Lisbon Travel Guide


Gulbenkian 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" , 1985
(Fundacão Gulkenian)

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
(Fundacão Gulbenkian)
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
(Fundacão Gulkenian)
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 human emotions.

Notes: 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.

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