When I thought that I would never see my camera again, I was afraid I would have to go to the Gulbenkian museums again to reshoot all the photos I had taken. But we were lucky: retracing our steps, we found the camera–at the administration building of the museum!! Still, I wouldn’t mind going back to this museum anyway.
Over the years, the name Gulbenkian is about the only association I had with Lisbon. That there was an interesting art collection here that had something to do with a person named Calouste Gulbenkian came to my attention at various times throughout my art history study and teaching, with occasional references to artworks being in Gulbenkian’s collections, and also something about activities of a Gulbenkian Foundation headquartered in Lisbon. When I worked at the Kimbell Art Museum, I think we also had loans for exhibitions that carried the name. Somehow the name always intrigued me, and I knew it had some mysterious connections to the Middle East–I got a vague ”Maltese Falcon”/Sydney Greenstreet mind-image whenever I heard it. What Gulbenkian, which having lived in the center of an Armenian community in California I knew was an Armenian name, had to do with Lisbon, I had never quite understood.
One of the first things I wanted to do in the city, then, was to delve into this mystery by at last visiting The Gulbenkian Museum. A short subway ride took us there. Surrounded by a lovely garden–green even now in what counts as Lisbon’s winter–the building is a typically 1960s concrete Brut Moderne.
The treasures inside are first-rate, and displayed in some of the most pleasantly laid out rooms I have seen. The awe-inspiring realization that these objects were all collected by one man (about whom I will write more in a minute) makes the experience even more engrossing. Given Gulbenkian’s origins in the Levant, as my old professors used to call it, it is not surprising that his works from Egypt, Persia, and the Islamic world are superb–enough so that I spent more time looking at these than I normally do. And there were Egyptian cats! (Although I am really skeptical that some of these are actually from the 26th Dynasty…)
One of the glories of the collection, appropriately enough for Lisbon, is a resplendent offering of Persian and Islamic tile work, installed in plaster walls. There are walls and walls of the most various styles and designs, including these two: a Persian star tile, and this remarkable 16th-century wall with the one tile at the top right deliberately installed assymetrically.
The rest of the Persian and Islamic ceramics were just as enthralling, with deep blue glazes and glass enameled with lions.
The rest of the rooms move through the canon of Western art history with stunning chronological predictability, each room containing some masterpiece by one of the big names from Dierck Bouts to Rubens to the Impressionists (Gulbenkian seemed to have favorites–a room full of Guardi, but no Canalettos, lots of Fragonard and very interesting Manets and Degas). As a companion piece to KHM’s Helene Fourment, I had to get a copy of this Rubens, too:
And there was ANOTHER museum right next door: the Centro de Arte Moderna, also funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation (this is where I left my camera). This building is the home for modern Portuguese painters, as well as changing exhibitions focussing on modern art with some relation to Portugal. We were delighted to find here an excellent show, ”O Circulo Delaunay,” looking at the works created by Sonia and Robert Delaunay while they were stuck in Lisbon during World War I, 1915-16 (not a bad place to be stuck!). The curator had reconstructed an entire wall based on a mural Sonia created for a Barcelona exposition.
Aside from some surprising works by both Delaunays, the best part of the exhibition for me was an introduction to works by Portuguese artists who worked with the pair while they were in Lisbon: Eduardo Viana, Amadeo de Souza Cardoso and José Sobral de Almada Negreiros. Very sophisticated modernism by all three, artists whom I had barely heard of before. And who knew the Delaunays were stranded in Portugal during the war?
Finally, to get back to the story of Gulbenkian: I wasn’t completely off in my sense that there was a bit of the ”Maltese Falcon” vibe about him. First of all, I learned that Armenians had been the leading bankers of the Ottoman Empire for generations. Gulbenkian came from a distinguished family of such bankers and businessmen, and married into another of the prominent Armenian families. Their influence extended to Egypt and, eventually through Calouste, to England and the rest of the Western world. His father acquired oil fields in Turkey before there were even automobiles, placing Calouste in an advantageous position once oil fields became THE prize investment. In the 1920s, Gulbenkian was able to use his clout to wrest the petroleum fields from the Turkish government, handing them over to the big Western oil firms such as BP and Shell. In thanks for his efforts, the companies gave him 5 % of the profits from these investments, making him an extraordinarily wealthy man, and leading to his appellation as ”Mr. 5 Percent.” He used his money to purchase art, which had been his passion since childhood.
Although he had become a British citizen in the 1920s, he sought refuge during World War II in Portugal–probably to avoid British taxes and to be able to oversee his far-flung business interests away from the fray. So he was only in Portugal for 13 years and never learned the language. When he died in 1955, his Portuguese lawyer saw to it that the Foundation Gulbenkian had envisioned establishing would be headquartered in Portugal, and brought together all of his widely dispersed artworks in Lisbon. As António de Oliveira Salazar was still dictator of the country, the lawyer and foundation board had to do some heavy maneuvering to carry out the Foundation’s goals of supporting education and scholarship, with a strong emphasis on support for Armenians around the world. But the prize of his magnificent art collection was a tantalizing carrot to offer even to a dictator as entrenched as Salazar. The Gulbenkian Foundation continues to carry out important philanthropic work, in Portugal as well as in Great Britain and Ireland and among Armenians everywhere.
In any case, visiting the Gulbenkian museums are worth a trip to Lisbon itself.