Patch­works of Lis­bon

A night on the tiles in Por­tu­gal’s cap­i­tal takes on a whole new mean­ing for David Whit­ley.

The Press - Escape - - PORTUGAL -

Awhim takes over on the train from the air­port. Ori­ente sta­tion looks so bright and fas­ci­nat­ing, that it’s worth get­ting out way be­fore the right stop. The sta­tion is awash in coloured tiles.

On them, weird, long-necked alien fig­ures play the drums, cartoon pi­rates swash­buckle and co­ral polyps dom­i­nate space-like starry back­grounds.

The idea to turn a pub­lic trans­port hub into an art gallery came when the sta­tions of the red line were built, just be­fore Lis­bon hosted Expo 98. At Ori­ente, artists from five con­ti­nents were brought in and given a sec­tion of wall to work their magic on.

There’s a vague mar­itime theme but it’s a glo­ri­ously jar­ring mish­mash of styles.

The one con­stant is the ma­te­rial the works are dis­played on. Por­tu­gal does tile art like nowhere else and the Metro’s com­mit­ment to show­cas­ing the best from mod­ern artists of­fers a coun­ter­point to the geo­met­ric shapes found all over Lis­bon.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween tile art in Por­tu­gal and that of else­where is ex­plained at the Museu Na­cional do Azulejo. Else­where tiles are used as dec­o­ra­tion but in Por­tu­gal they’re used as a con­struc­tion ma­te­rial.

En­tire walls will be cov­ered in the painted azule­jos, rather than care­fully selected patches. And thus the term azulejo has a much stronger mean­ing than the rough trans­la­tion of ‘‘tile art’’.

It also ex­plains why some of the more spec­tac­u­lar pieces in the mu­seum seem to have bits miss­ing. They have been brought to the mu­seum from churches and houses all over the coun­try, and the ab­sent sec­tions are usu­ally where a win­dow or door orig­i­nally was.

The his­tory of the art form – it was in­tro­duced by Arabs in the Mid­dle Ages – and tech­niques for mak­ing the tiles are cov­ered, but it is the in-situ works that are truly spec­tac­u­lar.

The mu­seum is in­side an old con­vent com­plex, and the cen­tral church is a mas­ter­piece.

The blue and white azule­jos spread across the walls, telling the sto­ries of saints in the way friezes do else­where.

The de­tail is worth get­ting lost in – lions prowl be­hind St Fran­cis of As­sisi, Moses’ fol­low­ers carry sheep.

But un­til the Metro sta­tions gave azule­jos a new lease of life, they were re­garded as some­what dowdy and old-fash­ioned. Now you can’t com­mute with­out see­ing in­ven­tive twists on the old ways. At Cais do So­dre sta­tion, gi­ant Alice in Won­der­land-es­que rab­bits seem to race across the tun­nel walls.

At Res­tau­radores, swirling ren­di­tions of cityscapes from Madrid to New York dom­i­nate. At Alameda, tales of Por­tu­gal’s fa­mous sea­far­ers play out.

The resur­gence of tile art is ev­i­dent else­where.

The walls of pub­lic parks are dec­o­rated with scenes of chil­dren dancing or phoenixes ris­ing from flames.

Then there is the city’s new Beer Mu­seum. The huge bar area wasn’t seen as be­ing com­plete with­out azule­jos, so Julio Po­mar was com­mis­sioned to put to­gether a work of gal­lop­ing sur­re­al­ity.

Rab­bits, wa­ter­mel­ons, tubas and smil­ing par­rots merge into a play­ful whole – the per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to a night on the tiles.

Burst of colour: Atile mu­ral by Erro.

Blue note: Mu­ral at Ori­ent sta­tion.

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