Louvre Abu Dhabi
The museum of then, now and the future
It's the story of human creativity told like never before. An experiment that turns artistic convention on its head. Here, the curators reveal the experience that lies ahead at the Middle East's first universal museum
Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman
Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority
When it opens, after almost a decade of preparation, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will not only become the first universal museum in the Arab world, but it also promises to take a unique approach to the history of art and humanity.
Visitors will be invited to embark on a chronological journey through human creativity that begins in pre-history, with the development of some of the earliest stone tools to display a concern with design as well as functionality, and ends with the museum’s contemporary commissions; works of art made specially for the Louvre Abu Dhabi that point to histories yet to be written.
The difference, the museum’s creators promise, is that the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s approach will be one that values all civilisations equally, and emphasises moments of contact and connection between cultures, displaying their artefacts in dialogue, side-by-side, rather than emphasising their differences.
This story investigates the birth of a collection and a curatorial approach that attempts to be both universal and singular.
Speaking to an audience at Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat in January 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s director, Manuel Rabaté, outlined the curatorial direction of the Middle East’s first universal museum:
“We will talk about all civilisations from the beginning of history to the globalised situation we live in today,” Rabaté explained.
“And this will be the first time that visitors will be given the opportunity to experience a universal narrative from the very beginnings of beauty in pre-history that always has artworks and civilisations in co-visibility and co-existence.”
Not only did this way of thinking have an influence on the works that had been acquired for the museum’s permanent collection, for which 600 objects had been acquired by March 2017, but it will also be seen most visibly in the way the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection is exhibited and interpreted.
“The aim is to create a universal perspective on things, not from a western or an eastern perspective, but from Abu Dhabi’s position as a crossroads,” Jean-François Charnier, the scientific director of Agence France-Muséums, the body charged with establishing the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its collections, alongside Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA), explained in 2014.
“If you want to understand the links, for example, between ancient Egypt and the Near East in antiquity in other museums you would have to go to different departments but in Louvre Abu Dhabi, there are no more departments [of this sort],” he added.
“We want to show important artworks and masterpieces in dialogue, and that is something new in the world of museums. We will not only be showing paintings with paintings or sculpture with sculpture or Near Eastern with Near Eastern. We are trying to cross all of these elements to try to tell a different story”.
Just what that new museum’s displays might like look like became clear in April 2014, with the launch of the Birth of a Museum exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris, in which 160 objects from the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection were presented to the museum’s curators and the French public for the first time.
For example, in a thematic display that investigated the various ways in which different cultures visualised the divine, statues of deities from the Hindu, Christian and Buddhist traditions were displayed next to work from the 13th-century Soninke dynasty, which was founded in the Sahelian kingdom of Ghana, in a manner that would normally only be seen in temporary exhibitions in more-traditional museums.
Curated by Vincent Pomarède, director of mediation and cultural programming at the Louvre Museum in Paris; Laurence des Cars, the former curatorial director of Agence France-Muséums who is now director of the Musée d’Orsay; and, TCA’s Khalid Abdulkhaliq Abdulla, the show built on a similar exhibition from 2013, also entitled Birth of a Museum.
Exhibited close to the Louvre Abu Dhabi construction site at Manarat Al Saadiyat, that show had given the public in Abu Dhabi the first opportunity to see some of acquisitions of its own fledgling collection, including the first object that was acquired in 2009.
On February 23, 2009, representatives of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s acquisitions team made a purchase that was to set something of a precedent when it came to assembling the new museum’s permanent collection.
It was on this date that the Saadiyat Island museum acquired its first object, LAD 2009-001, Piet Mondrian’s 1922 painting Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black. It is a painting that Rabaté has subsequently described as being part of museum’s identity and legacy.
Acquired at a Christie’s sale of the art collection of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, a three-day, 733-lot sale held at the Grand Palais in Paris, Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black was one of three paintings owned by Saint Laurent that are credited with inspiring his famous Mondrian collection. It set a record for the artist at the time when it sold for €21.5 million.
