Bilbao – art and the Guggenheim

The Tall Tree and the Eye installation by Anish Kapoor outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

After spending our first few hours in Bilbao exploring its historic centre, our second day was spent focusing on the city’s architectural gems and art galleries.

Arriving in the city near the central train station, we again crossed the Bilbao River at Arenal Bridge, but this time instead of continuing straight ahead into the old town, we turned left and followed the curve of the river all the way to the Guggenheim.

City Hall in Bilbao

The stroll along the river bank was pleasant and we passed a number of the city’s architectural highlights along the way, including Bilbao’s impressive city hall (above), which dates back to 1892.

Zubizuri Bridge over the Bilbao RIver

My favourite part of the journey was the Zubizuri Bridge (above), a curved, white footbridge. It’s a fantastic piece of engineering and while it looked impressive from a distance, it was even better up close and we decided it was the perfect spot to cross the river.

Maman, a giant metal sculpture of a spider, by Louise Bourgeois outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Continuing our stroll, we soon arrived at the Guggenheim and as we approached it, the first thing we saw was a tall, giant metal spider (above) with lots of people huddled underneath it’s long spindly legs. The spider by Louise Bourgeois is one of a series of playful art installations in and around the museum.

Brightly coloured flowers float on water as part of an art installation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

One of my favourite installations was the brightly coloured paper flowers (above) floating on a small body of water as it was fun and cheery. I also liked the tall statue of silver balls by Anish Kapoor, a little further along the river bank, which was simple but effective against the titanium-clad museum.

The Puppy by Jeff Koons outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

By now, it was almost midday so we stopped at a small outdoor café opposite the museum for a quick drink and then headed up to the main entrance, where we were greeted by the sight of a giant multi-coloured puppy (above) made from lots and lots of flowers by Jeff Koons.

The curved titanium and glass Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

As we’d walked around the outside of the Guggenheim, we were full of admiration for the building designed by Frank Gehry. The gleaming, curved titanium behemoth, which twists and turns in a variety of shapes, photographs beautifully from every angle. The impressive architecture continued inside, too, with a tall confection of curved white walls, metal and glass (below, left).

The museum is huge and our first port of call, once we got our bearings, was the permanent exhibition on the first floor, Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time (above, right), which features eight massive steel sculptures that curve in different ways.

I had great fun walking in and out the mega structures – some of the paths inside the structures are very narrow and claustrophobic, others lead to a dead end. But that’s all part of the fun, blindly wandering through them and not knowing what you’re going to find or where you’re going to end up.

From there, we visited an exhibition of Georg Baselitz’s work featuring young men, painted between 1965 and 1966. The paintings were powerful and admirable, but not really my cup of tea. We then moved on to an exhibition devoted to the work of Bill Viola, which I really disliked. It was a collection of moving images, mostly short videos of people doing nothing in unreal situations, which I found creepy and pointless, so after a quick look around we swiftly moved on.

The exhibition of modern masters featuring works by the likes of Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat was more my speed. The collection was a mixed bag – some of the works were the usual eye-rollingly pretentious nonsense you find in modern art galleries, but some of the works, especially those by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, were fantastic. One of the most famous works on display was by Andy Warhol and featured 150 screenprints of Marilyn Monroe in different colours.

The final exhibition we visited was Paris, Fin de Siécle,  which featured a series of paintings, drawings and illustrations by artists living in Paris during the 1890s. Monet’s Waterlillies in vivid dark purples and greens, and Toulouse Lautrec’s iconic posters and paintings of the Moulin Rouge, were the standouts. But Odilon Redon’s The Egg was my favourite as it was clever, playful and memorable.

Tulips by Jeff Koons on display at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Overall, I wasn’t that impressed by the Guggenheim and found it disappointing. Despite the enormity of the building, I didn’t feel there was much to see inside and many of the works that were on display weren’t to my taste. A lot of the artworks were very pretentious, too. The building itself is by far and away the most impressive work of art – it’s superb and rightly considered iconic. It’s worth going to the Guggenheim to see the building, but if you skipped the art inside, you wouldn’t be missing much as it’s only so-so.

The courtyard at the Fine Arts Museum in Bilbao

After lunch, we made our way to our next art gallery of the day – the Fine Arts Museum (above). I’d read in a guidebook that the museum’s artworks were far superior to those of the Guggenheim and I’d have to agree. It’s a superb gallery and features a great mix of art from across the ages. It’s also deceptively big and packs in a lot.

Our first stop was the temporary Alicia Koplowitz Collection. Magnificently curated, the collection featured pieces from Roman times to the present day with works by the likes of Goya, Canaletto, Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Van Gogh, to name but a few.

From there, we moved on to the modern art section, which was full of interesting and thought-provoking pieces, and I liked almost everything on display. Eduardo Chillida’s iron sculptures, in particular, were memserising.

We continued through the gallery into a series of rooms featuring works by Spanish artists, such as Joaquín Sorolla, and I enjoyed getting to know the artists and their art. The final rooms featured some of the oldest pieces in the gallery, and included royal portraits and paintings by Goya and El Greco.

Four artworks of women outside the Fine Arts Museum in Bilbao

I came away from the Fine Arts Museum with a new-found appreciation of Spanish art, having discovered a number of Spanish artists I wasn’t familiar with. It’s well-curated,  relaxed and was practically empty on the day we visited, which meant we could enjoy the museum at our own pace. If you only have time to explore one gallery in Bilbao and you want to see some great works of art, I’d recommend the Fine Arts Museum.

After a day of non-stop art, we made our way back towards the train station via the Lopez de Haro, a huge shopping street in the centre of the city home to popular Spanish brands such as Mango and Zara, along with high-end labels such as Max Mara, Michael Kors and Massimo Dutti.

Bilbao is a fantastic city. There isn’t masses to do and what there is to do, you can easily do in a day and a half, but it has a cool vibe, and fabulous food and drink. It’s unpolished, unrefined, imperfect and a little rough around the edges – but that’s what makes the city so great. It feels like a city that’s lived in, as opposed to a perfectly polished tourist hub, and as a result it makes for a wonderful place to spend a weekend.

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