Something Armenian in Portugal

Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon

BY TALEEN BABAYAN & KARINE ABALYAN

Portugal does not have a sizeable Armenian community or an Armenian Church. But it is here, in Europe’s westernmost country, that the philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian’s esteemed private art collection accidentally found its home.

Surrounded by a vast property featuring stretches of lawn and bamboo gardens, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum is a centerpiece of Lisbon’s cultural life. On a warm day last summer, tourists and Lisboans took in the splendor of the peaceful landscape, pausing to appreciate one of the city’s most visited sites.

Inside, schoolchildren and art enthusiasts browsed Gulbenkian’s extensive collection, which is comprised of more than 6,000 pieces dating from antiquity to the early 20th century. These include works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Renoir, Manet, Degas, and Monet, as well as Persian rugs, Chinese pottery, and jewelry by Rene Lalique.

Calouste Gulbenkian's statue at the museum

Gulbenkian began acquiring artwork at a young age. Born in Istanbul in 1869, he was the son of a wealthy merchant who had holdings in the oil fields of the Caucuses. After earning a degree in engineering and applied science at King’s College in London, Gulbenkian was encouraged by his father to get involved in the oil business.

Earning British citizenship in the wake of the 1895 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Gulbenkian established valuable networks with leading European and Russian oil businessmen.

In 1907, he helped found the Royal Dutch Shell Group, and five years later was influential in the development of the Turkish Petroleum Company, of which he owned a five percent share. Gulbenkian’s insistence on securing this fraction with subsequent projects eventually earned him the epithet “Mr. Five Percent.”

During World War II, Gulbenkian planned to emigrate to America. But a brief visit to neutral Portugal—where he found a welcoming and hospitable atmosphere—changed his course. Gulbenkian spent the last 13 years of his life at the fashionable Hotel Aviz in central Lisbon.

During this time, he decided to establish an international foundation to showcase his art collection and to bring together different cultural values and interests. After Gulbenkian passed away in 1955 at the age of 86, his vision was realized with the opening of the Foundation and Museum in Lisbon in 1969.

Building on Gulbenkian’s artistic vision, the foundation added a Modern Art Center to the property in 1983. Dedicated primarily to 20th-century Portuguese artists, the center also serves as a depository for other modern pieces.

Known for its leading efforts in restoration and preservation, the Modern Art Center attracted the attention of Vartoosh Mooradian, the sister of the artist Arshile Gorky, and her son, Karlen. The Mooradians placed their collection of Gorky works here in 1985.

In her will, Mooradian left the artwork to the Eastern Diocese, which has continued the partnership with the Gulbenkian Foundation. The works have been exhibited at various times in Lisbon and thanks to this unique collaboration, the Gorky paintings have been exhibited at museums worldwide. In 2007, the Paris branch of the Gulbenkian Foundation worked with the Centre Georges Pompidou to display Gorky’s works as part of the “Year of Armenia” in France. In addition, Gorky’s works have been shown at the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and most recently at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City.

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5 Comments

  1. The truth said:

    I have visited the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum! An interesting collection is ‎kept in the Museum. Unfortunately, through years the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has ‎become more and more less Armenian ! ‎

    Given the fact that Turkish lead Genocide of Armenian Peopel did destroy a big part of our ‎culture heritage too, Armenian government (had) should have asked long ago Portugal and ‎Gulbenkian Foundation to donate all items of this Museum to Armenia – or simple to agreed ‎to move the Museum to Armenia ! Armenian government is genially to passive and has no ‎strategy to demand the return of stolen or plundered Armenian culture items kept aboard to ‎there rightful owners! ‎

    • Hayq said:

      Transferring it to Armenia would be a great idea! But if it is going to cause discord with the Portuguese, why bother? Consider it a forever ambassador and present from the Armenian people to the Portuguese.

    • Tsayt said:

      The museum in Lisbon is a place where these artifacts are displayed, they are neither stolen nor plundered. They were in the possession of Mr. Gulbenkian. Unless you consider the art works in the collection of this museum was stolen by Mr. Gulbenkian himself.

      I would also be careful in the misguided assumption that every cultural art/monument in the hands of Armenian authorities are safe. Look at the pitiful state of Armenian churches and monasteries, destruction of Khatchkars by authorized workers, for road construction for heaven’s sake, or look at the monstrous “renovation” of Gantsasar monastery in Artsakh. Last but not least, take the horrendous cases of stealing of bronze parts of standing well-known statues, slowly they are missing parts of their arms and legs to thieves who sell the bronze as scrap to make a buck.

  2. Peter Megerdumian said:

    The Gulbenkian foundation to relocate to Armenia where all of it’s funds can be spent on Armenian projects The Gulbenkian Foundation Armenian Communities Section only has a budget of 2.5 million where as the rest of the foundation (under Portugese control) takes Mr. Gulbenkian’s money to improve Portugal instead of using this Armenian foundation to help the Armenians only.

    • Anonymous said:

      First get rid of all the OLIGARCHS in Armenia before transferring anything to Armenia. Only the OLIGARCHS of today are to blame for the destruction of Armenia. I trust the Portuguese over these people anytime. They are thieves that will only steel all of Gulbenkian’s collection and pocket the money themselves before giving anything to the poor starving people of Armenia.

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