As an initial purchase, it was surely a statement of intent. The painting was an internationally recognised masterpiece, one of the most eloquent statements of 20th century, Modernist abstraction. It came with an impeccable provenance, having formed part of the collection of a French designer who had not only transformed the world of fashion, but who also represented the epitome of good taste.
The Mondrian was not the only object acquired for the museum from the Saint Laurent-Bergé collection. It was accompanied by an art-deco stool designed by Pierre Legrain that had once belonged to one of France’s other great couturiers and art collectors, Jacques Doucet, a man famous for living with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in his hallway.
Like later acquisitions made for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, such as Theseus Finds His Father’s Sword, a 17th-century painting by Laurent de La Hyre that once belonged to the Cardinal Richelieu, or the collection of Indian miniatures acquired from filmmaker James Ivory, Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian sheds light on the history of art and the history of collecting, as well as the story of passionate, well-informed, famous collectors.
Designed to take visitors on a journey that allows them to engage with the cultures of the world, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s galleries will form an interconnected chain with links, which represent a series of historic moments, that begin in pre-history and end in the present day.
Presenting cultures and objects in dialogue, rather than in nationally or regionally defined displays, the aim is to create a more equitable, global approach to the history of art and humanity.
“We would like to highlight the connections between civilisations, instead of focusing on the differences, as is usually done in international museums, because we believe there is no hierarchy between civilisations,” explains Olivia Bourrat, the deputy scientific director with Agence France-Muséums.
With its emphasis on important moments of interaction and cultural exchange, the narrative developed by the Louvre Abu Dhabi has to achieve a careful balance between chronological coherence and cultural inclusivity that also has the flexibility to address broader issues and change the way people look at objects, allowing visitors to make comparisons between cultures and epochs.
In displays dedicated to the ancient world, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection of Egyptian art contains masterpieces such as the funerary set of Princess Henuttawy, which was acquired by the museum in 2014.
Called the "venerated house mistress" on her mummy case and sarcophagi, Henuttawy was the daughter of a pharaoh from the 22nd dynasty, King Sheshonk, the Lord of the Two Lands, that dates her funeral set to the second half of the 10th century BC.
Made from painted wood, linen, papyrus and plaster, the set includes her body, preserved in a cocoon, which is protected by a richly decorated cartonnage case and three wooden sarcophagi, two of which are well-preserved, while a third contains only fragments.
When displayed alongside other items from the museum’s ancient Egyptian collection, such as a three-metre-long, hieroglyph-covered mummy bandage; a carved and inscribed stone that once formed the apex of a pyramid; and a bronze statuette of the god Osiris, the set provides an insight into Pharaonic-era attitudes to the afterlife, but it also forms a part of a longer conversation throughout the collection about human representation that extends from the early Bronze Age all the way through to the present.
To many people, the word medieval immediately conjures images of castles, knights on horseback, damsels in distress and dragons – in short, the scene that is depicted in one of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s prize acquisitions, a late-15th-century book of hours that was illuminated in a Bruges workshop sometime between 1450 and 1475.
A devotional Christian text made specially for the use of a private, very wealthy individual, books of hours were organised according to a calendar defined by saint’s days and religious holidays, and were designed to assist their readers by identifying time-appropriate prayers.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s example is 138 parchment pages, or folios, and 47 miniatures, one of which features a mounted, haloed knight dispatching a wounded, writhing dragon in a manner commonly associated with Saint George.
The illumination is wonderfully detailed. As the knight delivers the coup de grace, a maiden sits playing with a small white dog in the middle ground, seemingly oblivious to the drama unfolding before her, while two figures look on from the bridge and turret of a nearby town.
