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The Subterranean Art Gallery

The Subterranean Art Gallery


Tired of dark, grungy, not-so-rarely stinky or simply boring subway stations which seem to be all too common in large European cities? Well, in Lisbon you won’t see any of these… Full of amazing surprises above ground, the White City will surprise you once again once you’ve gone through any of the entrances featuring a white M on red background.  In the underground world, you’ll find yourself in what the Lisbon metro’s website calls “the city’s most visited museum”, filled with works of Portuguese and foreign artists which will absorb you so much that you wouldn’t mind missing one train or two…



We owe it all to the Lisbon Metro’s Management Board, whose idea, from the very beginning of the city’s subway system in the late 1950s, was to breathe new life into the local artistic life by way of exposing regular city dwellers, who didn’t have much time for art exhibitions, to forms of art which could be admired in public spaces. In other words – if you can’t visit a museum, then the museum will visit you… The metro authorities were convinced that by raising aesthetic awareness among the local population they would give a powerful impetus to the development of art in general, as people would soon long for beautiful elements of art in their surroundings. One of the chairmen (Consiglieri Pedroso in 1990s) went as far as to believe that beautifully decorated metro stations would somehow awake the Lisboners’ artistic sensibility to the point of preventing acts of vandalism and violence (the mystery of the surprisingly low crime rate of the Portuguese capital solved?) in the city. This kind of approach, which may seem a bit too idealistic at first (it reminds me of Van Gogh’s idea of making art approachable to ordinary people by hanging paintings in cheap restaurants), led, however, to a true revival of the traditional, Portuguese art of glazed painted tiles – azulejos –which, after falling into a certain oblivion in the late 19th and early 20th century – gained a new life and style when wall coverings for the total of 19 subway stations were commissioned from the Portuguese azulejo designer and artist – Maria Keil. Since then, modern-type painted tiles, many of which designed by Keil herself, have embellished plenty of Lisbon’s facades – from residential buildings (panel called “The Sea” in Lapa district) to football stadiums (Alvalade).  


From Keil’s classic, abstract or geometric panels adorning the blue and green metro lines to graffiti-like azulejo-covered walls created by artists representative of younger generations – azulejos can be seen everywhere, but they are not the only attraction in the artful subway system. The artwork  which can be found at the stations is always centered around a specific theme which can either have something in common with the name of the station (e.g. Jardim Zoologico with azulejo panels featuring plants and “fusion” animals or Marques de Pombal which is a sort of tribute to the prime minister who reconstructed Lisbon after the 18th century earthquake) or with another imposed topic (like Portuguese literature at the Entre Campos station or women of Lisbon at Campo Pequeno).


Out of all 50 stations (if I’ve counted them well), each of which are worth seeing, I’ve selected the top three. Olaias


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