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Among those meeting the London flight at Larnaca airport late last month was a smartly dressed man, neither young nor old, holding a laminated sign that read in English: “Please put me back into employment.”
A year on from Cyprus’s banking crisis, 17 per cent of the population are out of work, and the economy continues to shrink. It felt a little wrong, then, that I had flown to the capital Nicosia for a dinner to celebrate the opening of the AG Leventis Gallery, built at a cost of £21m according to its British architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. It houses some 800 works from the art collection of Anastasios Leventis, the late Cypriot entrepreneur and philanthropist.
It isn’t hard to see where the money has been spent: the glittering limestone-clad walls; the Douglas fir floors; the huge Michael Anastassiades light sculpture by the entrance; the mature olive trees on its terraces; and the delicate, perforated aluminium screens, their leafy pattern based on William Morris’s willow bough print, that filter the sunlight on the façade. Its design is environmentally exemplary and innovative. I’d never before seen “vertical drawers”, screens that protect delicate works from daylight and which draw back as you approach, thanks to motion sensors.
And what a collection it houses. The standout room is packed with impressionists and post-impressionists: Monet, Pissarro, Utrillo, Signac, Sisley, Dufy, an enchanting Chagall, an exquisite Bonnard, three Renoirs . . . But I was yet more drawn by the rest. The first-floor exhibition begins with a meticulous reconstruction of the library in the apartment on Paris’s Avenue Foch, where Leventis lived from 1960 until his death in 1978, all 18th-century carved wood panelling, Louis XV fauteuils and empire-style furniture, establishing that his taste was essentially French. His art collection spans 400 years – with works by El Greco, Titian (or at least his studio), Rubens, Boucher, Gainsborough, Canaletto, Guardi and numerous less familiar names.
In making public what was amassed as a very private collection, the curators have gone to great lengths to have everything expertly vetted and attributed. Inevitably, some works have been found to be copies. Others, however, have turned out to be more important that had been assumed.
An image of the young Christ once attributed to the circle of the Flemish master Quentin Matsys is actually a rare work of the Cuzco School, a group of artists active in 16th-century Peru. An enchanting rococo painting of two aristocratic women communing with commedia dell’arte actors by Jean-Baptiste Oudry is, in fact, the original, not, as previously thought, one of a dozen or so copies. The jury is still out on the status of Leventis’s version of Caravaggio’s “Cardsharps”.
The upper floor is devoted to a substantial and still-growing collection of Greek art. It ranges from delicately rendered classical landscapes and almost orientalist confections, made with the souvenir-hungry grand tourists of the 18th and 19th centuries in mind, to 20th-century works by way of a substantial body of seascapes, notably by Constantin Volonakis. “You can tell the health of the Greek shipping industry from the prices his works are fetching,” says curator Myrto Hatzaki, “because every Greek shipowner wants one in his office.”
There are also two rooms devoted to 20th-century Cypriot painting, much of it political and poignant, notably the two immense murals by Adamantios Diamantis. The latter of the two, made three years after the Turkish invasion of 1974 and subsequent partition of the island, is called “Agonies Before and After”, which says it all.
This was a painful time for Leventis. Petra, his home village in the rural north, was occupied by Turkish troops, so the church and all he had established there were lost to his family. He, however, had left in his youth for France, then west Africa, settling in Nigeria, where he worked as a trader, exporting palm oil and importing manufactured goods from Europe. By the time of his death, the company he had founded was one of the largest employers in the country and poised to expand globally.
Nicosia remains divided. The Leventis Gallery stands less than 500m from the Green Line that divides Greek-speaking Cyprus from the Turkish north, within earshot of the latter’s muezzins. Indeed, there are views from some of its rooms directly into the courtyard of the military facility next door.
But thanks to this new gallery and a clutch of others, notably the archaeological museum and the longer-established and imaginatively curated Leventis Municipal Museum of Nicosia, the city has become an engaging place to visit. And as long as you carry your passport, you can walk into the older-seeming Turkish-controlled part of the star-shaped Venetian-walled old town. While on the more dynamic Greek side, Zaha Hadid has planned the area around Eleftheria Square (though work has stalled), and there’s an arresting new 16-storey tower by French architect Jean Nouvel.
For, as the Cypriot EU commissioner for education and culture Androulla Vassiliou said, quoting Einstein, at the gallery opening: “Creativity is contagious.” It’s what drives innovation and, by extension, employment, she added. Nicosia’s mayor Constantinos Yiorkadjis suggested the gallery would bring Cyprus closer to “the larger European continent by highlighting the relationship between [their] artistic traditions”. But perhaps the pithiest endorsement came, between songs, from the Nicosia-born musician Alkinoos Ioannidis. “It will belong to every citizen of this island,” he said. “That’s why it’s important.”
I thought of the dignified man with his desperate sign at the airport. Was an art gallery the answer, even one as good as this? Not literally, obviously; what he needs is a salary. But the gallery, its restaurant and shop have created several dozen jobs – its director, Loukia Loizou Hadjigraviel, was at pains to include “the workers, guards and cleaners” in her vote of thanks. It is a handsome building, filled with exceptional art, a place of rigorous international scholarship, of contemplation and, at least for those who can afford the €2 entrance fee, potentially of inspiration too.
Claire Wrathall was a guest of the Leventis Foundation, leventisgallery.org