Conceptual photographs) use human figures
to address contemporary art issues with wit and charm.
The Heart of Alfama
In describing Portugese music, writers always note that fado derives its
name from the word "fate"--suggesting a musical form somewhere
between the blues and a Greek chorus. But fado is not only about human
misery. With a 2-guitar accompaniment, each singer communicates his/her
perspective on the world: a middle-aged woman might sing about the loss
of a child or a lover, an old geezer about the pleasures of taking each
day as it comes, a cool dude about career & self-doubt and a couple
might squabble in a "he said, she said" duet. Everyone--audience
included-- sings joyously about their love for Lisbon. Overall, fado is
more melodic and less rhythmically complex than flamenco, but with flamenco's
passion and immediacy.
Jose Sobral de Almada Negreiros (1893-1970)
"Self-Portrait in a Group", 1925
In the interest of full disclosure, my visits were not to the official
fado club performance sites many of which are in the Bairro Alto. Instead,
I roamed, (more accurately climbed), the passageways of the Alfama neighborhood
guided by chalkboards reading "FADO". Entering a room for which
the word "intimate" is grossly inadequate, the visitor is shown
to a seat and handed wine & food--olives or grilled sardines--or offered
heartier fare at dinnertime. In due course, the resident child puts away
his Lisbonwork, the kitchen lights turn off and the cook sits heavily
on a wooden stool. A guitarist plays a few haunting bars then someone
begins to sing. And so it continues into the night. Fado is imbedded in
the lives of the people who perform it and the people who listen to it.
As an art form, it reflects local character while expressing elemental
Food, Wine & Side Trips
Restaurants & Coffee Bars:
Lamprey, lampreia, is a seasonal delicacy available when the fish swim
up the Tejo River from January into March. A rich-tasting, eel-like fish
with an ancient pedigree, its preparation includes bottles of red wine
with rice. Finishing a portion is like puffing a Havana down to the last
half inch--intense but delicious.
Along Rua de São Jose into Rua Porta Sto. Antão, Lisbon's
restaurant row, there are several fine restaurants and many ordinary ones.
The best are easily spotted because no one is out front importuning you
to enter. With seafood so fresh, it's hard to go wrong.