20 February 2019
by Graham Howes
This Friends of Kettle’s Yard trip was especially memorable for the exceptional interest of the museums visited, the distinctiveness and vitality of Basque culture, language and cuisine, and, as we were told, an unusually temperate climate for northern Spain in mid-November. We were based in Bilbao, at the Hotel Abando, ideally situated close to the old town, the river, within walking distance of the Guggenheim Museum, and virtually adjacent to the excellent, and atmospheric, Iruña tapas bar – Edwardian-Moorish in design, essentially local in clientele, but readily welcoming several Kettle’s Yard visitors on a regular basis.
Bilbao itself surprised many of us. If a small minority had anticipated a rusty Hispanic version of Hull, many more were taken aback by the spacious and variegated townscape –refined Art Deco apartment blocks, and neo-Renaissance banks and insurance offices, interlaced by spacious avenidas, squares and immaculately manicured parks and, underneath, a very modern subway with a major passenger intersection designed by Richard Rogers. Our guide was Berndt Nitsch, a German-born architect long domiciled in Bilbao, who combined an almost Pevsnerian eye for architectural provenance and detail with a formidable knowledge of the city’s political, economic and social history. He walked – and worked – us hard. Typically, before parting from us outside the Guggenheim, he took care to deliver an insider account of the ferocious local politicking that preceded its eventual construction.
Gehry’s museum itself was a tour de force, from its chunky, burnished exterior to interior spaces which effortlessly optimised – whoever the artist – the interaction between artwork and viewer. For some this worked best with the Giacometti retrospective (previously at Tate Modern). For others it was perhaps Warhol’s procession of Multicolored Marilyns, Kiefer’s neo-Wagnerian Die Orden der Nacht, or even Joana Vasconcelos’s large-scale, visually and intellectually ambitious installations, which now remain fixed in our visual memories.
The nearby Museum of Fine Arts was equally memorable, if for different reasons, in that its very rich holdings were displayed, at least on the ground and first floors, with an unnerving disregard for art historical chronology. Instead exhibits were herded into alphabetically ordered categories – Art, Bilbao, Citizen, Desire, and so on, within which, as the accompanying printed guide suggested, ‘art and literature mutually enhance each other’. Friends of Kettle’s Yard reactions were rather more ambivalent.
In contrast, when we visited the studio of the celebrated Basque artist Dario Urzay, both his personal warmth and directness, and the way in which his complex creative ideas, drawn from photography, toys, models and film, translated into technically interesting and very arresting works, were genuinely memorable.
A full, sunlit day in San Sebastian – stunningly situated and still retaining some its fin-de-siècle elegance – was equally rewarding. It began, not inappropriately, with an invigorating, collective promenade overlooking the beautiful, and relatively unspoilt, Ondaretta Beach, and walking towards Eduardo Chillida’s spectacular, elemental cluster of sea-girt rock sculptures, the Comb of the Winds. Then, exchanging nature for culture, we headed through the old town (largely an 1813 neo-Classical reconstruction), to the San Telmo Museum. Originally a handsome cloistered sixteenth century Dominican convent, it was brilliantly renovated and extended in 2011, essentially to embody, celebrate and enhance Basque culture and identity. It surprised many of us, not only by its contents – ranging from skeletons of prehistoric lions once indigenous to the Iberian peninsular to the former chapel’s eleven, huge, grandiloquent, sepia canvases (1929), by the Catalan Josep Maria Sert (a friend of Dalí) celebrating the Basque people as navigators, merchants, shipbuilders and even saints – Ignatius Loyola was born nearby. The museum’s upper floor, above an exquisite cloister, contained a Rubens, a Ribera and even a Tintoretto.
Our final visit was via Bilbao’s ugly and extensive industrial zone to Santander, the provincial capital of Cantabria. Here a windswept and slightly forlorn waterfront, which included a deserted Brittany Ferries Terminal, had been transformed by Renzo Piano’s stunning Centro Botín. Raised on columns above the once fashionable Pereda Gardens, it consisted of two core structures – one containing two exhibition spaces, the other overtly educational and cultural, plus a roof terrace with quite spectacular views of Santander and its bay. Both units were linked by an elaborate but user-friendly network of squares and walkways. Gallery 1 housed two relatively traditional exhibitions. One was titled The Reconfigured Landscape, intended to reflect what its curator, Benjamin Weil, described as ‘a world that has become more chaotic and complex, as our realm becomes more multi-layered and complex’. Unfortunately most of the exhibits (drawn from the Fundacion Botín’s own collection) did not offer a remotely coherent reflection on, or response to, such a challenge. Adjacent to this was Portraits: essence and expression, comprising only eight works gifted by Jaime Botín for permanent display. Of uneven quality, they included a haunting Bacon self-portrait of 1972, a rather predictable Juan Gris Harlequin’and Daniel Vasquez Diaz’s altogether more arresting, and psychoanalytically searching, Woman in Red. It was only, finally, in the adjacent Gallery 2 that the exhibited artwork was remotely commensurate with Piano’s architecture. Here the sculptural language of Christina Iglesias – visible and hidden, with latticework rooms, reflecting surfaces and pervaded, above all, by an aura of magical realism, induced, for many of us, a sense of authentic personal engagement with her work. One felt simultaneously transported and ‘earthed’ by the experience.
The same could perhaps be said of our trip as a whole – hence our heartfelt thanks to our organisers Tess Recordon and Ruth Rattenbury, who did so much to make it happen.