Although we are spoilt for choice in Athens as far as antiquities and Byzantine icons are concerned, up to now there were no permanent exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. This hole has just been filled with the advent of a new museum hosting a wonderful collection of modern and contemporary paintings and sculpture.
After 26 years of planning and six years of construction, the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation has opened its new space in a totally renovated neoclassical building in the Pangrati neighborhood of Athens. The museum showcases the stunning private collection of the late Basil Goulandris and his wife Elise, and boasts around 180 paintings, sculptures, and artifacts.
A shipping magnate whose shrewd eye and passion for art was equaled by his wife’s, Basil Goulandris collected unique pieces over the years, starting with a wonderful El Greco, The Veil of San Veronica.
The couple lived with the paintings on the walls of their houses and, in 1979, when the works of art had become too numerous to be privately enjoyed, they inaugurated the Museum of Contemporary Art on the island of Basil’s birth, Andros; this was, at the time, the country’s first institution devoted to the art of the present.
However, they always nurtured a dream to establish another art space in the center of Athens, which would offer broader audiences an opportunity to see contemporary art.
Now, 30 years after Basil’s death and 20 years after Elise’s, their vision has become reality. The original 1920s listed, three-floor building has been complemented by a modern extension hovering above the facade and now contains 11 stories (5 of which are underground to house the annex activities such as archives and storage) connected by a central stairwell made of white marble. The combination of the two styles on the outside is harmonious, and inside the different areas merge seamlessly into each other, giving an impression of spaciousness. In front of the building a little square, also renovated by the foundation, abuts the steps leading up to the church of Agios Spyridon, which was built in 1903 on designs by the noted German architect Ernst Ziller.
The museum boasts all the relevant amenities, such as a museum shop, a lovely restaurant, education spaces, and a library containing 4,500 volumes. There is also a 190-seat amphitheater, where screenings, concerts, and other events can take place. The foundation is headed by Elise Goulandris’ niece Fleurette Karadonti (President), and the museum’s director Kyriakos Koutsomallis, plus his daughter Marie Koutsomallis-Moreau (the collection’s chief curator). Their plan is to rotate the paintings of the collection on a regular basis, so that visitors can eventually get to see them all.
The collection includes lovely pieces of sculpture, such as the Giacometti below
And a little dancer by Degas, which caused major controversy in its time, being presented in a glass case and with the addition of tulle, leather and ribbon.
There is a luminous room of works on paper, such as the Matisse below.
And a floor devoted to major and rising Greek artists. See below two beautiful works by Tsarouhis.
Like many diaspora Greeks, Basil and Elise had a deep love for their motherland, and always wanted to give something back to Greece. Having no children, they dedicated themselves to art, and their Paris home became a meeting place for many personalities of the art world, such as Callas, Baryshnikov, Balthus and Chagall, whose portrait of Elise graces the entrance.
However, finding a site for the museum took several years because its original location, a plot next to the Byzantine and Christian Museum, yielded an amazing archaeological find during construction: Aristotle’s Lyceum. After many setbacks, all obstacles were happily overcome, and the new museum is already teeming with visitors.
The collection is certainly unique, and I advise anyone planning to go to make time for lunch or at least a coffee and cake in the restaurant. The food is delicious and the waiters super friendly.
All photographs are mine, which is why they’re very moderate. The light in the museum was low, in order both to preserve the works but also to bring out their wonderful colors.