From the illuminator’s choice of palette – the town’s walls are finished in a warm, terracotta colour and the trunks of the trees, like the saint’s halo and armour, are picked out in real gold – it would appear that the battle is taking place in the late afternoon, and judging by her brilliant lapis-lazuli-coloured dress and small golden crown, the maid might well be the Virgin Mary.
The choice of England’s patron saint as a subject is telling, because that is where the book was destined when it left the workshop of Willem Vrelant, one of the most prolific, commercially successful illuminators working in Bruges between 1450 and 1475.
The book’s importance stems, in part, from its provenance, but also from its rarity. The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s volume is one of only 250 such Flemish books sent to England between 1390 and 1520 to have survived the Reformation, an iconoclastic event that led to the destruction of many of England’s finest works of medieval art.
Added to this is the fact that the manuscript is also one of the very few to have escaped Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s reforms complete. The volume’s subtitle, Use of Sarum, refers to the fact the book still contains an illumination of the murder of Thomas Becket, the English archbishop who was worshiped as a saint after his assassination in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, many illustrations of which were destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries.
In the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the book will form part of a display dedicated to the courtly art of medieval Europe that will be supported by loans from the French national museum of the Middle Ages, the Musée du Cluny, but the museum’s permanent collection of art from the Middle Ages extends far beyond the castles and monasteries of England and France.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s medieval holdings feature objects that originate from cultures as diverse as the Tang empire in eighth- and ninth-century China, the Chola dynasty from present-day Tamil Nadu in southern India and the 13th-century Sahelian kingdom of Ghana in West Africa. They testify to a wider world that witnessed the cultural and intellectual dominance of metropolises such as Chang’an, Constantinople and Baghdad, and the rise of trading networks, such as the Silk Route, which allowed the transportation of luxury goods and fashions, plus pilgrims, knowledge and ideas.
Such an approach de-centres medieval Europe and allows a comparative interpretation of issues such as the flowering and spread of Islamic material culture, and of religion in the period by illustrating the various ways in which major traditions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism each celebrated their own sense of the divine.
In many ways, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s holdings from the early modern period, the time in Western history between the end of the Middle Ages and the advent of modernity, are the ones that best illustrate its approach to important moments of cultural encounter and exchange.
A time of unprecedented imperialism and trade, exploration and discovery, not just of the Americas, but in the fields of science and mathematics, astronomy and navigation, the early modern also represented a moment when artists started to develop different approaches to perspective and to the culture of ancient Greece and antiquity, a heritage that had long been understood and appreciated in the Islamic world.
The museum’s collection of early modern objects testify to this widespread spirit of enquiry, such as globes and Arabic scientific instruments, but also to important centres of cultural production including Renaissance Italy and the Low Countries, Edo-period Japan, 17th- and 18th-century France and the Ottoman Empire, which saw Iznik became the centre of a new ceramics industry that began to flourish in the 15th century.
The splendour of the Mughal Empire, one of the great Islamic empires of the early modern period alongside the Ottoman and Safavid empires, is celebrated in the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection through the medium of miniature paintings and through two important acquisitions: the Pierre Jourdan-Barry collection of Persian and Indian paintings and the James Ivory collection.
While the Jourdan-Barry collection includes Persian miniatures as well as works from Central Asia and India, Ivory’s collection of 98 miniatures focuses solely on Indian works and especially on the work of Rajput artists who captured scenes from daily life.
In 2015, the veteran filmmaker – whose name is synonymous with Merchant Ivory Productions, the longest-running partnership in independent cinema – responsible for the likes of Academy Award-winning film Howards End, talked to The National about his career as a collector.
Ivory admits that he has a Venetian and a chance encounter in 1956 to thank for his introduction to the art of India, the world of collecting and the people who were to define his life and career.
"My very first film was my master's thesis at the University of Southern California," he explained.
"The film had a lot to do with Venetian art, and as I was finishing it, I had a desire to own a Canaletto print.
