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  • Writer's pictureStella Sevastopoulos, MA

A Brief History of Athen’s Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation

What is the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation?

The Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation is One of the world’s greatest private collections of modern and contemporary art, which includes work by Picasso and Pollock.

Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation

Tolisr, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation History

The art collection of Basil and Elise Goulandris includes some of the best examples of modern and contemporary art in the world, and comprises 800 works. Most are paintings and sculptures, though the collection also includes unique pieces of furniture and rare objets d’art. The museum changes its exhibition, drawn from its permanent collection, every year.

Basil and Elise were a shipping couple who were immensely passionate about art. They had dreamt of creating a home for their collection in Athens, and in 1992 Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis gave their mooted museum the green light. It took 27 years, however, and many obstacles both tangible and abstract, for the dream to reach fruition. The eleven-storey building which now houses the museum of the Basil and Elise Foundation was finally inaugurated in 2019 by Konstantinos Mitsotakis’s son, Kyriakos (a few months after he had become Prime Minister). Sadly, neither Basil nor Elise Goulandris got to see the finished state-of-the-art museum, as they passed away in 1994 and 2000 respectively.

The value of the collection is estimated at around $3 billion, and adds to Athens something that was missing: a great collection of art by internationally-renowned masters of modernism and postmodernism. Basil and Elise had also created the first Museum of Contemporary Art in Greece, back in 1979 on Andros, Basil’s ancestral island home.

At the museum, you’ll encounter prime examples of some of the most pioneering moments in the history of western art: from Picasso’s cubism to Van Gogh’s expressionism, Pollock’s abstract expressionism, and Francis Bacon’s tortured perspective on the human form. Among them the Greek masters hold their own, and provide some excellent demonstrations of their own take on modernism and postmodernism: from Constantinos Parthenis and Yannis Tsarouchis, to Yannis Moralis and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. Contemporary artists from Greece are represented too, such as Giorgos Rorris, Maria Philopoulou, Tassos Mantzavinos, and Sotiris Sorongas.

The first work that the famed couple had bought, in 1956, was The Veil of Saint Veronica by one Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known by his nickname El Greco (The Greek). El Greco was born in Crete in the mid-16th century, and later moved to Venice, Rome and then to Spain’s Toledo, where he passed away in 1614. Along the way he developed a unique style, influenced by Mannerism and the Venetian Renaissance, but also by post-Byzantine art. His elongated figures and faces had some scientists wondering whether his astigmatism was to blame, but the theory was later considered a (perhaps rather philistine) fallacy. One only has to look at Byzantine icons to see that there too, gaunt faces and elongated bodies are central to a governing and inspired aesthetic. One could go as far as to say that El Greco is indeed the most famous artist of Greek origins, such is the influence he has exerted on generations of artists up to this day.

Basil and Elise are themselves immortalised in their collection. Another notable artist featured in the collection is Marc Chagall, who also became a friend of the couple. His portrait of Elise places her in one of his whimsical dream landscapes, drawn seemingly from folklore, reflecting the artist’s mix of Belorussian and European Jewish traditions. Greek contemporary artist Rorris’s depiction of the couple on the other hand, decides to portray a modern couple in a self-avowedly traditional way: Elise is all beauty and charm, which contrasts effectively with the savvy shipping magnate Basil, standing next to her with exaggerated, pillar-like strength. Rorris, who is arguably Greece’s finest living contemporary portrait artist, was commissioned by the Foundation in 2017 to paint this portrait of the couple. In a sense he was the obvious choice, since they had supported his studies and career from early on. Through their foundation, the Goulandrises also created a special bond with the nation.

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