Walk down Eratosthenous Street in Athens, and halfway along you come upon a neat little piazza. It is a triangular space, steeply raked like one face of a pyramid. At its apex stands the petite church of St Spiridon, its interior crammed with solemn icons. To one side of the square is a neoclassical townhouse, and this too is filled with pictures. It is the Goulandris Foundation, a new museum built to contain the fabulous art collection amassed by the late shipping magnate Basil Goulandris and his wife Elise.
Here on show are works by Cézanne and Degas, Picasso and Giacometti, Van Gogh and Gauguin — as well as a joyous portrait of Elise by the couple’s friend Marc Chagall. One floor of the building is filled with international contemporary art. Above that there is a gallery displaying works by some of the Greek artists the collectors admired and acquired.
The museum, which opened in October, has been a long time in the making. ‘The idea was conceived in 1990,’ says Kyriakos Koutsomallis, director of the foundation. ‘Basil and Elise wanted to build a museum in Athens, and to that end they approached the great architect I.M. Pei. The state provided a site a little north of here, on Rigillis Street, close to the parliament, and Pei’s studio in New York drew up all the plans. Then, when the builders began work on the footings, they came upon archaeological remains.’
In Athens, such things happen wherever a workman puts a spade to the earth. But this turned out to be no ordinary dig. ‘We had uncovered the Lyceum of Aristotle,’ continues Koutsomallis, ‘the place where he taught his pupils and presented his discourses. The state invited us to cohabit with the philosopher — to preserve the archaeological site below and to construct the museum above. But we needed to go deep, several storeys down. Pei couldn’t accept the proposed restrictions, so the project for Rigillis Street was mothballed.’
Basil died in 1994, Elise in 2000. Pei bowed out when a second site for the museum also proved unsuitable. That could have been the end of the entire undertaking, but the foundation resolved to keep alive the vision of a permanent gallery open to all in the Greek capital. That quest has taken two more decades, and has involved Kyriakos, his daughter Marie Koutsomallis, who is Head of Collections, and Fleurette Karadontis, niece of Elise and president of the foundation.
‘I spent months at a time with Basil and Elise when I was a child,’ says Fleurette. ‘They had no children of their own — they looked on the paintings as their children. The works were a genuine presence in their lives, a constant part of the conversation. Basil might suddenly say: “Look there, I never realised that the colour of the shirt in that painting is the same as the wall behind that still life.” Or he would look at some Cubist painting and ask: “How many people do you see in it, because I think there are three.”
‘Basil and Elise loved showing off their art and their country. I believe that we have done what they wanted, which was to share these works’ — Fleurette Karadontis
Did either of them have a favourite painting? ‘My aunt’s favourite was the El Greco, without a doubt. I found that work a bit frightening. I couldn’t go into the living room at night, because he freaked me out. I once said to her: “How can you stand feeling him behind you?” And she said: “He protects me.’’
The El Greco painting is now the first work you see as you enter the main floor of the museum. It is a mesmeric face of Christ on a rich cloth of gold — a reference both to the Catholic legend of Veronica and to the Orthodox tradition of the veil of Edessa. It is, in other words, a devotional icon (albeit an unusually naturalistic one), which is surely what Elise saw in it and loved about it.
Marie Koutsomallis says that the El Greco posed a curatorial problem in that it is the only Renaissance work in a room of modern art. ‘But it was also one of the first things Basil bought,’ she says, ‘so it marks the starting point of his collection. More than that, it refers to his Greekness and his own story. El Greco, after all, left his homeland to make his name in a foreign land.’
Close by the El Greco, and perfectly at ease in its company, are the modern treasures of the collection, among them some marvellous Van Goghs. One is a view of the flame-like trees at Alyscamps, a picture that Vincent painted standing back-to-back with Gauguin. Fleurette thinks this work might have been Basil’s favourite.
Then there is a still life with a coffee pot and crockery, painted soon after the move to Arles. ‘These are pretty much all his worldly possessions at that time,’ says Marie, ‘so they are placed in the centre of the composition like jewels on baize.’
Although each floor of the museum is quite small, the pictures have plenty of air. ‘We want people to be able to stand in front of the paintings, to stay as long as they need,’ says Marie. And, sure enough, there is room to take in the entirety of a huge and rather fierce Picasso nude known as Femme nue aux bras levés. ‘It was painted straight after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,’ notes Marie. ‘Picasso was very confident of what he was doing at this moment.’
Upstairs, the post-war and contemporary art has the same necessary breathing space. There is a brooding black Soulages, looking like the flattened, fossilised trunk of some primordial tree, and an anguished triptych of self-portraits by Francis Bacon painted soon after the death of his lover George Dyer. These and other works in the post-war collection give off such emotional power that you are glad to be able to stand back from their radioactive glow.
It all amounts to a fine museum — the only one in Greece, incidentally, where most of these artists can be seen at all. The foundation has financed the restoration of the square outside, as a gift, says Kyriakos, to the city.
But is it a matter of regret that the collection is not in a space designed by Pei, as the Goulandrises intended? ‘I am sad that we don’t have a building designed by the man who made the extraordinary pyramid at the Louvre,’ says Kyriakos wistfully. ‘But we have transformed this building, and I am proud that we have created something that meets the highest museological standards.’
Fleurette adds: ‘It would have been wonderful to have the Pei building — but we have moved on. I have a letter written in 1971 in which Basil and Elise discuss giving the collection to the National Gallery. That plan didn’t work out, but even then they were thinking about how to make the collection available, because they loved showing off their art and their country. I believe that we have done what they wanted, which was to share these works.’
So the memory of Basil and Elise Goulandris is being honoured through the collection they loved. But the museum is not intended to be a monument to its founders. Its democratic, open-handed purpose is to celebrate art and the joy art gives.
‘I would love this to become a place where people come with their families on a rainy Sunday,’ says Fleurette. ‘Here in Greece, after the economic crises we have gone through, people do not travel so much. And why should they have to travel to see wonderful art? I am so happy that the collection is in this place. I feel it has come home.’