By Ron Bernthal
The big red “M signs scattered throughout Lisbon’s riverside business district and its hilly suburbs signify the location of a city Metro station, but they may as well stand for “Museum.” The city has lots of great art galleries, outdoor statues, and a variety of museums, but for a look at some of Lisbon’s most beautiful and traditional painted ceramic tiles, you need only to ride the city’s efficient subway system, known officially as Metropolitano de Lisboa.
Among the 48 stations in the Metro, there is public art in 44 of them, sometimes a collection of wood, marble, or clay sculptures, a display of engraved stone, or mixed art objects, but most station walls contain large murals of colorful, glazed, painted tiles, a Portuguese art form known as “azulejo.” This type of artistic expression had declined in popularity from the 19th-century until the first half of the 20th century but, beginning in the early 1950’s, especially with the work of Maria Keil, “azulejo” has been revived, and Portuguese designed and manufactured tile murals are once again becoming a decorating trend in commercial and residential locations all over Europe and parts of the U.S.
Maria Keil was commissioned by the city to paint wall tiles in the Lisbon Metro from 1957 to 1982, and her work can be seen in 19 stations. As subway lines expanded other Portuguese artists contributed their work as well, and for Lisbon’s World Expo in 1998, artists from ten other countries donated their art to Lisbon’s underground “art gallery.”
Lisbon’s Metro system is small, with only 21 miles of track, but its four lines are color coded which makes it easy for non-Portuguese speakers to get around, and perhaps even learn the Portuguese words for blue (Azul Line), yellow (Amarela Line), green (Verde Line), and red (Vermelha Line). The Metro costs one euro (about $1.39 as of Jan.5) and races under the city’s ancient urban grid in minutes, a much better alternative than the traffic clogged cobblestoned streets above ground, and experiencing the stunning tile art in the Metro stations is certainly worth more than the price of the ticket.
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