Monday, September 15, 2014

slipping across the border

The night was still. 

It was the type of night where a man could steal across the border from France to Spain with his companion Julio.  Julio, who knew how to drink with men, to make love with women, and to die as only as a man could die in the cold of the Pyrenees.  I knew I could not die as Julio would.  I could only continue to fight.

Or, if you like your Hemingway light even lighter still, you could have joined me on my ship crossing the Bay of Biscay to Bilbao.  In the center of Basque country.  Once the center of the old kingdom of Navarre.  A land that dreams of its independence from the Spanish crown.

Ken, Patti, Marilyn, John, and I had one mission in mind yesterday morning.  We were going to visit the Guggenheim Museum.  I cannot speak for the others, but I did very little research for this trip.  Usually, I know exactly what I am going to see (and often what I might write) before I leave Mexico.

Not this trip.  It has all been by ear.  And that is good.  Not only do I not prejudge what I might see, I am actually surprised when I see it.  I suspect that is another element that separates the tourist from the traveler.

Whenever I am in Spain, I can count on one constant.  Eccentric and fantastic architecture will abound.

Bilbao was no exception.  Of course, there is the Frank Gehry building that houses the museum (pictured at the top of this piece).  All curves and lumps evoking a heart.  And so precisely designed, aircraft design machinery was required in cutting the building materials.

But the city offers much more.  Such as this odd collection of art nouveau buildings peering through the trees.  And because this is Spain, a lot of the lines are so Moorish that they could have stepped out of the Alhambra -- with a bit of modernization.

Or this juxtaposition of God and Mammon.  A faux Gothic church vies for attention with a post-modern, post-Bauhaus office building, along with a side chorus of modern and art nouvea buildings.

Having been spared the horrors of the First and Second World Wars, much of Spain’s architectural legacy still stands -- even with the losses of its civil war.  That historical jumble is what gives cities such as Bilbao their structural texture.

But, as I said, our mission was to see the Guggenheim collection.  I wish I could share some photographs with you, but this is another of those camera-free museums.

As it turned out, that was a good policy.  At least for me.  This being a Spanish museum, a large number of visitors flagrantly violated the camera rule.  But, I followed the rules.  Surprisingly.

Putting my camera away allowed me to focus on what turned out to be one of my best museum experiences.  Very much like my experience at the Matisse museum earlier this year.  (And, yes, Jennifer, you were correct.)

The main exhibit was a very thorough collection of the works of Georges Braque.  Most of us probably know him for his monochromatic cubist pieces.  But the exhibit shows him in his full artistic context.

Like Matisse and Picasso (both of whom were friends and occasional roommates with him), Braque experimented with each of the artistic movements that developed during his life.  From Fauvism to his experimental landscapes just before his death.

Seeing all of these works in one place is like a course in the history of modern art.  It also gives the viewer an opportunity to get to know the artist at each stage of his life and to ponder what makes him a great painter, and to try to understand what he is communicating to the world.  Unlike many abstract expressionists, Braque believed the viewer was an integral part of the artistic process.  Without communication, there could be no art.

The setting of the museum building itself carries out that theme.  From the rear, it is tied together with the river and the nearby red-slathered bridge arch.

Then there are the sculptures.  You can see what we called “the stacked BBs” in the photograph above.  But there was also this beauty.

A giant spider sculpture whose presence seems to elicit attraction rather than striking fear.  And maybe that is another element of art.  To take the unknown and strip the outer wariness to expose its inherent beauty.

Or maybe it is just a giant spider made of metal that could not harm a fly.

The art did not end when we returned that afternoon to the ship.  Celebrity hired a local Basque group to entertain us with folk dances.  Here is part of the company looking as if they had missed the last bus for the Les Miserables road show.

I am never disappointed after visiting cities in Spain.  Bilbao was no exception.  I may even head to shore later today to get some shots of the old city.  We shall see.


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