Bilbao day 2

Tuesday 18 June 2013

There are lots of reasons to visit Bilbao, but the Guggenheim Museum must be high on everyone’s list. It demands at least a day; and a day is all we had. So we spent it at the Guggenheim.

Still, we had to get to the Museum, and the natural way to do this is to walk. Much of Bilbao is organised on a human scale, so walking is easy. When the municipal authorities took the trouble to extend the city over the river, they did so for sake of pedestrian traffic, not cars. Spanish authorities seem to understand that cars kill cities. Australians authorities do not. When I go back to Australia, I will bitch endlessly about the dominance of cars, and its woeful consequences.

Bilbao reminded me of many other Spanish cities that we have been to, but with Paris layered over the top. Like the former, it has the magnificent river and the “old city”; but like the latter it also wears its modernism with pride. The Guggenheim Museum epitomises this aspect of Bilbao. The hype that surrounds this edifice is legendary, and as soon as you arrive, it becomes clear that the building itself is one of the main exhibits.

A couple of its features don’t seem to work that well. One is a gratuitous tower that is supposed to “integrate” a nearby bridge into the structure. Actually, it looks like a gratuitous tower. Susie was also critical of a tall, pillared roof that is supposed to protect visitors from the wind and rain. It doesn’t, and she thought it detracted from the rest of the façade on the riverside. Picky criticisms aside, the building is for the most part amazing. On an overcast day, the titanium skin cladding redounds perfectly with the colours of the sky and of the adjacent river. And therein lies one of the building’s cleverest tricks: it effaces the lines between itself and the river, and this has a marked effect on one’s experience of it. Gehry’s success in this endeavour is best appreciated from inside. Looking down onto the river from the first floor through a tower of glass, the pool in front of the building appears to merge seamlessly with the river, and suddenly you’re in a boat—or is it a giant, modernist fish?

The phenomenology of architecture is fascinating, and we frequently wish our youngest daughter, Clare, were travelling with us to discuss the marvels that we have seen. She is currently slogging her way through the first year of an architecture degree in Sydney.

I can’t take you inside the building without a mentioning the sculpture outside by Anish Kapoor. Susie is a big fan of his work, and he has excelled himself by constructing a tower of perfectly spherical, chrome bubbles in the aforementioned water feature. The building is reflected back to the viewer in each and every bubble from any given angle, as if through a myriad fish-eye lenses. Thus the viewer is placed in a watery, three-way relationship with both sculpture and building. It’s as if Postmodernism is giving Modernism a great big kiss.

It would be boring to recount a walk through an art museum, so I will mention only two highlights of our tour. One is the iron sculptures in the “fish room” on the ground floor. As we approached them, I was filled with a sense of foreboding that we were about to encounter some grandiose artistic statement that would leave us scratching our heads and desperate to see some paintings. My prejudices soon vanished. We ended up exploring every square inch of that vast exhibit, sometimes twice. You actually pass through the sculptures, and as you do, they play with your experience of space in order to mess with your sense of time. The artist has provided a commentary in the audio guide, but he’s not very good at scaffolding the listener into his technicality, so the commentary soon became tiresome. The artwork is best appreciated in reverent silence or in an irreverent game of peek-a-boo. If you go to the Guggenheim, don’t miss this permanent exhibit!

The other experience worth recounting was one of the temporary exhibitions. This concerned art in France during the Second World War. It began with a helpful timeline of events, and took up most of the first floor of the museum. We examined every exhibit, and afterwards exchanged notes about which had struck us the most. Susie was particularly impressed by the curator who continued to display work which had been deemed to be “degenerate” by the Nazis. She was also particularly moved by the work of a young woman who documented her life in a series of striking drawings, and was eventually murdered in one of the death camps.

Next to the latter exhibit was a self-portrait of a young Jewish man who had been interned in a camp. He painted himself in a state of hunger, surrounded by barbed wire, and with the haunted look of a marked man. After painting it, he was re-captured and murdered in a different camp. This is one of the most deeply moving self-portraits I have ever seen. Holding the artist’s gaze and looking away were equally difficult responses to his unfathomable sorrow.

As for works we both noted, one was a series of political paintings done by an amateur artist who hid them away in his apartment during the occupation. They were eventually exhibited after the liberation of Paris. One of these images was used to advertise the exhibition. It was a satirical and—appropriately—somewhat surreal portrait of Hitler, whose lower jaw was rendered as an upside-down pig. There was also a stunning portrait by Picasso of one of his young lovers. This is the most beautiful portrait I have ever seen. And there was an interesting series of photographs of Picasso’s apartment in Paris. He had a lot of nerve to remain there during the occupation.

In the evening we returned to Gure Toki, the tapas bar that had impressed us so much the night before. When the crowd had thinned out, we decided to try a few red wines from the region, so we asked the bartender for a recommendation. She responded by allowing us to sample a variety of different wines, and talked us through the finer points (inasmuch as our limited Spanish permitted). When we paid the bill, there was no charge for the wine tasting.

Now this is a great bar. So if you’re in Bilbao, don’t miss Gure Toki, and give the bartenders our warmest regards.

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