Enigmatic Faces: The Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens

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Museum of Cycladic Art, Μουσείο Κυκλαδικής Τέχνης, Athens, Greece

There were so many museums in Athens that I was really looking forward to visiting, but funnily enough, the Museum of Cycladic Art was one that I was particularly keen on.  We’d passed it in the taxi on our way into the city when we arrived from the airport, and it looked like a promisingly large building that promised much.

I’m not saying that the museum wasn’t great – I’m just saying that its display space was considerably smaller than I had expected.

But quality not quantity is what’s key here, and the quality is incredible.   But then I feel like you can say that about literally every museum in Athens.  Talk about being spoilt!

The size of the collection makes more sense when you discover that the museum was founded to house a personal collection – that of Nicholas and Dolly Goulandris.  They had excellent taste.  They collected antiquities from the 1960s and had a particular interest in the early art of the Cyclades.  The museum opened in 1986 and has since become a centre for studying and promoting the cultures of the Aegean and Cyprus.

Daily Life in Antiquity

You start the journey on the 4th floor, which looks at Daily Life in Antiquity.  I really liked the overview of ancient Greek life and the way it contextualises the objects by placing them strategically against large photographs so that the figures look like they’re using them.  This is a simple, but effective way of showing off the objects, and I’m surprised I haven’t see this done before.  All the graphics and the films was complimentary, aesthetically consistent with the Greek world, and generally pretty awesome.

The awesomeness wasn’t just felt by us Chickpeas: the gallery had a school group in, so we had to tiptoe past them as they sat in riveted silence, listening to an obviously excellent museum guide telling them about their heritage.  Seeing their little faces concentrating on the speaker was actually a highlight of the trip – it’s so great to see children really engaged with history and it makes a change from the glazed eyes you see prowling round, say, the British Museum.

Ancient Greek Art: A History in Images

On the 2nd floor is the chronological display looking at artefacts of the Greek world.  It gives you a good overview of what to expect from Greek art, so if you’re after a compact experience, this may be the place to start your museum visiting in Athens.

Cypriot Art

The collection of Cypriot art on display comes from the collection of Thanos N Zintilis.  Objects from the Chalcolithic period onwards gives you a great overview of the art produced on the island throughout the centuries – and it contributed to the reason for taking a summer holiday in Cyprus this year!  Some of the art is really distinctive and has such a charm that it is fun to explore.  And having just one country’s work presented chronologically and thematically really allowed you to immerse yourself in it and come away with an understanding of the island’s specific aesthetic and cultural identity.

There is also a decent spread of random Greek objects from the Hellenistic world.  As a fan of Tanagra figures, I was pleased to see a few exceptional examples on show.

Cycladic Art

Naturally if you visit the Museum of Cycladic Art, you expect the Cycladic art to be pretty impressive.   The Cycladic island culture really got going in the 3rd millennium BC, and created a truly unique artistic tradition which has influenced modern artists like Amadeo Modigliani and Henry Moore.  These 20th/21st century folk fixate on the abstract quality of the female figures, standing on tippy-toe, arms crossed across the stomach, but the truth is that these pure white marble figures were once painted; you can even see traces of the painted-in features on some of the faces.

So In Summary

The collection of the museum is just first class.  The curating is first class.  The whole building is a classy affair.  Literally, what else can I say?  If you have the vaguest interest in the culture of the country you’re visiting, you should spend a few hours in this excellent museum.

Further Information

In keeping with the general vibe of the museum, they have an excellent website which has articles in English about various subject matters relating to the collection: www.cycladic.gr.  It’s definitely worth exploring if you’re interested in the art and history of the periods covered at the museum.

The museum regularly holds exhibitions – many of which have nothing directly to do with the collection.  When I visited, they had a decent exhibition on “Crete. Emerging cities: Aptera ― Eleutherna ― Knossos. Three ancient cities revived”.  Photos weren’t allowed, so you can see some images from this on their own website: www.cycladic.gr

The museum gift shop is posh, with lots of expensive items, including reproduction Cycladic figures.

How To Get There

Athens’ transport is pretty good, and the information is available in English.  This website gives the various travel options, depending on which form you want to use: www.thisisathens.org


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