Lisbon's artful collector . . . and his world-class cache

AN oasis of country in the city. Peacocks amble, brooks gurgle, lilies speckle a silent lagoon. Students seek asylum behind sculptures on winding paths, and children play hide and seek in frondescent gardens.

This secluded sanctuary, nestled in the nape of one of Lisbon's seven hills, reflects the wealth and almost shy reserve of one of the most passionate art collectors in history.

Although it is celebrating three decades of existence next year, many Europeans and even more Americans have never heard of the Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian Foundation.

Yet a visit to this 17-acre complex of greenery and modern buildings just off the bustling Avenida Ant^onio Augusto de Aguira here brings a startling realization. Not only does it house one of the most highly acclaimed -- yet least known -- personal art collections in Europe, but a burgeoning modern-art center, performance halls, and its own symphony, ballet, and chorale. Not to mention a children's pavilion and an administrative office that makes grants to applicants in the sciences, education, and the

arts, as well as to charities.

With income from an endowment of nearly $67 million left by Mr. Gulbenkian in 1955, the foundation is the largest private charitable institution outside the United States.

The reason for its low profile could be that its founder operated -- partly out of personal style, partly out of savvy business instincts -- behind an ever-present veil of secrecy.

Despite his passing 30 years ago, his influence is still evident in comments like this from board secretary Carlos Baptista da Silva: ``We don't want to make our work known. We do the work for the people that need us and we are interested in. But we don't make publicity of it.''

Gulbenkian's collection, housed in the concrete, bronze, and glass centerpiece building of the complex, shows the endeavors of a very discerning eye. Small galleries exhibit Roman, Greek, European, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Islamic, and Oriental art treasures, and a rare collection of the works of Lalique.

Antique Greek jewelry, exquisitely bound 18th-century French books, gothic ivories, Indian miniatures, and Chinese porcelain abound. The 17 galleries here were constructed to fit the collection, not the other way around, as with most museums. Rooms circle two courtyards, one planted in Oriental style, the other in European.

One room is full of Lalique jewelry and glass. Precious stones, enamel, gold, and pearls are worked into art nouveau flowers, dragonflies, peacocks, snakes. Gulbenkian and Ren'e Lalique were close friends, and many of these pieces were commissioned.

Another room displays superb 18th-century silver, including that of Russian Czarina Catherine II, acquired by Gulbenkian in the 1920s, when the Russian government needed foreign currency and sold off some of the treasures of the Hermitage.

Other highlights include 18th-century French furniture, chinoiserie, Aubusson tapestries, and Impressionist paintings.

Until 1969, the collection had been mostly hidden away in Gulbenkian's one-time Paris residence. When critics first saw the display, they were stunned by its variety and perfection of choice.

The core collection, composed of 3,000 objects, is static and will never grow or change. But to continue the Gulbenkian spirit of supporting the best in art, whatever the period, the foundation started acquiring modern art 21 years ago. Two years ago it opened Portugal's first museum of modern art here on the same site.

The highlight of the new three-story, ultramodern structure is a vast, single-room gallery consisting of interconnecting floors. Five hundred paintings, sculptures, and other works are on display, with 3,000 more in reserve. Emphasis is on Portuguese modernists -- beginning with Almada Negreiros, who is called the father of the movement here. There is a smattering of foreign artists as well: David Hockney, John Hoyland, Robyn Denny, Henry Moore.

More than just a museum, the new center includes space for artists' workshops, photography, animation, experimental cinematography, video, and holo-graphy. This spring it hosted a major exhibition and dialogue on contemporary art in Europe, with museum curators and exhibitors from Stockholm; Oslo; Berlin; Ghent, Belgium; Rotterdam; Rome; and Vienna.

Head curator Isabel Olazabal says the dialogue helped put the new center on the map.

``There was no modern-art museum in all of Portugal two years ago,'' she says, ``and now we have hosted the first of many future gatherings to compare what modern museums are doing all over Europe.

``Just to be so young and be accepted so well by those already established has been a wonderful experience.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Lisbon's artful collector . . . and his world-class cache
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today