Bilbao Spain is known for its Basque nationalism, its Basque football club, its pintxos and beer outside pubs in small streets, its Casco Viejo. It is also today closely identified with the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum, now opened just over two decades.
For mysterious geopolitical, personal, and financial reasons, we have not seen this city since 1994 when the new museum was just being constructed, so amidst the organic graffiti/Street Art hunting and the Bilbao Arts District mural mapping, we knew that we had to get inside the undulating metal building that has become an audacious architectural landmark.
Not that there weren’t other intellectually stimulating exhibititions and programming on offer in this historic yet cosmopolitan northern Spanish city of a million just 10 miles south of the Bay of Biscay. At Azkuna Zentroa there currently are workshops and classes that introduce you to experimental music and sound art and there is a well-regarded ‘Culture Lab’ digital laboratory.
You can also check out Museo de Bellas Artes for a new exhibition that highlights the momentus cultural changes of 1968 and the five decades that followed as seen through the perspective of Basque art. Their permanent collection includes El Greco, Goya, Tapies, Mary Cassatt, Paul Gaugin and Francis Bacon.
Our own experience of the Guggenheim somehow felt more profound because of Gehry’s well respected visual vocabulary in the public expression of architecture as art. Over two days we made sure to take a personal stroll outside and inside to measure the experience.
The resulting personal observation is that being outside on the street, witnessing the buildings’ dialogue with its surroundings as well as its own powerful image along the Nervion River which runs through the city of Bilbao to the Cantabrian Sea, by far impressed us as visitors.
Perhaps it was because a few of the exhibitions inside were closed or being installed, perhaps because the current exhibition from VanGogh to Picasso felt incongruous with the superstructure, or because the galleries themselves sometimes overpower the art-viewing experience, but inside didn’t stand a chance against the experiencia afuerda.
Set aside the sprawling Richard Serra sculpture gallery with its slinging sloping slabs of rusting iron bending your very perception – and the amazing soaring electronic text installation by Jenny Holzer. Both of those meet the challenge set by the outsized personality and promise of their common home.
Here we present some of our visual impressions of the Guggenheim Bilbao experience, one that surely speaks to many of our readers – with gratitude to the museum and the city for their hospitality and inspiration.