Portugal: Uniquely artistic

Lisbon’s enormous statue of Christ, standing 18 meters tall atop a square base that soars to a height of 82 meters, is impressive from the air. With arms outstretched toward the city, the figure stands adjacent to the beautiful red suspension bridge that spans the River Tagus.

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The National Sanctuary of Christ the King took more than a decade to build, and was initially dedicated in May 1959, although it was first conceived in 1940 as a supplication to keep the country out of World War II. Inspired by the similar Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the shrine was completed following the war to express Portugal’s gratitude at being spared the devastation that war brought to other countries.

On the shrine’s 25th anniversary, the first of two chapels housed within its base was dedicated. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, restoration and additional improvements have been made, and a second chapel was dedicated in 2008. From the viewing platform at the base of the statue, visitors get a panoramic view of the city and surrounding countryside.

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Flying into the city on a clear day, I was awed to immediately recognize it as our plane made a turn over the river, bringing both the statue and the bridge into clear focus. But the modernist concrete statue looms even larger as one traverses the river by car.

Portugal surprises in many different ways, with much to enchant the traveler, and the scale of public art is one of the more obvious ways. The art that’s free for viewing is as exciting as it is available.

Here is a sampling:

Flowers, too, qualify as art: In public squares and private gardens, the natural and the manmade coexist for the delight of both local residents and visitors. It may be an expectation that greenery and vibrant color will punctuate the landscape, but the same plantings bring color and natural beauty to town squares, narrow streets, cafe interiors and marketplaces, even highways.

Art adds to the enjoyment of life. Art stands as a tribute to the human need for beauty. It celebrates history, encourages joy, adds meaning, can be quirky and irreverent or breathtakingly realistic. It transcends place and time. It exists in many forms: Architecture and massive sculpture, religious and military statuary, landscaped parks, graffiti and street art, sidewalks and plazas, decorative address tiles, lacy bridge railings, unique street lights, utilitarian manhole covers, multi-colored buildings, and signs.

Even a pedestrian walkway over a busy highway can be unexpectedly colorful, looking every bit like modern sculpture. Lisbon’s massive Airport, despite its emphasis on function, also boasts its share of eye candy! Then, flying out of the city, we once again saw, from the air, Portuguese art in the form of two very modern, and artistically-designed sports stadiums!

In Portugal, clearly the society thrives on artistic expression. Each place we visited told a different story. From crowded Lisbon to the smallest village, along the highways and in backyard gardens, the nation is filled with art — in all its various forms, new as well as old.

Invariably, it’s unique. Always it’s worth a second look. It’s remarkable.

Graffiti: Art free for all

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I may represent the minority, but I am enthralled by street art and graffiti. I always have been. Wall murals attract my attention, and I secretly believe that the cave drawings and petroglyphs we work so hard to protect were simply the graffiti of past times.

Fanciful expressions of modern culture that grace rail cars, empty warehouses, bridge girders and old water towers, decaying barns and even bus stop benches, and the colorful tags and “signatures” along highways and byways never fail to attract my attention. Portugal was a visual feast!

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In urban settings, I adore oversize murals on random buildings. They add color and design to sometimes bland and boring walls. Occasionally, advertising masquerades as art, and it’s true that graffiti speaks a message all its own. But, more often than not, graffiti is just for fun. And I like it!

When I travel, I typically have a camera in hand; I come home with as many photos of graphic graffiti scenery as of people, historic sites and natural beauty. I snap the shutter from a moving vehicle window, a building’s balcony, or when out for a stroll.

While traveling in Portugal, I was amply rewarded. Graffiti seems almost a national pastime; in my eyes, it’s a national treasure. Nowhere else in my previous experience has the graffiti been so pervasive, nor quite so memorable.

Sometimes obvious “tagging,” Portuguese graffiti is, seemingly, respectful of both private property and public monuments. Although it is clear that graffiti sometimes supports a cause or is otherwise prompted by local issues, we saw little that could be considered outright defacement or the work of vandals. There seems to be no concerted effort to paint over or erase existing graffiti.

Sometimes it is hauntingly beautiful. Occasionally simple and childlike, the work can be stunning in composition and in execution. There are true artists at work along the highways, in small towns and large cities, in farm country and in fishing villages. And, while larger than life murals are not graffiti in the strict sense, they are certainly unexpected; sometimes they are inspiring.

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I know that not all the graffiti is officially sanctioned, but we were told that local and national authorities grant permission in certain areas for graffiti artists to transform crumbling walls and cracked stucco into something more interesting and colorful. Driving along freeways bounded by industrial-grade barriers, the graffiti was welcome, a colorful display of creativity for what would otherwise have been mile upon mile of sameness.

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Portugal has other art as well — serious art — statuary and sculpture in city squares and parks, in front of public buildings and private apartment complexes, in gardens and on the beach, as well as dramatic, oversize centerpiece art in vehicular “roundabouts.”

It’s a phenomenon. There is little need for visitors to pay admission fees to art museums: The best art is free for viewing all around!

If pictures are worth a 1,000 words, this is a “book’s worth” of my favorite images.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. In a future post, I’ll share some of the notable public art we encountered throughout this unique country.