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art.es: What's going on in...Lisbon, Europe's last romantic city?


Katharina Grosse, Some Atlas, courtesy of Filomena Soares

by Fernando Galán


Much older than Rome, protagonist of geographical discoveries and capital of a vast empire since the 15th Century, Lisbon became the meeting point for diverse cultures, the first place where the Orient, the Caribbean, Africa and the Americas met each other, discovered each other and coexisted.

Immortalized as "the white city" in the film of the same name by Swiss director Alain Tanner (Dans la ville blanche, 1983), Lisbon's light and colors are enigmatic (as is the city itself), chameleon-like, almost unfathomable… An endless variety of whites and grays, changeable like the sun's reflections and the clouds in the omnipresent estuary of the Tajo river, along whose hilly northern banks the city spills, at once languid and vital, ordered and chaotic, new and archaic… On that river and the Atlantic Ocean which mixes with it, Lisbon learned to imagine everything, from the authentic fados which are still sung in a few small intimate casas de comidas in the Alfama district, to the distant lands that the Portuguese maritime spirit captured for an empire that spanned four continents.

For Lisbon native and Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, Lisbon reeks of decay, but it's soul is saved from the fetid by the incense burner and incense. Lisbon, an essentially inspiring city, is an essential muse for its literary tradition: "I've extracted a thousand stories from the corners, the tiles and the odors of every street, but the most common are those involving the poet Fernando Pessoa." And to speak about Lisbon's winding streets is to speak about one of the richest architectural legacies that I know of anywhere in the world. Vernacular as well as aristocratic architecture are equally special in this city (like so many other things) but especially the vernacular, typical of both a small town and a cosmopolitan city, and whose disappearance I've noted from one year to the next. The policies of successive local governments to preserve it have been a spectacular failure: real estate speculation in recent years has razed hundreds of buildings unique in their archaic human simplicity. The case of Almeida Garrett's house, demolished in August of 2006, was one of the latest victims of this furious construction, which is mistakenly seen as a sign of modernity.

The beguiling contradictions of Lisbon, Europe's westernmost capital and the "metaphor-city" of Pessoa, include a peculiar idiosyncrasy that's the result of a strange mixture: a traditional viewpoint towards the future and distant horizons, and a certain introspective melancholy.


Lisbon Art Fair

The art fair Arte Lisboa just celebrated its 7th edition from November 7th - 12th. Although its exhibitors are usually limited to Portuguese, Spanish and Brazilian galleries, it's a perfect opportunity to view Portuguese art, which has always seemed to me to have an exceptional level for a country with only 11 million inhabitants. I'm familiar with many fairs (I've been to 21 this year), but no other is so well produced. Moreover, the extent of its spaces and the absence of mere curious spectators and "day-trippers" that so ruin the viewing of artworks at other fairs allows for a relaxed and professional visit.

Rui Calçada Bastos, Self-portrait while thinking (2007), courtesy of Vera Cortês Agência de Arte (Lisbon)

This year's edition introduced for the first time a program of "project rooms," curated by Isabel Carlos (curator of the 2004 Sydney Biennial) in which the work of the young Rui Calçada Bastos (video and drawing) and António Melo (painting) stand out. Directed by Ivânia Gallo for the past two years, the fair seems eager to exploit all the potential of its location, which is substantial, but which seems to have been ignored by past editions. There's an additional fact that supports this view: in 2005 Lisbon was considered by the International Congress and Convention Association as the eighth city in the world most sought after for the realization of international events and congresses.


Museums and Institutions

First of all, we should remember that there was no institution of a museological nature in all of Portugal (with a stable collection, public or private) centered on contemporary art until 1983, when the Center of Art of the Gulbenkian Foundation opened (the sixth richest foundation in Europe, created in 1956, and based in Lisbon). And it was another ten years before the appearance on the scene of the Belém Cultural Center and Culturgest. Though I can't recall the exact dates, Portugal didn't even have a Ministry of Culture until 12 or 15 years ago: its function was exemplarily performed by the Gulbenkian Foundation.

The Chiado Museum (the national museum) is Lisbon's center of contemporary art par excellence. Run by the dynamic Pedro Lapa, it occupies a large old building whose refurbishment for the museum reveals certain limitations of space. However its programming confirms its character as the flagship of Portuguese contemporary art (along with the Serralves Foundation in Oporto), as is made clear by its current exhibitions: Anri Sala (Long Sorrow) and Centre Pompidou, Novos Media, an excellent selection from the fine video collection of the Parisian center.

The labor of the banking sector has given rise to Culturgest (with magnificent galleries in Lisbon and Oporto), an initiative of the Caixa Geral Savings Bank, and in the photographic collection of the Banco Espirito Santo. In Lisbon, as in Portugal in general, the cart is driven above all by the private sector. In this sense, the "restructuring" of the Belém Cultural Center into headquarters for the José Berardo collection -the country's principle private collector- caused a great stir; last June the Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art was opened, with a collection of 900 international artworks which spans the beginning of the 20th century to the present.

The fervor of museological initiatives for contemporary art in Lisbon and the rest of the country seems to want to make up for the lost time of the past… Although located in the region of the Alentejo (Ponte de Sor), the Prates Foundation, inaugurated last July, is an initiative of this veteran Lisbon gallery owner that gathers together 3000 original works and 5000 multiples. The foundation boasts five exhibition spaces, a library, eight studios for resident artists, an auditorium, an amphitheater and "moveable gardens."



Cecília Costa, Untitled (2007), courtesy of Galeria Pedro Oliveira (Oporto)

Galleries

As for private galleries, Oporto was traditionally Portugal's gallery capital, but in the past seven or eight years Lisbon seems to have been laying claim to the title in this sphere as well. When the Cesar Gallery changed its name to Filomena Soares it marked a before and after on the Lisbon gallery scene. The new space with which it inaugurated its new name is one of the best that I know of anywhere in the world, in every way. The courage to move from the center of the city to occupy two large abandoned warehouses in the depressed port area has allowed them to rise to the level of their programming with important international names (including Portuguese) which have initiated a new era.

The Carlos Carvalho gallery has also undergone a major renovation of its space recently, as has António Prates, when he moved from the traditional confines of the San Bento neighborhood to the more spacious district around the Marqués de Pombal Plaza. Fernando Santos and Cuadrado Azul, for years two of the most important galleries in Oporto, have just opened new and modern spaces in Lisbon, following the trend of the gradual displacement of gallery power to the country's capital. Jorge Shirley, who owned galleries in both cities, decided to close the Oporto space and focus on Lisbon. Here it's not like in the majority of the world's cities: there are no areas with a high density of commercial spaces; rather, the quite individualist character of its population is translated into a geographical dispersion of its galleries.

Visits to these others are also recommended: 111, Arte Periférica, Diferença (a cooperative founded in 1979), Lisboa 20, Luis Serpa, Monumental, Novo Século, Módulo, Presença, Graça Brandâo and Pedro Cera.

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