For as long as one can remember, the Louvre has been associated with the glass pyramid structure designed by Chinese-American architect IM Pei in Paris. Not any more, with the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi a few weeks ago. The Louvre now may also mean a huge, shiny dome in West Asia. The change of perception is not merely limited to the structure; the collection housed in Louvre Abu Dhabi has also undergone a sea change as far as geographical sensibilities are concerned. There is an enhanced focus on regional artwork, besides displaying collections from various Asian countries, including India.
“A West-centric vision is outdated in today’s globalised world. Therefore, we aim at breaking traditional curatorial boundaries,” says Guilhem Andre, Curator, Asian Arts, Louvre Abu Dhabi. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel and inspired by the region’s palm groves, the museum has on display art, manuscripts and objects of historical, cultural and sociological significance. Upon entering, visitors walk through the promenade below the 180-metre dome, which is made of 8,000 metal stars set in a geometric pattern. As sunlight filters through the dome, it creates a moving “rain of light”, reminiscent of the overlapping palm trees in the oasis.
A trip to Louvre Abu Dhabi begins with the “Great Vestibule”, where visitors are introduced to themes such as maternity and funerary rituals. The dialogue between works from different geographical territories, sometimes far apart, highlights the similarities between them. “Instead of dividing works by geography or civilisation, Louvre Abu Dhabi has organised the collection by shared themes,” adds Andre. For instance, ancient objects created by early civilisations across the world are displayed at one place, rather than dividing them into different sections.
Andre says there are 12 main galleries at Louvre Abu Dhabi, which display over 600 iconic works. “Apart from large galleries, small spaces focus on particular themes, such as coinage, textile and graphic art,” he says. The museum also has artworks in the Children’s Museum and temporary exhibitions galleries. One of the galleries is dedicated to universal religions and features sacred texts: including a leaf from the “Blue Quran”, a Gothic Bible, and texts from Buddhism and Taoism. The artistic exchanges on the trading routes during the Medieval and Modern periods are brought to the fore through ceramic works in another gallery.
The outdoor area has site-specific works by noted contemporary artists. For instance, American artist Jenny Holzer has created three engraved stone walls named For Louvre Abu Dhabi, which cite historical texts from Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, the Mesopotamian bilingual ‘Creation Myth’ tablet, and the 1588 annotated edition of Michel de Montaigne’s Les Essais. On the other hand, Italian artist Giuseppe Penone (1947) has designed Leaves of Light — a bronze tree with mirrors placed on its branches to reflect the ‘rain of light’.
Talking about the Indian artwork on display, Andre says, “Indian art and artists hold importance in this collection through numerous pieces and themes such as ‘Religious Sculpture from India to Eastern Asia’. For Indian art, the collection goes chronologically, from 1st century AD to the contemporary times, and more specifically, through early Indian coinage.” Hindu and Buddhist sculptures are also part of the collection, besides several Jain manuscripts. A part of the in-house collection are numerous Indian paintings and weapons from the Mughal period to the early British Raj. A painting by SH Raza is also on display in one of the contemporary galleries.
Notwithstanding this, among the visitors, there is still a huge attraction for iconic works by the European masters. Not surprisingly, the most photographed work is French artist Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (on loan from Versailles), followed by Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronière (on loan from the Louvre Paris), Monet’s La Gare Saint-Lazare,
Picasso’s Portrait of a Lady, and a Van Gogh self-portrait.
Andre says that as many as 300 works are on loan from French museums. “Asian art is an important part of the collection, considering both the historical importance of the region, its art production through the ages, as well as the fact that geographically speaking, we are located in Asia. Broadly speaking, equal importance is placed on objects of European origin and those from other parts of the world,” he notes.
Built in the last seven years, almost half of the current display are objects on loan from various prestigious museums from across the world, including some of France’s top museums, and some pieces from the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The museum is an independent institution, operating as part of an agreement between the governments of Abu Dhabi and France. Under the agreement, the name of Louvre is licenced for 30 years and six months but Musee du Louvre is not responsible for overseeing or operating Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferronnière, 1490: This work depicts the importance of class and status during the Italian Renaissance era. The subject wears a showy dress and eye-catching jewels.
Vincent Van Gogh, Self-portrait, 1887: The Dutch artist painted dozens of self-portraits. The painting at the Louvre Abu Dhabi reveals Van Gogh’s fragile state of mind, with his intense gaze and gaunt features, which were prominent in most self-portraits.
Portrait of Fayoum, Egypt, Antinoopolis, 225-250 AD: It’s one among the 900 Fayoum portraits found across Egypt, estimated to be from the Coptic period. Research suggests their production ended in the middle of the third century.
Osman Hamdi Bey, A Young Emir Studying, 1878: This work highlights the importance of the Oriental movement in art history. The symbolism of Islamic culture is evident in this opulent piece.
Bactrian “Princess,” Central Asia, end of the 3rd millennium BCE: The figurative sculpture demonstrates historic customs and traditions of the era.