No fake glitter, neither old nor new

It is a month ago that Jeroen Dijsselbloem, financial EU wizard, from Brussels accused southern European nations including the Portuguese of “splurging on booze and women” instead of working long days and improving on their economies. Wow. Now a permanent resident of Portugal, I think I’d better correct this scandalous suggestion. I know for a fact that the Portuguese spend no more than 7 hours out of their 8-hour workday on wine and women; most reserve at least 30 minutes for futebol  and rightfully so, for their national team is EU’s champion; others dedicate 30 minutes to the arts. Sort of retired, I am in the lucky position of being able to give 30 minutes to soccer and 30 minutes to the arts each day (although, alas, at the expense of wine and women). The name Dijsselbloem, by the way, means “flower of thistle” and we South-Europeans are really hurting from the sting of his thorns.  

The (visual) arts.

The overwhelming presence in Portugal of ancient art and architecture such as from the Roman period just before and after B.C. and of younger, but still a few hundred or a thousand or so year old examples, is not just a soothing pleasure for the eye, it is exciting at the same time. Soothing, because everything delivers proof of well thought-through design and dedicated crafty execution. Exciting, because the art in its endless display of excellence shows what in previous civilizations money could buy and would indeed buy; it presents evidence of a wealth so immense there is no comparison, not even in today’s era of abundant billionaires. I have to praise many of the lords and masters of yesteryear for investing such large parts of their loot in the support of art of a higher quality and a better taste than anything “golden” any Trump Tower will ever present. There is no fake glitter to discover in Portugal of today. There is not just eye candy–there is balm for the soul.

For a somewhat Americanized Dutchman-on-his-way-to-being-Portuguese like me it is an experience to discover the Portuguese art and architecture. My Americanized part hasn’t seen the like of it in the twenty-two years I was absent from Europe. My Dutch background is the cause of a permanently surprised breathlessness. The Portuguese were the first ones to discover new worlds in the Indies, Africa, South-America and Asia; their long-lasting immense wealth was based on the riches of their explorations, trade and colonization (as some say, on their outrageous thieving). Supported by the might of the Roman Catholic Church, they did not hesitate at collecting and displaying their golden gains and doing so created an immeasurable inheritance important enough to attract a continuous stream of tourists and other money-spending travelers, who altogether will keep the Portuguese economy afloat into the distant future (if any).

The Dutch, who in the 17th century succeeded the Portuguese as the most-innovative seafarers and the wealthiest nation of the western world, were different in their attitude to gains. Influenced by the frugalities of the Protestant churches, their wealth was not so much used to show off but stayed mostly hidden behind their red-brick walls and velvet curtains; the Dutch “Golden Age” was dominated rather by “the embarrassment of riches”. In the words of historian Simon Schama, the Dutch “attained an unprecedented level of affluence” yet “lived in constant dread of being corrupted by its happiness” – a contradiction unfamiliar to the Trump clan. Not that later generations of Dutch did not, just like the Portuguese, inherit beauty; cities such as Amsterdam, Leiden, Delft, Gouda, Kampen, Groningen, Maastricht, and countless museums give testimony of a lasting history. But nowhere in the Netherlands one can find the exuberant display of historic wealth-induced culture I meet in Portugal practically everywhere I go. The difference between the two countries is also: Portugal as a nation lost touch with reality during the later years of royalty followed by fascism and never let the mass of its population join in the profit, while the thrifty Dutch managed to save and invest much of their wealth wisely and allow a large percentage of their population a share. Their only (?) misstep of historical proportion: they mindlessly speculated fortunes on new varieties of tulips. Nevertheless, in the long term even this 17th-century “Tulipomania” contributes to the present day Dutch economy; the tulip fields are promoting tourism and the export of tulips (including three-thousand million bulbs a year to the U.S. alone!) helps nicely to prevent Dutch trade deficits.

History is abundant in Portugal. My biggest surprise, though, is the quality of contemporary art and architecture on display in Portugal. I haven’t been all over the country yet; so far, my discoveries are restricted to (sections of) the two largest cities, Lisbon and Porto; large towns such as Coimbra, Leiria, Ēvora, Santarém; and, of course, my home base Tomar. Tomar’s old town below its huge 11th-century (Knights Templar) castle and monastery is what attracts a steady stream of visitors; the smart ones also step inside the small but excellent local museum Núcleo de Arte Contemporânea NAC and may discover great work by Portuguese artists they have never heard of (flanked by a few pieces of more famous creators). Access to the museum is free, as at all other museums: the Casa dos Cubos (a 15th-century warehouse, its recent renovation fascinating, now used for temporary exhibitions); the Levada in the Rio Nabão (the former riverside cereal mills and olive presses, now also used for exhibitions of art and design); and the sweet Museu dos Fósforos (in a delicious early 19th-century courtyard), where a formerly private collection of 40,000 different matchboxes is on permanent display, with cover designs varying from knights on horseback to soccer players, from race horses to the birds of Mozambique, and from all saints to hard porn sinners, plus all subjects one can think of in between.

The Portuguese capital Lisbon, with 3,000,000 million people living in its cosmopolitan area (against 20,000 in little Tomar), has much more to offer to lovers of modern and contemporary art. Too much to all mention here. The Calouste Gulbenkian in well-designed buildings in a sculpture park setting is one of the top museums in the world, its international collection beating the Nelson Atkins’s in Kansas City and its temporary shows exciting to say the least. The Museu Coleção Berardo in the Belém area at the Tagus River is an architecture and art feast; last year it received an interesting neighbor, MAAT, museum for art, architecture and technology. I count 94 other museums, art spaces and leading galleries in Lisbon, but so far visited only the Centro de Criação Artística, where film, music, literature and the visual arts meet in sensational programs. Then there is the Trienal de Arquitectura de Lisboa where each time international innovative architects assemble.

In Porto, so far I made it only to the Fundação de Serralves, a dream of a museum of contemporary art in a park with sculpture and installations literally everywhere. I missed the Centro Português de Fotografia and 40 to 50 other museums and art spaces, so I have plenty of reasons to return to this, in my eyes, most attractive city on the Douro where the river enters the Atlantic Ocean. Rem Koolhaas designed its interesting Casa da Musica, with Koolhaas typically shaking his concrete fist.

I wrote a little about Ēvora in an earlier Portrait of Portugal. Full of old architecture, with many interiors of buildings redesigned to adjust them to contemporary purposes, no few buildings are real showcases of how to combine the old and the new and improve both. The Fórum Eugénio de Almeida opposite the remains of the 2,000 year old Roman baths offers temporary exhibitions; during my visit they were showing the amazing Fernanda Fragateiro (solo), minimalistic sculpture and architectural installations created by cutting, or rather slicing books and (architecture) magazines; her white marble and polished metal installations too contrasted magnificently with their surroundings. Fragateiro’s work is in collections all over the world and in all the great museums I mentioned above; American art lovers can find it at Harvard, in Palm Springs, Orlando, Miami, Champaign and New York. I didn’t know about this Portuguese artist until I went to Ēvora—and visited what is maybe the best exhibition I’ve seen in many years. Alas, the design museum in Ēvora is rather disappointing.

I intend to pull forward backgrounds and details of specific sites and artists in future Portraits of Portugal because I cannot resist continuing the search for inventive, thinking people and their creations. I do write about these discoveries to prevent you from thinking I arrived in a backward and poor, donkey-driven country still resting in the Middle Ages. Whatever Dijsselbloem may say.

Ton Haak, April 2017