"One of my tutors said that there was a very good dealer in San Francisco who dealt in that kind of thing, but what he didn't know was that Raymond Lewis was also probably the only dealer in the US at that time who sold Indian and Persian miniatures.
"I went to find a Canaletto etching, but what I found was about 100 miniature paintings spread out on tables from a previous client that he hadn't had time to put away."
Inspired as much by the miniature's cinematic potential as their beauty, Ivory gave up on the idea of buying a Canaletto and instead bought two 18th-century Indian paintings. Little did he know that the decision was to have a profound effect on his future filmmaking career and his private life.
"That's how I discovered India, through the miniatures in that gallery. I'd had success filming Venetian drawings, and I knew how, if you did close-ups of some of those really quite small works of art, that you'd get a powerful impression on the screen,” Ivory said.
"I knew at once with some of the Indian miniatures that there would be a strong image, and I think that attracted me right away."
Two years later, the miniatures formed the basis for Ivory's next project, The Sword and the Flute (1959), a short film he subsequently described as a "kind of dream of India made by somebody who had never been there".
The film tells the story of the origins and development of Indian miniatures using the paintings, a soundtrack of Indian classical music featuring Ravi Shankar's sitar playing, and narration read by Saeed Jaffrey.
Jaffrey was an actor who also narrated Ivory's The Creation of Woman (1961) and would star in two Merchant Ivory pictures, The Guru (1969) and Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978).
The Sword and the Flute's dreamlike quality is accentuated by the quality of Ivory's script, Jaffrey's skill as a storyteller and Mindaugis Bagdon's cinematography, which mimics the eye of a collector as it moves from one exquisite detail to the next.
"When I made it, I didn't really know anything about the pictures, but they inspired me to know more about India and eventually to go there," Ivory says. "If I hadn't made that film, I would probably have never gone."
Ivory’s career as a collector and a filmmaker was to intersect on several occasions over the later decades, but the miniatures had their most profound impact between 1959 and 1961.
Thanks to The Sword and the Flute, Ivory won a commission from New York's Asia Society that first took him to India to shoot the documentary that eventually became The Delhi Way (1964).
Even more importantly, it was The Sword and the Flute that provided Ivory with his introduction to Indian film producer Ismail Merchant and a working relationship that transformed both of their lives.
"I was editing The Delhi Way in New York when I met Ismail Merchant," Ivory says. "He had come to a screening of The Sword and the Flute and he just came up and talked to me.
"He had an idea about making feature films in India, in English, for the international market, which had never been done before."
The producer and the director soon formed Merchant Ivory Productions, and their first movie, The Householder, opened in 1963.
The film tells the story of Prem (Shashi Kapoor), a young schoolteacher, as he gradually gets to know his new wife, the charming ,independent Indu (Leela Naidu). It was based on a 1960 book of the same name.
Merchant, who died in 2005, and Ivory had approached Ruth Prawer Jhabvala directly to see if the author would adapt her novel for their script.
"She said: 'I've never written a script,'" says Ivory. "And so he said: 'Well, he's never directed a film and I've never produced one. So what?'"
With a single conversation, a creative triumvirate was formed. It was a multicultural collaboration that Merchant once described as a "strange marriage".
"I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American," said the producer. "Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster."
The trio's output during the 1960s allowed Ivory to immerse himself in India and also to develop his collection of miniatures and drawings.
"The films provided me with the means of coming to India and the time to be there often," Ivory told me. "You never knew what the various dealers were going to come up with but I was able to pick up pictures at a time when there were many good ones on the market at a very good price."
It was during this period that Ivory met Stuart Cary Welch, an internationally renowned collector of Islamic and Indian art who curated the Art of Mughal India (1964), a major exhibition at the Asia Society.
The two men discovered a shared passion for Indian drawings.
"I learnt a hell of a lot from him, but in a way, I didn't have an interest that was as deep as his,” Ivory admitted.
