A visit to the Bilbao Guggenheim

After getting this new Simple-Talk website out of the door, my wife and I took off to Northern Spain for a well-earned and very pleasant 2-week vacation. Spain is a bit of a default holiday destination for us – occasionally we break away (including a fantastic few weeks in Slovenia one year) but we are inextricably drawn back.

We love the country, the food, the people. It’s not that the people are overtly friendly… in fact a sort of quiet bemusement tends to be the standard reaction. However, when you are given help or shown friendship it feels genuine and is all the more appreciated. Anyway, we had a fine time – mainly sightseeing, eating great tapas (or pintxos as they say in Basque country) and drinking superb txacoli.

In Bilbao, we got the chance to visit the, titanium coated “clipper” that is the Guggenheim museum:

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It’s undoubtedly an impressive structure and the way it has just been sort of “slotted in” to its surroundings, on the site of the old dock area, is intriguing.The highlight of the visit for me was the RUSSIA! exhibition which covered a vast sweep of Russian art, from 13th century icons, through Communist social realism right up to 20th century sculptures. One piece that sticks in my memory is “Barge haulers on the Volga”, by Ilya Repin (1870):


Alexander II had abolished serfdom in 1863, but granted the peasants no land and so forced many into extreme poverty. Repin spotted the barge haulers (it was cheaper to employ humans for such work than animals) during a river walk and subsequently followed them for several months. He spent this time studying each one in minute detail so that he could accurately capture the character of each individual. The perspective is low so that the men appear to tower over the canvas. Central is a younger boy, dressed in orange. He looks in a different direction to the other haulers and seems set to throw off the yoke that attaches him to the boat.

I guess it’s easy to understand and admire paintings such as this…and the symbolism is rather blunt. And yet I found confronting the picture face-to-face a truly awe-inspiring and rather humbling experience. The exhibition contained many such pieces, several by members of the Wanderers, as they were known, who were seeking to break free from art that was deemed “acceptable” by the State, and to affect social awareness and change through their work. The maxim that “out of suffering comes great art” generally bears true, in my experience.

The whole collection was superb. I even stayed quite a while in the 20th century section, which is not something I often find myself doing. Russia is still in the throes of great social change and many of the works were political in nature and therefore interesting to me. So often I find modern European art to be noisy and self-absorbed and, ultimately, with very little to say (to me, at least).

I was gearing myself to be disappointed with the Guggenheim. It has had accusations thrown at it of trivializing and commercializing art (its most popular events have been a motorcycle exhibition and a show by Giorgio Armani). Outside the museum stands a large flower-festooned sculpture called Puppy (pronounced poopy, apparently), inspired by some tat souvenir that the artist picked up in a gift shop.


Poopy was instantly popular and quickly adopted as a symbol of the “new” Bilbao (and, of course, in an inevitable art-imitating- tat-imitating-art cycle, poopy is now by far the most popular of the crap souvenirs sold in the nearby gift shops).

Anyway, I was happy to be disabused. The Guggenheim really is a fantastic (and fun) place to see some art. And the restaurant is rather good too.