The Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, located just north of the city centre, is named for the British/Armenian businessman and art collector who, in 1942, made Lisbon (one of) his (many) home(s).
Established thanks to a clause in Gulbenkian’s will, the museum showcases pieces from his vast and worldly collection of objects and artefacts, from Graeco-Roman sculpture to Impressionist painting.
More striking than the breadth of his collection, though, is the elegance with which it sits in its chic surroundings, laden with large areas of exposed concrete and plush ‘gram-worthy open spaces. Gulbenkian’s multifarious artworks are displayed with a reservedness and subtlety that affords each piece a slice of centre stage. Rather than feel overwhelmed by the variety of works on show, the visitor is swept up in the extravagance of the journey – a compelling and grand narrative of human evolution.
Strange then, that behind all this is an oil barren and multi-millionaire who made his fortune from the rapacious despoliation of the earth’s natural resources. Someone whose penchant for materialist consumption prompted one contemporary art dealer to admire, ‘Never in modern history has one man owned so much’.
And there are times when the museum, replete with notable Bond-villain-lair vibe, feels like little more than a testament to the power of cold hard cash – a painful reminder of the West’s self-proclaimed right to obtain/ retain/ gaze upon the ‘exotic’ aesthetics of othered cultures.
This being said, it isn’t all bad when it comes to Calouste Gulbenkian and his eye-watering wealth. Gulbenkian donated lots of moolah when alive to churches, libraries, educational funds, and hospitals, and continues to do so from beyond the grave through the international Foundation that bares his name.
So even if you don’t know how to feel about old Gulbenkian (it is tricky, for example, to reconcile the Gulbenkian Foundation’s proud motto – ‘For All Humanity’ – with that of its founder: ‘only the best’!), the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is a majestic way to spend a rainy afternoon in Lisbon.