It was seven years ago when three people first set out to turn Anastasios Leventis' wish into reality and bring his extensive art collection under one roof in Cyprus after his death.
Now ready to open its doors to the general public on March 25, the state of the art Leventis Gallery in the heart of Nicosia only begins to represent the journey of the €20 million project which aspires to celebrate European art and its history.
One of the key figures behind the project is gallery director Loukia Loizou Hadjigavriel, who was involved in the challenging task of processing Leventis' private collection of 800 paintings, drawings, watercolours and objets d'art, an endeavour which in some cases shed light of unknown aspects of art history.
"It was a uni-que experience because I studied history of art, but for the past 28 to 30 years I was working on the history of Nicosia. I have now learnt the history of art all over again and I still have so much to learn," said Hadjigavriel as she began to reveal the immensity of the project at hand.
Divided into three sections, the gallery exhibits Leventis' collection based on where the collection was initially kept. "One of these we called the collection of Paris, which was the one he gathered from 1950 until his death and which he kept in his flat in Paris. There is the Greek selection which he bought 1973 and which he kept in his home in Athens, and the third is the collection of first generation Cyprus painters which was created by the Leventis Foundation, in Nicosia," explained Hadjigavriel.
Now housed in a custom-built, brand new building that was designed by London and Bath based architectural firm Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios after an international architectural competition, the gallery is seeking to fulfil the underlying role of any museum, that of education.
"When we say educational, we don't only mean classes, examinations and results but also being able to walk into a space and upon leaving, remember that you met some painters, you compared schools of thought, you compared countries, you found out how painting developed in each country and so on," continued Hadjigavriel.
And it's perhaps the story behind creating this educational locale that attests so much to the grandeur of art's history and the importance of creating spaces where citizens can get to know not only about art, but the facts about painters and their works which make them all the more inspiring.
An example of this, as narrated by Hadjigavriel, is the discovery of a painting art historians thought was 'missing', but which was found in Leventis' collection.
"We have a painting in the collection which art historians knew existed but didn't know who had it. When we brought in a specialist on Canaletto, it was only then identified that this painting was in the Leventis collection," Hadjigavriel tells the paper.
And this isn't the only occasion where Hadjigavriel attested to filling in the gaps of art history. "We have many stories like this, which we now know and move on to the next."
The three collections, found on the first three floors of the building and accommodated with a shop and restaurant, will be available to the public through interactive guided tours which will be assisted with digital labels, where the visitor uses tablets to obtain more information about the work, the artists, the biography, other works, research carried on the artist and so on. Complementing these, will be tablet games for children located in designated areas where memory games, puzzles and colouring games revolving around the works will be available.
As part of assisting visitors, specific educational programmes for all ages are scheduled to take place in the near future, beginning with a guided programme for families.
Here, families will be able to come to the gallery and through special themed informational sheets and games, will be assisted as they take a tour of the space. Every first Wednesday of the month, lectures will be organised on the history of art with art historians and collaborators from Cyprus or abroad, as well as periodic exhibitions for which co-operation with museums in order to bring works and collections here have already begun.
Looking further ahead, programmes for secondary education students, primary schools and university students which will be incorporated into their academic curriculum are also being envisioned.
Within an environment in which there are works from the 16th century to the middle of the 20th century, "universities which teach history of art will have the opportunity to bring their students here and, for example, learn about the Renaissance. Students can come and have a look at paintings, still life, get to know Cyprus painters, Impressionists etc," says Hadjigavriel.
Predominantly the whole collection features paintings. Specifically, the Greek collection, which features names such as Konstantinos Volanakis, Konstantinos Parthenis, as well as the Cyprus one are solely devoted to painting. The Cyprus collection features works only from first generation Cyprus artists (painters who studied in fine art schools aboard) up until 1960 when the Republic of Cyprus was founded.
And as Hadjigavriel explains, Adamantios Diamantis' 17 metre painting made up of 11 canvases and entitled "The World of Cyprus" makes the theme of the collection, where coinciding works of other artists revolve around the title in question.
Also represented are other big names such as Kanthos, Kissonergis, Oikonomou, Loukia Nicolaidou to name a few. After all, says Hadjigavriel, "the first generation is more traditional, closer to the presentation of 'The World of Cyprus'."
The Paris collection features works of European masters, such as Monet's La Seine a Jeufosse de Vernon, El Greco's St Francis in Ecstasy and Chagall's Les Fiance au bouguet to name a few.
But this collection also features objets d'art and furniture. One highlight is the repatriation of one Leventis' room, as it exactly was in Paris.
"We bought a whole room back, as it stood in Leventis' flat in Paris which shows the environment in which Leventis was living and the environment which hosted the collection. It's a room with a wooden casing from the 18th century with all its furniture. Even the view from the window has been replicated through a photograph from which you see the Eiffel Tower," reveals Hadjigavriel.
The Municipality of Nicosia honours Anastasios G. Leventis
After a municipal council meeting of the Nicosia Municipality last week, it was unanimously agreed to rename the street on which the Leventis Gallery is now situated from Leonidou street to Anastasios G. Leventis.
The municipal council’s decision was based on the significant and remarkable offering of the late Anastasios Leventis, but also of the AG Leventis Foundation towards art and culture, not only locally, but also in the wider Greek area, Europe and the rest of the world.
“The decision of the AG Leventis Foundation to implement -investing over €20 million in Nicosia-
the vision of Anastasios Leventis for Cyprus to obtain a European Art Gallery, is a special honour for the municipality of the capital,” it said in a statement.
And it added: “The Gallery is unique not only locally, but also in the wider Eastern Mediterranean and is housed in a modern, eco-building in the heart of Nicosia.”
The municipal council considered that the change of the name of the street was the least token of honour and gratitude they could give.