The spectacular Louvre Abu Dhabi, the emirate’s first museum to open on the much-delayed Saadiyat Island mega-project, opens to the public on Saturday, November 11. An air show, fireworks, as well as a “superb extravaganza” of music-and-light are planned to celebrate Jean Nouvel’s futuristic dome and the Museum of World Civilizations below.
But first there are the official ceremonies to celebrate this cultural partnership between the United Arab Emirates and France. The Louvre Abu Dhabi was on lockdown on November 8 as French President Emmanuel Macron attended its royal inauguration. Far from being a Parisian museum outpost, the $1 billion Louvre Abu Dhabi is the result of an intergovernmental agreement signed in 2007.
Jean-Luc Martinez, President of the Louvre Museum, pointed out during the media preview that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is an Emirate museum. Indeed, no one could mistake the historic building on the tip of Saadiyat Island for a mini-me Musee from the Louvre. The 55-building complex is sheltered by a vast dome 180 meters in diameter which, at 7,500 tonnes, weighs slightly less than the Eiffel Tower.
What is displayed and what is not
Martinez singled out key works during a whirlwind tour of the permanent galleries, which include hundreds of loans from France alongside works from the Louvre Abu Dhabi collection. French curators have advised the Emirates to acquire 235 works so far. Among the newly acquired works are spectacular bronzes, a dragon from China, the head of a king from Benin and, from Moorish Spain or southern Italy, a lion. The lion houses a mechanism that could have meant it could roar, Martinez said proudly in this major acquisition first revealed this week (pricing was not disclosed). Provenance details are missing from the captions for this work and all works on display, and will have to wait for a catalog to appear.
Works from the Louvre Abu Dhabi collection are presented alongside 300 loans from the Louvre and 12 other major French institutions, coordinated by Agence France-Muséums. French institutions range from the Rodin Museum to the Palace of Versailles and will loan works to Louvre Abu Dhabi for the next ten years, while the Louvre has lent its name for the next 30 years under a $525 million deal .
The President of the Louvre made a point of highlighting a prestigious loan which is not French: one of the first sculptures that visitors see is a monumental statue with twin heads from Jordan (around 6500 BC) on loan from its antiquities department.
At the press conference, Martinez said the museum is the most ambitious of the early 21st century. He hoped it would be “an antidote to the poison of hatred and barbarism”, referring to attacks on cultural heritage in Mali, Syria and Iraq. This was picked up by Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, who is in charge of the project. He said the museum aimed to “spread tolerance” and showed how the emirate was a “dynamic, vibrant and multicultural society”.
Architect Jean Nouvel shrugged off references to his “genius” by transforming the tip of what he called the “deserted island” of Saadiyat into a cultural destination. The elephant in the room was when, or even if, the other planned museums would be built. That said, they are listed in publicity material and even Thomas Krens, the former Guggenheim director who hoped a Saadiyat Island satellite would be his swansong, was identified at the press conference.
The vast majority of the island is an empty, sandy site reserved for golf courses, luxury homes and other commercial centers for the time being. But Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Foster + Partners’ Zayed National Museum “have to be built,” said Nouvel. In the meantime, a few works from their collection can be seen in the inaugural installation at Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The delay of the Guggenheim partly explains why the Louvre Abu Dhabi presents contemporary art much more prominently than initially planned. On an exterior wall, artist Jenny Holzer has created three monumental texts in stone. Its limestone reliefs For Louvre Abu Dhabi (2017) are based on a Mesopotamian clay tablet, a 14th-century text by Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, and a page of Montaigne’s writing annotated by the French philosopher.
From the three-part installation by Giuseppe Penone Germination (2017), a bronze tree with angular leaves of mirrors blends best with Nouvel’s architecture. The two ceramics by the Italian artist are exhibited under glass and their impact is thus mitigated. by Rodin Man walking, on a column (1907), which is placed near Holzer’s oversized clay tablet, reminds visitors that it is a Franco-Emirati co-production.
Architecture dominates and animates at the same time
Nouvel’s building does not disappoint as a statement of architectural power rich in Arabic symbolism and at the same time futuristic. The massive, shallow dome dominates and animates the space below. Constructed of eight layers of interlocking steel and aluminum creating a design of over 7,800 “stars”, its intricate geometry provides vital shade for public spaces. Pierced by sunlight during the day, the dome becomes a “constellation” of stars at night.
A “village” of white-walled buildings houses the museum under the dome. There are 23 galleries for the permanent collection, a huge temporary exhibition space the size of a 2,000 square meter football pitch, a children’s museum and a waterside restaurant. The various pavilions are grouped together to create a modern version of an Arabic “medina” that is comfortable to navigate. The complex is also designed to be a social space in the evening. (The museum is open until 8:00 p.m. and until 10:00 p.m. on two late nights.)
The construction of Nouvel in Abu Dhabi confirms its status as a benchmark architect for national museums. The French architect has extended the Reina Sofía in Madrid, designed a national museum in Beijing for China and is working on another for Qatar. (The National Museum of Qatar is not mentioned in Abu Dhabi because the emirate is one of the Gulf countries blocking Qatar along with Saudi Arabia. Qatar rejects the accusation from its neighbors that it supports the terrorists.)
Originally slated to open in 2012, the Louvre Abu Dhabi that visitors will discover could easily have been a hodgepodge of high-profile trophy acquisitions and loans. They are of course on display, including a Mondrian that belonged to Yves Saint Laurent, bought by Abu Dhabi. Another purchase price is that of Bellini Madonna and Child (1480-85). From the Louvre comes from Vinci La Belle Ferronniere. The promotion of Jean-Luc Martinez to the presidency in 2013 within the conservative ranks of the Louvre marked a turning point in the project. With Jean-François Charnier, scientific and cultural director of Agence France-Muséums, they ensured that the inaugural installation of the permanent galleries had style and substance. They eloquently convey great ideas through the thoughtful and often beautiful presentation of objects. It is not a “book on the wall” nor an art museum where the objects are supposed to just “speak for themselves”.
“A museum like no other”
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a museum of juxtapositions and chronology, with a strong emphasis on shared humanity and brotherhood through the ages. In an introductory gallery among cross-cultural comparisons of artifacts are three ancient gold masks from China, Peru and the Middle East. In the gallery on art in the service of power called “the Magnificence of the Court”, the Benin bronzes are juxtaposed with a bronze equestrian statue of King Philip of Spain by Lorenzo Vaccaro (1702-05). An African sculpture from Gabon alongside that of Duchamp Bottle holders in the gallery on Modernity in the 20th century.
It is only in the last gallery of contemporary art that the hanging seems forced and predictable. This space is dominated by Ai Weiwei’s bespoke crystal and steel. flower of light (2016), a riff on the Tower of Tatlin and the Tower of Babel.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is “a museum like no other,” Martinez said. On one level it is a radical revision of the great encyclopedic museum. But the emphasis on equality across eras and cultures strangely lies in the blind eyes as it turns to the long history of human inequality and exploitation. A 17th century painting of a slave plantation is labeled “The Residence of a Sugar Cane Planter in Brazil”, for example. No mention is made of the European or Arab trade of Africans over the centuries; the most notorious forced migration in history, and not even a slave chain is on display.
Jean-François Charnier recognizes this oversight, aware that neighboring Oman, which like Abu Dhabi is part of the Arabian Peninsula, was a profit center for the slave trade long before oil and gas were discovered under its sands. “It’s a start,” he said. So far, what he calls “a 12-chapter book” only tells an inclusive story to a point.
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