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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

History of Lisbon's National Museum of Contemporary Art

What is MNAC?

Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado (MNAC), or the National Museum of Contemporary Art in English, also known locally as Chiado Museum, is a modern and contemporary art museum with 5,000 works that’s housed in a former convent.

"Praia de banhos, Póvoa de Varzim" (1884) by Portuguese painter João Marques de Oliveira. Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado (National Museum of Contemporary Art, Lisbon, Portugal)

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MNAC History

The National Museum of Contemporary Art, or the Chiado Museum as it’s known to locals, opened to the public in 1911. It was formed from the division of the old National Museum of Fine Arts. The new National Museum of Ancient Art inherited all works produced prior to 1850 and remained in situ. All post-1850 works were installed here in the converted São Francisco Convent, a complex that was acquired by an English merchant after the abolition of monastic orders in the mid-19th century. The creation of multiple galleries and museums to display the nation’s art was rooted in the 18th-century concept of human enlightenment, though the decision to devote this space to contemporary art was, at the time, considered a bold one.

In fact it was very fitting, given that the area was then frequented by many of the artists and bohemians whose work began to adorn the new museum’s walls. Following the uneventful and rather disappointing tenure of the museum’s first director, appointed by conservative lobbying efforts, the role was taken over by the painter Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro (younger brother of 19th-century caricaturist and ceramicist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro). Columbano was part of the Governmental Commission who chose the flag of the Portuguese Republic, the same red and green standard that still flies today, and he donated several of his own paintings to the museum, such as O Grupo do Leão (or ‘The Lion Group’), a brilliant work that depicts the most prominent Portuguese artists of the late 19th century. (The ‘Lion Group’ were named after the restaurant where they usually met).

Adriano Sousa Lopes, another painter, succeeded Bordalo Pinheiro and managed gradually to introduce works from the Modernist generation into the museum's collection. Though they’re now considered part of the artistic canon, Sousa Lopes acquired and exhibited ‘controversial’ new pieces by Auguste Rodin, Antoine Bourdelle and Joseph Bernard.

A period of transformation began in the 1940s under the directorship of sculptor Diogo de Macedo, which saw the gallery open daily to the public and receive its own independent entrance on Serpa Pinto Street; no longer did visitors have to enter through the neighbouring Academy of Fine Arts. Finally, in the 1990s, the Chiado Museum was completely rebuilt by the great French architect Jean-Michel Willmotte. As you wander through its various spaces, you’ll notice that the plans of the galleries are characterised by verticality, and the suspended passages inside the building give the structure a neo-Modern aspect.

You’ll discover works by the country’s greatest modern artists and learn about the development of their related movements. Tomás de Anunciação from the Romantic period, when colossal landscapes and portraiture were in favour; António Silva Porto and his works featuring natural light; António Ramalho and his realistic depictions of landscapes; António Carneiro and Sousa Lopes, who mark the transition to the 20th century; and Amadeo de Souza Cardoso and his experimentation with geometry and strong colours. You’ll explore the politically inspired works of the 1940s, the revival of figurative art, the examination of image and identity in the 1980s, and the politically, socially and culturally engaged works of the ‘90s. Through the medium of art, the Chiado Museum will take you on an engaging journey through the history of modern Portugal.

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