"My reaction to the pictures wasn't intellectual, it was entirely aesthetic. I wasn't looking for certain kind of things I was just a looking for what I considered to be good pictures."
In 1974 to 1975, the first phase of Ivory's filmmaking in India ended, and as he spent more time filming in Britain and the US, his forays into the miniature market also diminished.
But in 1978, he returned to miniatures with Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures, a movie commissioned by Melvyn Bragg at London Weekend Television.
"LWT were interested in doing something with us, but it had to be about art in some way, and the only art I knew anything about was Indian miniatures, really, as by that time I'd had almost 20 years of collecting pictures and I knew Cary Welch very well," Ivory explained.
"Most of the pictures in the film belonged to him and the Maharajah of Jodhpur, but the film is really about collectors and people's ideas about Indian miniatures in the West.
"Should they be left in India where white ants can get at them and where they might be robbed or should they be taken away to the safety of a museum like the V&A?"
Jhabvala based her screenplay for the movie on Ivory's experiences of collecting in India.
In many ways, the film, like the story of Merchant Ivory's formation, provides an interesting parallel with the cosmopolitanism of the Louvre Abu Dhabi's collection and the wider Saadiyat Island Cultural District project.
A mercury vision captured on a copper plate, the iridescent figure of Ayoucha, the earliest known photographic depiction of a veiled woman from the Islamic world, flickers between being and nothingness, between a positive and a negative image, as light reflects off the silvered surface of Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey’s 174-year-old daguerreotype.
Ayoucha is one of five portraits of the young Cairene made by Girault de Prangey, a pioneering photographer who took hundreds of pictures of the topography, architecture and archaeology of the eastern Mediterranean between 1842 and 1844, including the oldest surviving photographs of Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
His daguerreotypes are now so highly prized that when part of the artist’s collection appeared at auction in 2003, a single seven-by-nine-inch image of the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens sold for £565,250.
Girault de Prangey’s Near Eastern daguerreotypes were relatively unknown in the world of art photography until the beginning of this century. Never exhibited during the photographer’s lifetime, they sat overlooked in a storeroom for more than 30 years after the artist’s death.
In a museum with modern and contemporary galleries that will exhibit important works by Manet and Monet, Gauguin and Picasso, Mondrian and Magritte, the tiny quarter-plate portrait of the young Egyptian – no larger than a postcard – exerts a fascination all of its own and promises to be one of the new museum’s star exhibits.
“It is an image that will become one of the icons of 19th-century photography,” Laurence des Cars told The National in 2013. “You are dealing with a very rare and fine example of a new technique in 19th-century art.”
The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s holdings of early photography and of ostensibly Orientalist images, such as Osman Hamdi Bey’s A Young Emir Studying (1878) and Girault de Prangey’s Ayoucha Whole Fig[ure] (1843), offer one of the clearest indications of how the museum’s approach to the history of art will differ, not just in the way it displays objects, but also from the way art history has been understood and written in recent decades.
“We don’t want to be trapped in a movement’s approach to the history of art with all of the ‘isms’ that have been attached to the art in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We take a broader perspective, because we have a very wide collection spanning from pre-history to contemporary art,” Des Cars said, explaining that the vexed question of western attitudes to non-western cultures in art from the 18th century to the present was a case in point.
In its very narrowest sense, Orientalism can be defined as a European fascination with the objects, peoples and cultures of North Africa and the Middle East. Born of European colonialism, trade, travel and the long decline of the Ottoman Empire, it exerted its powerful allure on the western imagination and expressed itself in everything from fashion, music and literature to architecture, aesthetics and art.
Orientalism remained little more than a matter of style, iconography and genre, of interest mainly to historians of culture and the arts until the 1970s, when the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said wrote Orientalism, an intellectual history and blistering exposé of the cultural assumptions that Said believed informed western representations of the East.
Where academics had previously seen literature and paintings, Said found widespread evidence of a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture” and an insidious system of cultural hegemony that provided justification for western imperial ambitions throughout the East. It was a position Said defended until his death.
