Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Art that angers and a cool museum that doesn’t

So on our third day in Portugal, after I retrieved my luggage and caught up with my group, we had several amazing opportunities: to visit the Galouste Gulbenkian Foundation and museum, to visit an alternative school program for at-risk immigrant youth, and to meet with people in two settlements of residents mainly from former Portuguese colonies in Africa.

First, the museum. It was amazing, but like most museums, prohibited pictures inside. Here's the short story. Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869 - 1955) was born in what is now Istanbul, the son of a wealthy family of Armenian merchants. He multiplied his family's fortune with early deal-making in the burgeoning oil and gas industry and later in life settled in Lisbon. He was an avid art collector and upon his death, gave some of his amassed collection to the Portuguese National Art Museum, and also provided for a foundation bearing his name, where his collection in its entirety could be reunited and preserved under the same roof. It later expanded to fund and include philanthropic, artistic, scientific and educational purposes. More info available online: http://www.gulbenkian.pt/english/headoffice.asp

So at one of the two museums I had a chance to visit in Europe, a guide said they believed that art is supposed to move you, even if it moves you to anger. That made me reflect on the role that art has for many Americans. It seems that many Americans don’t develop an appreciation for art in a variety of forms because most of us are taught that art is something that’s old and framed and hanging in a boring museum that you go see on a school field trip because you have to. It’s something to be endured, not something that’s part of daily life. Again, this is for many Americans, not those who are very involved in the art world or artistic endeavors or just art lovers.

Europeans seemed to be a lot more open to a wider variety of art forms than in the U.S. and to be fine with art-induced anger. The U.S. seems to be more concerned with displaying art exhibits that first and foremost don’t offend; probably because Americans (what with freedom of speech and all) are much more likely to publicly express their displeasure with an installation by going to the media, picketing, or starting calling campaigns with like-minded fellow offendees.

Taking all this to heart and in light of the “move you to anger” comment, I was looking forward to seeing different types of art in Europe and went into the Gulbenkian Foundation's museum prepared for anything and with no preconceived notions. Especially since the collection was amassed by a private individual. It absolutely blew me away, as much for its quality as for the diversity. Paintings, sculptures, textiles (rugs and weavings from the centuries ago), jewelry, intricate tilework, bowl, platters and other display pieces. For a multi-millionaire industrialist, this guy knew good stuff when he saw it.

One installation that really impressed and awed me included oversized, high-resolution photographs of natural disasters over the past century and their aftermath. It had pictures of things like raging wildfires, the aftermath of flooding (including Katrina), and erupting volcanoes, including Mt. St. Helens, which I remember. I was almost 10 and spending the weekend with family at my grandparents cabin in near Ocean Shores, WA. When my cousins and I woke up and looked outside, we thought, “Yay! It snowed.” Actually, it was a layer of ash covering all the cars, trees and nearby homes. We hit the road for home in the slow-moving trail of cars on the interstate inching along because of the reduced visibility from the ash that continued to drift down and the clouds of it kicked up by the vehicles on the road.

But back to the museum: the ancient handicrafts were also amazing. As with my entry on Versailles, I’m always amazed by the workmanship and details in handicrafts from earlier centuries when there was no CAD software (computer aided design) or other modern conveniences.

I apologize for the lack of pictures, but those were the rules. But suffice it to say, if you ever find yourself in Lisbon with a couple hours to spend, head to the Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum. The grounds themselves are also impressive, with a great public park and outdoor amphitheater and the facility often hosts speakers and musical performances.

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