“Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting, people have to understand,” Pablo Picasso once said.
When we are children, we first perceive the world through our senses. First come images, and then words. I studied art history because, even now that I can use words, I continue to think in images. When you first visit the new museum of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, which was inaugurated by Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos Tuesday, don’t seek explanations. Surrender yourself to everything that you feel, observing the museum inside and out, on the edge of the central Athens neighborhood of Pangrati next to the Panathenaic Stadium.
In July, when Kathimerini photographer Vangelis Zavos shot the first photos of the museum, there was only the architecture to supply the first pieces of a puzzle that was 30 years in the making. At first there was just the white marble and the natural curves of the interior staircase creating a sense of flow.
The sculptures then followed, which appear unexpectedly in every alcove of the 11 floors of the new museum, keeping the visitor on their toes from their very first steps into this adventure that the foundation’s president, Fleurette Karadonti, has dubbed “loving and discovering art.”
In the basement there is still only a piano, shrouded in a dark green velvet cover, but it is not a modern art installation. It is simply a part of the space where future traveling exhibitions will be hosted at the museum, the first of which has been scheduled for autumn 2020.
It was still September when I got a sneak preview of the museum, and the first thing I saw was the iconic portrait of Elise Goulandris painted by Marc Chagall in 1969. Approaching, I realized that Elise is not alone in the painting. The faint outline of her husband Basil hovers over her, with the artist capturing the essence of a discreet relationship, that of a couple together in life and in art.
I then noticed the colors visible outside the window, a rectangle of orange from a shop across the road, the deep green of the surrounding awnings, the ocher of the Church of Aghios Spyridonas next door, and it all reminded me of color as used by Cezanne, color as structure.
Like the foreshadowing in Homer’s epics, all of that prepared me for what I was to see on the next floor.
A collection full of emotion
Nothing can prepare you for the moment that you see El Greco’s “Veil of Saint Veronica,” the first artwork purchased by Elise and Basil Goulandris in 1956.
“This is a personal collection. The works they chose, they lived them; they enjoyed them in their daily lives; they discussed them with their friends and they constantly explored the dialogue between the works every time they repositioned them,” said Maria Koutsomalli, head of collections at the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation.
For me, it is a collection filled with emotion, with subtle connections that lead from El Greco’s ascetic figure of Christ to the ascetic life of Van Gogh and his painting “Still Life with Coffee Pot,” which depicts everything the painter owned when he moved to Arles alone, without even a bed to sleep in.
On my first tour, some days before the official opening on October 1, the labels for the paintings had yet to be installed, but I immediately recognized the small self-portrait of Cezanne, “the father of us all,” as Picasso said, and the father of this collection, as it was the second and most important work that was purchased.
Cezanne’s gaze led me across the hall, to Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral in the Morning (Pink Dominant),” with its pastel shades reflecting those of the adjacent work, “Olive Picking” by Van Gogh.
The youthful lightness of Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” converses with the optimistic surrealism of “The Grasshopper” by Joan Miro and Picasso’s 1905 gouache “Boy with Bouquet.” The sweet young man looked into my eyes as if seeking my approval. “Nude Woman with Raised Arms,” the second Picasso work in the collection which dates to 1907, looked as if she couldn’t care less.
As I kept walking I realized that painting had now become geometry. And its mask appeared to be telling me, “I am like this and I don’t care if you think I am beautiful or not.” The expressive sculptures of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, another couple that joined forces in life and art, etched the final painting next to them into my memory all the more deeply – “Le Solitaire” by Georges Braque. It is 1942 and the woman in the painting is drinking wine and turning over the cards, waiting to find out whether her lover will return from the Second World War.
WWII had ended by the time I reached the next floor. The desire for a new beginning is evident in Lichtenstein’s “Sunrise.” Leger avenges the dead with intense colors, lyricism coexisting with abstraction. Pollock paints energetically over the panel of a baseball board game, Klee and Hundertwasser try to understand the “human head,” and the existentialism in the Giacometti sculptures evinces “a sensitive humanity that stands and persists, despite the fact that it can fall at any moment,” as Koutsomalli says. People improvise, such as Matisse in the series that he created in the medium of cut paper collage when he was seriously ill.
On the same floor the walls are also filled with sketches on paper by artists such as Modigliani and de Chirico, sketches that ended up surviving the test of time. Here Anselm Kiefer and Francis Bacon reminded me how vulnerable man is and how painful life can be, but love came to save the day once more, and I paused to take in the sculptures of the avant-garde couple Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, as well as Elise and Basil Goulandris’ fine collection of 18th century French furniture and objets d’art which adorned their homes.
The Greek floor
On the next two floors one finds early works by Konstantinos Parthenis, cubist paintings by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, and the portrait of Giorgos Seferis by Thanasis Makris, which reminds the visitor that the Greek poet once lived on Agras Street, just a block away.
There is the island of Hydra as depicted by Alexis Veroukas and Panagiotis Tetsis, “Anodos” by Opy Zouni, Yannis Tsarouchis’ “Sailor Sitting at the Table,” Yannis Moralis’ “Erotic” and works by Yannis Gaitis, Pavlos Samios, Costas Tsoclis, Sophia Vari, Alekos Fassianos, Dimitris Mytaras and Giorgos Bouzianis. They are all there, and, before I knew it, I had reached the end of my tour, at another portrait of Elise and Basil Goulandris, this time by George Rorris.
Five generations of artists, and so many generations of people who will look upon their work for the first time.
“Art does not divide, art unites,” the director of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, Kyriakos Koutsomallis, said at a press conference shortly before the new museum was to open its doors to the public Wednesday. And that is its most important role.
Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation, 13 Eratosthenous, Pangrati, tel 210.725.2895, www.goulandris.gr
This article was first published in Greek in Kathimerini’s K magazine on 29/09/2019.