“The problem with Orientalism is that it has become apolitical statement and a lot of criticism is now attached to the word. We needed to move beyond that,” Des Cars insists.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s curators are particularly keen to ascribe a catalytic quality to Orientalism that “enabled 19th-century artists and designers to renew their technical, decorative and ornamental repertoire, and to reformulate the questions of colour and light”.
For Des Cars, images such as these provide an insight into the different varieties of Orientalism that other media do not.
“If you approach Orientalism through photographs, it gives you a better sense of the diversity of the 19th-century western gaze. It’s not just the usual cliché, saying that these works are pure fascination or pure fantasy, it’s a much more complex question that deals with the nature of reality, with politics, with the impact of travel on the artist, archaeology and the knowledge of the past.”
The impact of travel, the East, and “the Other” on many of the influential early Modernists has been well documented. These factors coalesce with particular force in Paul Klee’s 1938 painting Oriental-Bliss.
“We wanted to be able to draw links between abstraction and ornament and the way some western artists tried to find inspiration and a new grammar in forms they were not familiar with, and Klee touches on this,” Des Cars told The National. “It is a perfect moment and expression of this long-running tradition of cross-cultural influences and exchange.”
In November 2016, the Louvre Abu Dhabi announced that, as well as displaying historic works of fine and decorative art and archaeological artefacts, it would also commission new, site-specific works from internationally renowned living artists in an attempt to connect the cultures and civilisations of the past with the conversations and practices that define contemporary art practise.
Launched to coincide with that year’s Abu Dhabi Art fair, the first commissions involve new works from American neo-conceptualist artist Jenny Holzer and Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone.
Penone, who rose to fame in the late 1960s as the youngest member of the Arte Povera movement, is creating a four-part installation, Germination, which addresses the relationships between humanity, art and the natural world, themes that the 70-year-old sculptor has examined throughout his career.
Leaves of Light is a bronze cast of a wild cherry tree, a symbol of life from the artist’s native Maritime Alps in Piedmont, near Turin. Set with mirrors, the sculpture has been designed to capture and reflect the kaleidoscopic rain of light that is generated by the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s canopy.
A work that Penone devised in collaboration with French porcelain manufacturer Sèvres, Propagation also builds on an idea that the sculptor has been developing for many years, the image of a fingerprint that steadily expands into an ever-widening pattern of concentric circles.
“I have used the fingerprint [motif] in drawings in the past, but I have never worked in porcelain,” the artist says, referring to a series of works, also called Propagation, which date from 1994.
“It’s a fingerprint where I connect the lines together in order to have a link that continues across a surface, which gives you the idea of propagation,” the artist told The National.
To achieve this, a team of craftspeople at Sèvres have created a wall of 42 porcelain plates that weighs 400 kilograms.
At their centre, a fingerprint of the late Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father of the UAE, forms the focal point of the installation and then expands, in a series of hand-drawn lines separated by a single millimetre, to a distance of almost four metres.
Quite apart from the installation’s six-part fabrication process, which included ceramic techniques such as slip-casting, polishing, kilning and cutting, Propagation took 600 hours to paint.
“This was the real challenge of the piece, but with Sèvres, we found the technology and the savoir faire to realise the work,” Penone explained.
The installation will sit in a specially-designed vitrine that has been constructed in one of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s walls.
“When they asked me to think of something for the museum, I had only seen renderings of the architecture, but I was very interested, because I know the idea is to do something, not just for locals, but for the world,” he said.
“I think that is a utopian idea, especially in this region, to do something for peace and humanity, for life not death, and that is very positive.”
Holzer’s work for the Louvre Abu Dhabi is equally characteristic. Text-based, it takes the form of three engraved marble panels, each of which will be installed in an external wall of the museum’s galleries.
