Vogue’s Hamish Bowles Visits the Must-See Art Museums of Athens
This year I sandwiched a blissful break on a remote Greek island in between trips to Athens—a city that, although beleaguered by the country’s economic travails, remains a hotbed of creative activity and cultural excitement.
As ever, it is the pluperfect place in which to explore millennia of creative achievement. My first stop was the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and its embarrassment of treasures, along with the Acropolis Museum (with a surprising and stirring exhibition, “εmotions”). I also explored the fascinating Byzantine and Christian Museum for the first time—and found it to be still further testament to Greece’s many layerings of cultural influences.
Hidden away in the basement galleries, I might almost have missed the Techni Group exhibition, a tribute to the centenary of the group show of artists led by Nikolaos Lytras and his friends (among whom I particularly admired the work of Pavlos Mathiopoulos, Konstantinos Parthenis, and Lykourgos Kogevinas) that established modernism in Greece under the patronage of the visionary prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Thank goodness I managed to see it, because the work of the artists—evoking by turns the fashionable swagger portraits of Boldini and Sargent, the theatrical drama of Bakst, and the charm of the plein air painters of late-19th-century France—comes together as a powerful statement for a new national identity through art.
Onward to the Benaki Museum—one of my favorite museums not only in Athens but in the world. After my first visit a decade or so ago, I was so inspired by its beautifully displayed collections of vernacular Greek costumes (among many other treasures that span the millennia) that I raced to Paris to tell John Galliano about it. He sent a posse from his design team to research—and subsequently based one of his eponymous collections on the pieces (think: stiff wool dirndl skirts and rich embroideries). The museum has recently expanded its displays, so there are even more treasures to admire in its intimate rooms, and on this latest visit I was also lucky to catch the exhibition “Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor: Charmed Lives in Greece,” which is centered around the friendship of the artists John Craxton and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, whose spiky, highly colored works exemplify mid-century style, and the brilliant travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who met one another in the 1940s after the war and were drawn together not least by their love of Greece.
The show, elegantly curated by Evita Arapoglou, Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith, Ian Collins, and Ioanna Moraiti (and in collaboration with the Leventis Gallery and the Craxton Estate), brings together not only their work but also images of the remarkable houses that they created: Nikos and Barbara Hadjikyriakos-Ghika’s Baroque colonial finca on Corfu and Neoclassical mansion on Hydra; the ineffably stylish stone house that Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor built above the craggy coastline of Kardamyli in their beloved Mani region of mainland Greece; and Craxton’s modest fisherman’s house on the Venetian harbor of Chania in Crete. Video—along with still images of these enduringly inspiring places and interviews with friends of the late artists—brought their worlds of fecund imagination brilliantly to life and created a moving tribute.
Thence to the truly astonishing Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, the inspiring new home to the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. Difficult as it is to imagine without the photographic evidence, the original site was apparently grim—a flat expanse of wasteland and concrete latterly used as parking for several of the stadiums built for the 2004 Athens Olympics and hemmed in by motorways that blocked the view of the Bay of Phalerum and the sea beyond. With a flourish of his pen and a giant bound of his imagination, master architect Renzo Piano envisaged the plot as a verdantly planted hill rising in a gentle slope the length of the site, and at its 33-meter peak it now soars far above the choking Athenian traffic below and offers heart-stopping views not only of the Aegean waters but a panorama of the city itself, along with its famed hills and the Parthenon. Beneath the slope, Piano placed the National Library of Greece and a sprawling, soaring cultural complex of performance and concert, dance, and operatic rehearsal spaces to house the Greek National Opera. (The ensemble that Piano has planned is meant to evoke the cultural meeting place of an ancient Greek agora.) The heart of the opera house is the 1,400-seat Stavros Niarchos Hall. The theater’s cherrywood and its scarlet fabrics evoke a classic 19th-century theater, but its state-of-the-art acoustics and Platinum LEED rating, along with Susumu Shingu’s mobile (which rises before performances much like the Swarovski Sputnik chandeliers at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Opera), place it firmly in the 21st century.
Social spaces and terraces on the upper floors, meanwhile, provide breathtaking panoramic views of the sprawling city itself and of the newly created park, the work of landscape architect Deborah Nevins, whose spectacular plantings of Mediterranean cypress, olive, almond, and pomegranate trees and stalwart maquis vegetation—including the sage, laurel, and rosemary that give the Greek islands and mainland landscapes their unique fragrance—have created a throbbing green heart in the city. I cannot wait to see a performance here.