Athens is Europes oldest city, and it is no surprise that its art museums are dominated by its ancient past. More surprising perhaps is its enduring influence on modern masters. It is hardly imaginable, for example, that 4,000 years separate a Neolithic figurine from the Cyclades from a nude by Modigliani. While showcasing its early culture, Athens is also looking to the future, with the renovation and extension of one major art museum and the birth of another.
Agreat starting point is the Acropolis Museum, which like the Acropolis itself, has had a turbulent history stretching back as far as 1863. After two previous locations proved incapable of meeting visitor demand, a site finally became available in the shadow of the famed citadel, and a splendid, modern museum, like a sleek take on the Parthenon, opened in 2009 to show the surviving artefacts.
Leading up to the first main exhibition floor, a sloping, glass-floored ramp gives visitors a look down into the archaeological excavation under the building. It’s actually called the Gallery of the Slopes, alluding to the ascent to the Acropolis (high city), and includes items which were found on its slopes.
The multi-floor museum goes on to reveal an array of works, many of which became prototypes for art in subsequent periods right up to today. They include friezes, statues, scenes from myths and legendary battles and victories, columns, vessels, pediments, figurines, objects from everyday life and even experimental renderings of fabrics and clothes.
Near the foot of the Acropolis, the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum is housed in what was the original workshop of the Athens-born jewellery designer (1920-2013). Lalaounis’s work was inspired by ancient Greece and is now sold in boutiques around the world. He is the only jeweller ever to be inducted into France’s Académie des Beaux- Arts. The museum’s permanent collection includes over 4,000 pieces of jewellery and ‘micro-sculptures’ from over 50 collections designed between 1940 and 2000, ranging from reproductions of antiquities to minimalist, modern pieces. There are also temporary exhibitions and demonstrations on the ancient art of goldsmithing.
On Vasilissis Sofias Avenue east of the city centre are three outstanding private museums in close proximity of one another.
Describing itself as ‘the museum of Greek civilisation in all its manifestations’ the Benaki Museum was the first privately owned museum in Greece, combining Hellenic culture with collections of Islamic art and Chinese pottery and with a modern annex showing contemporary work.
Housed in a 19th century villa, the Greek collection, comprising some 40,000 items and considered one of the most important of its kind in the world, ranges from antiquity to the foundation of the modern Greek state. It includes figurines, amphoras, jewellery, statues, fabrics, funeral objects, religious icons, costumes, metalwork, wood carvings and shrines. The collection also comprises almost 6,000 paintings and drawings, mainly by 17th to 19th century European artists, as well as works by Greek artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Contemporary art is displayed in a block-long annex in a regeneration area to the east of the city centre on Pireos Avenue, where a former 1960s car showroom has been transformed into a modern museum. The red marble monolith with slits for windows has a soaring central atrium surrounded by huge, moveable blinds and a stainless steel mesh, with ramps connecting 3,000 square metres of display space. Past exhibitions have included work by Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Hockney, Ansel Adams, Damien Hirst, El Greco and Tony Cragg.
Now in its twentieth year, the Museum of Cycladic Art is dedicated to the ancient cultures of the Aegean and Cyprus, with special emphasis on art originating from the Cyclades, a scatter of islands southeast of the Greek mainland, of which it has the world’s largest collection. The Cycladic culture flourished between 3,200 and 2,000 BC, when gifted craftsmen used the island’s abundant mineral resources, such as obsidian, emery, copper, silver and marble, to produce exquisite objects. Their influence is seen in 20th century work by the likes of Brancusi, Picasso, Modigliani and Henry Moore, who said: “I love and admire Cycladic sculpture. It has such great elemental simplicity.” The collection comprises figurines, vessels, jewellery, glasswork, coins, seals, pottery and reliefs.
The museum also has a contemporary art exhibition programme showcasing 21st century artists. Currently showing is Ai Weiwei at Cycladic (until Oct 30), the Chinese artist’s first show in Greece, which features 25 existing works alongside new work made in response to the museum’s permanent collection. The exhibition explores his use of materials often associated with antiquity, such as marble, as well as the craftsmanship and traditional techniques of wood.
The Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Art and Music has two exhibition floors for special exhibitions (Artmag was lucky enough to catch Picasso and Cocteau: Pioneers of Modernism), while another floor houses the permanent collection by the modern Greek painter Spyros Papaloukas.
The only museum of contemporary European painting in Greece, the Frissiras Museum is a lovely private gallery in a quiet side street a few blocks from the central Syntagma Square. Housed in two elegant, conjoined, neoclassical buildings from around 1850, the collection is shown over several floors joined by an Escher-like stairway and consists of some 4,000 works by Greek and European artists dating from the second half of the 20th century. The rotating display is complemented by special exhibitions, which have included Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud as well as new Greek talent.
Perhaps the most significant contribution ancient Athens made to art is in sculpture, which evolved during the city state’s Golden Age of the fifth century BC into what we might call art. Athenian sculptors such as Myron and Phedias were the first to master naturallooking flesh and muscle, enabling more expressive works. From the Romans to the Victorians, Greek sculpture was widely imitated and today marble copies (many bronze originals having been melted down) can be seen in museums throughout Europe.
Currently clad in scaffolding, the National Gallery-Alexander Soutzos Museum plans to expand its permanent collection from 480 to 800 works along with one exhibition every year dedicated to one of the world’s great museums, such as Madrid’s Reina Sofia. The expansion will result in the doubling of exhibition space with a glass facade allowing visitors views of the conical Lycabettus Hill, while passersby will be able to see the gallery’s zig-zagging stairway. Especially known for its collection of El Greco masterpieces, the museum has showcased Cezanne and Picasso, among others, in past exhibitions.
When it is opened in a renovated former brewery, the National Museum of Contemporary Art will show its sizeable collection of international contemporary artworks spread over five floors, including recent additions acquired at London’s Frieze Art Fair. One of the highlights of a transformed art and culture district which also includes the Acropolis Museum, the Onassis Cultural Centre and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, the museum’s roof garden will host open-air exhibitions and offer expansive views of the city.
Museum shops in Athens are particularly good places to pick up a quality souvenir for yourself or the art-lover in your life. Places like the Benaki Museum, the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum and the Acropolis Museum sell high quality replicas of their exhibits, often by craftmakers using traditional techniques. These include fabrics woven by textile makers on a hand-loom, icons by painters using the same materials as their Byzantine predecessors, such as egg tempura, natural earth pigments and gold leaf, as well as items by contemporary designers inspired by museum exhibits.
WHERE TO STAY
Built in the early 1960s, the Hilton Athens was for years the city’s only five-star hotel, Recently renovated, it has hosted countless famous guests, from Hollywood royalty to actual royalty. A city landmark (even the neighbourhood, officially called Ilissia, is commonly referred to as ‘Heeltone’), it stands opposite the National Gallery and within walking distance of the Benaki Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art and the Theocharakis Foundation. Premier Traveler magazine has named the Galaxy Bar, with its spectacular views looking right down Vasilissis Sofias Avenue to the Acropolis, one of the world’s top ten rooftop bars. Across the street stands ‘Dromeas’ (English: Runner), a spectacular, 12-metre tall glass sculpture by Costas Varotsos.
For location it’s hard to beat the Herodion Hotel and its sister hotel the Philippos Hotel, both sporting a tasteful blend of classical and modern décor, minutes from the Acropolis and a block or two from the Acropolis Museum. From the Herodion’s rooftop bar, the Acropolis seems so close you feel you can reach up and touch it.