The panels feature draws from three historic texts: a production of an ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet that bears a Sumerian-Akkadian creation myth; a quote from French Renaissance philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne; and a passage from Ibn Khaldun’s 14th-century Muqaddimah.
Widely regarded as the most important piece of Islamic history of the pre-modern world, the Muqaddimah (Introduction), is a monumental work that many scholars consider as a foundation for modern fields of enquiry, such as economics, sociology, ethnography and the philosophy of history.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi will not be the first Ateliers Jean Nouvel-designed building to include a text-based installation by Holzer. For French architect Nouvel’s Palais de Justice de Nantes, inaugurated in 2000, Holzer created an LED installation that uses some of the founding texts of French law, including the Civil Code and The Declaration of Human Rights, which scroll slowly down the steel columns in the building’s concourse.
At the Louvre Abu Dhabi, however, Holzer and Penone’s installations will also be shown alongside historical pieces from the museum’s collection, including an 18th-century Ottoman fountain and pavement from Damascus, Syria.
“It was important to find the right artists and to work with them in dialogue to create artworks that are meaningful in this context,” Agence France-Muséums’ Jean-François Charnier told The National.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s displays will boast some of the most famous names in the annals of art history: Van Gogh, Gaugin, Manet, Monet, Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci, at least for a while.
Just like many of the museum’s visitors, a significant number of its exhibits will only be passing through Abu Dhabi, some on a brief visit, while others will be on a longer tour of duty, loaned as they are from one of 13 major French cultural institutions including the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Pompidou, the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Musée du Quai Branly.
The length of each loan will be determined, in part, by the nature of the object in question. The most delicate and sensitive works will be displayed in the museum’s light-, temperature- and humidity-controlled Bronze Galleries, loaned for a few months at a time.
More-robust works, such as Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait from 1887, which is being loaned from the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais, are expected to be on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi for about a year, while more-substantial works, such as Balthasar and Gaspard Marsy’s Horses of the Sun, an enormous 17th-century equestrian statue that currently resides in the royal stables at the Palace of Versailles, will stay for longer.
The approach means that the museum’s curatorial team are constantly looking to the future.
“This is not a museum that will stay the same for 10 years and it’s not a museum that will change completely like an exhibition – it’s somewhere in between, and I think that is interesting,” Jean-François Charnier told The National in 2014.
The prospect of having to deal with the arrival and departure of paintings such as Leonardo da Vinci's La Belle Ferronnière, one of only five paintings by the master in the collection of the Louvre Museum in Paris, may be daunting from a logistical and curatorial perspective, but for Charnier, that challenge is one of the things that will define the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
“We are not working on totally permanent galleries – they are semi-permanent galleries where the changes will be important year-on-year [and] this mobility, this flexibility, this volatility is a key element of the identity of Louvre Abu Dhabi.”
The Leonardo loan, which is expected be on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi for 12 months, involves several notable firsts.
Not only was it the first loan to be announced by the TCA, Agence France-Muséums and the Louvre Museum in Paris, but it will also be the first time that La Belle Ferronnière has left Europe and the first time a painting by Leonardo will be exhibited in the Middle East.
“It’s very important to have a work by Leonardo for the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi,” Vincent Pomarede, the director of mediation and cultural programming for the Louvre Museum in Paris, told The National at the time of the loan’s announcement.
“I think it’s very important to see one of the most beautiful portraits of the Renaissance, because portraits are very important in the story of European art and they pose important aesthetic, political and social questions about their time.”
Other key loans that will be arriving in time for the museum’s opening include Napoleon Crossing the Alps, one of five versions of a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte painted by French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805, which is part of the collection of the national museum of the Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon; and La Gare Saint-Lazare, one of four surviving canvases painted by Monet that represent the interior of the Parisian railway station in 1877.
Words: Nick Leech
Photographs: James O'Hara
Video: Willy Lowry
Editor: Evelyn Lau, Adam Workman
Copyright: The National, Abu Dhabi, 2017