Beyond the Guggenheim

Iberia has another modern art centre.
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The Independent Culture
THE OPENING of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao last October worked wonders for popularising post-1945 art. Suddenly, your average punter who likes a nice Monet is tossing around names like Warhol, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist, and taxi drivers confess that abstract expressionism is growing on them. At a stroke, it seems, accessibility to modern art has become democratised beyond the Guggenheim empire's wildest dreams, and the effect is rippling out to other comparable museums. One such is the Modern Art Museum that opened a year ago in the Portuguese city of Sintra, half an hour up the road from Lisbon. Quietly, without fanfare, a private collector has assembled 500 works that are a match for the Guggenheim marvels and a refreshing treasure trove.

Sintra, the former royal summer retreat, is already on the tourist trail, a morning's excursion from Lisbon, if you're in town for Expo '98. The artworks housed in the renovated Twenties casino will lift spirits more convincingly than the city's curlicued palace or twee tea-rooms run by dour, sloppy girls with moustaches.

The collector is Joe Barardo, a rough-diamond tobacco magnate from Madeira who made a fortune trading in South Africa. Barardo (who spends little time in Portugal and is shy of the press) apparently wanted to re-establish himself in his homeland with a flourish. Aware of his limited credentials as an art connoisseur, he formed an unlikely partnership with the histrionic Francisco Capelo, 43, an enchanting egomaniac with a puckish face and silver curls whose absolutely fabulous manner would outdazzle both Patsy and Edina.

"I don't come from the art world," Capelo says. "I was a stockbroker. Barardo was my client in the late Eighties. In 1993 I left brokerage and started working for him." The two men built a multi-million-pound publishing and television business and, with Capelo's eye and Barardo's dosh, assembled within two years a $60m collection of post-1945 art that must rank among the best in Europe. As Capelo says: "Galleries were in a very bad situation in 1993. It was the bottom of the market and they were overloaded with stock after the Eighties boom, so it was possible to buy good pieces at very good prices." He bought most of the works from a handful of galleries in London and Paris, "not New York, it's not my taste. I'm a crazy European."

He later confesses to a passing contact with the art world after all. "When I was 12 I worked with the great Portuguese painter Carlos Botelho in his studio for five years. But I decided to study economics and management and make lots of money. For me, collecting is a disease."

The Barardo collection displays methodically, chronologically, examples from the main modern movements - pop art, minimalism, kinetic art, conceptual art, arte povera and the rest - in the way the Guggenheim's director Thomas Krens so conspicuously rejected for Bilbao. But to an untutored eye newly focused by the Guggenheim, Sintra offers a satisfying way of learning more.

There are also a surprisingly large number of European, and especially British, artists. "To hear experts talk," he says, "you'd think the only post-war artists in the world were American. It's just that in the States there developed an instant infrastructure of collectors, which in Europe was very rudimentary."

European works reflect the dark legacy of war, the importance of existentialism in the crisis of post-war philosophy, and the assertion of individual freedom in a way the American portrayal of consumer culture fails to do, Capelo reckons. Combining the two enriches our understanding of both, he says.

Hence, lovely pieces by Bridget Riley, Michael Kidner, Richard Long, Francesco Clemente, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Allan Jones, Eduardo Paolozzi and Anselm Kiefer sit comfortably alongside Warhol's Brillo boxes, Oldenburg's giant soft light switches, an Alexander Calder mobile and a Lichtenstein mirror you want to see your face in. Capelo pauses by the Warhol: "Warhol used the idea of sculpture as something to do with the consumer, the supermarket. Up to then, it had been a man on a horse."

He bends my ear about his latest project, a design museum he wants to install in the heart of Lisbon's old, now wildly chic, port area. He has accumulated a personal collection of over 600 design classics from the Forties onwards, many of them crammed into his home, an 18th-century Lisbon house painted yellow, scarlet, blue and black in homage to his hero, Mondrian.

Capelo has prepared a book of his collection to be published in the autumn in English, and he is pestering the authorities to provide him with the building he has set his heart on, the Alcantara maritime station where the liners used to dock.

"This is a magnificent Forties building, which is being wasted on things like wedding parties," he scowls and shrugs at the same time. "It's so boring trying to negotiate with the government. They're just small officials pissing on the corners of their bureaucratic territory. Portugal is a country that relies on its industries of textiles, glass and ceramics. And modern art is already a classic. It is no longer sensational. We want to help people to like it, to lead them to it and to break down barriers."

`Luxury, Pop and Cool: Design Classics from the 1940s to Now', to be published by the Sintra Museum of Modern Art.

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