The art world is about to get a little bit more exciting as the Louvre opens the doors to a new museum in Abu Dhabi in December 2015. The Louvre Abu Dhabi seeks to be a universal museum, embracing cross-cultural similarities instead of differences with its newly-bought collection. The Musée du Louvre’s Louvre Abu Dhabi: Birth of a Museum exhibition is the first large-scale overseas public unveiling of 150 objects from the permanent collection, acquired since 2009, with an aim to establish the museum’s motives and philosophy within the art world.
Jean Nouvel’s domed Louvre Abu Dhabi. Image via toyboxbychristina.wordpress.com.
Historically, the Middle East has always been a region of cultural diversity, as a site for trade routes between some of the greatest civilisations in the world. One of the museum’s aims is to present a comprehensive history of art, seeking to offer a global vision that will evolve over time – not unlike Marino Auriti’s concept for his universal Encyclopaedic Palace of the World – thus providing an alternative to the rigid long-standing traditions of museums around the world. Just like the exhibition, cultural artefacts will be brought into dialogue with each other instead of being isolated within their own cultural categories, and this is emulated in the museum’s architectural design.
It should be noted that, despite sharing the same name as the Musée du Louvre, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is an independent institution from its Parisian counterpart. The name testifies to its collaboration with various French museums, such as the Musee d’Orsay and the Château de Versailles, whose loans will be shown alongside the permanent collection.
Pottery and sculpture from the greatest civilisations of the Ancient World. Image via www.louvreabudhabi.ae.
Having been presented with a scale-model of the domed stone, steel and glass structure designed by Jean Nouvel, we are presented with examples from each of the major civilisations in the ancient world. Their arrangement, however, allows us to compare and identify certain similarities between them. In one corner a statue of a Roman orator stands next to a standing bodhisattva, both dating from the first three centuries AD. Both figures have a calm, dominant stature, possessing the same drooping drapery we associate with the Greek world. And yet, the former was discovered in Italy and the latter in Pakistan. A similar stylistic comparison is made in the form of two large Buddha heads dating from the 5th and 6th centuries, one from Northern India and one from Northern China.
Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, c. 1480-85. Image via www.apollo-magazine.com.
Approaching art history from a humanist perspective, there are explorations of the Ancient World and its religious practices with visual representations of sacred deities – Shiva, Jesus Christ, Joseph of Arimathea – and a display of holy texts, including lavishly illuminated sections of the Holy Qur’an. The Renaissance is represented by such works as Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child (c. 1480-85) and ceramics from the Ottoman Empire, while King Phillip V of Spain proudly strides through the course of time atop his horse to mark the progress of modernity from the 17th century onwards.
There is even a small section devoted to the paintings of Iran, India and Japan, where one can clearly see intra-cultural variations in painterly styles and expression. These examples from the Eastern World are then countered by western perspectives in art, bringing forward artists like Antonio Canova and Jacob Jordaens – you would be forgiven for mistaking the latter’s work for those of his master, Peter Paul Rubens, one of the major diplomats in the 17th century.
Osman Hambi Bey, A Young Emir Studying, 1878. Image via www.thenational.ae.
And then we have Orientalism in the 19th century, when Europe became fascinated by the East and its exoticism, leading to picturesque interpretations and imaginations of its culture. Early photographers like Roger Fenton were amongst the first to capture images from these distant lands directly on to film and many viewers saw them as truthful representations. Artefacts from the East, such as those brought back by Marco Polo, greatly influenced western ideas of their origins, and artists like Pablo Picasso even had collections of exotic objects – he owned many African masks – subsequently making their way into their artistic creations. But who could forget the rise of Impressionism back in France, headed by figures like Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose principal patron, Gustave Caillebotte, is represented by his painting Game of Bezique (1881).
Alexander Calder hangs above Mondrian and Paul Klee. Image via www.thenational.ae.
Now that art was steering away from classical ideals and becoming more abstract, perfectly encapsulated in Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black (1922) – whose early paintings consisted of impressionist landscapes – so too was the focus of realistic representations of the figure. Artists in the 20th century were now confronted with social and political changes, some during the World Wars and some experiencing the aftermath. The world became a place of chaos and artists like René Magritte developed an interest in psychology and the human mind. Others became incredibly experimental, such as Paul Klee’s ‘oil-transfer’ technique and Kazuo Shiraga’s substitution of the paintbrush with his body. This mindset carries on well into the present day, forming the foundation of contemporary art, giving rise to the next Damien Hirsts and Tracey Emins, and to innovative fusions of various artforms – performance art, installation art, etc. – leading to philosophical debates about what ‘art’ is and what constitutes a ‘work of art’.
By presenting the sampled collection in chronological order, the Birth of a Museum exhibition has identified a key theme curiously latching on to the back of our minds since the dawn of our existence, not just in the history of art: our role in society and the world. Religion and authority gave us a sense of place and learning about other people allowed us to learn more about ourselves. Inevitably, there was only so much to offer in terms of external appearances and internal anatomy, so we looked to our minds, our souls and our unsung thoughts. Art has always been about expression, whether of social values, status, or as a means to describe that which cannot be put in words. Human values and concepts of self-worth are very much at the heart of this exhibition, and it is this which makes the Louvre Abu Dhabi worthy of being called a ‘universal museum’.
Louvre Abu Dhabi: Birth of a Museum ran between 2nd May – 28th July 2014 at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, www.louvre.fr.
EDIT: Louvre Abu Dhabi is now confirmed to open on 11 November 2018.