Louvre Abu Dhabi, a high point on the West Asian art scene

Louvre Abu Dhabi is only the opening attraction of an ambitious Cultural District taking shape on the island of Saadiyat.

Louvre Abu Dhabi is only the opening attraction of an ambitious Cultural District taking shape on the island of Saadiyat.   | Photo Credit: AP

As the gleaming low-rise structure of Louvre Abu Dhabi rose gently above the blue waters of the Persian Gulf last week, the Emirate seemed to shed a tear of triumph at the culmination of an almost epic effort.

Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, the museum was originally meant to open in 2012, and the date was then moved to 2016. Work began in earnest in 2009. It now has a permanent collection of more than 600 artworks from around the world, including India, representing different civilisations and historical periods, besides a carousel of works on loan. There are 23 permanent galleries. This year, it will display 300 artworks from 13 key French institutions.

Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière, one of only five paintings by the Renaissance master in the collection of The Louvre in Paris, will be here for a year. Other loaned works include Napoleon Crossing the Alps, one of five portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte that French artist Jacques-Louis David painted between 1801 and 1805. La Gare Saint-Lazare, one of four surviving canvases by Monet, reflects a Parisian railway station’s interior in 1877.

Customised works

Without doubt, the new Louvre is set to make Abu Dhabi one of the world’s great cultural destinations, marking a high point for the West Asian art scene as a whole. The museum presents a journey in time through human imagination from pre-history, with even the earliest stone tools that looked for design as well as functionality represented, and going on to contemporary commissions, site-specific, custom-made works created by living artists.

Mughal art is captured in the permanent collection through a set of miniature paintings, the Pierre Jourdan-Barry collection of Persian and Indian paintings, and the James Ivory collection. The former includes Persian miniatures and works from Central Asia and India. The James Ivory collection of 98 miniatures focusses on Rajput artists who reproduced scenes from daily life in the region.

“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 Louvre Abu Dhabi, was quoted as saying.

The museum’s curators will be constantly looking ahead. “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…” Charnier told Abu Dhabi-based The National newspaper. “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.”

Louvre Abu Dhabi, a high point on the West Asian art scene

Museum city

The most spectacular exhibit of them all may well be the museum building itself. Located on the island of Saadiyat just off Abu Dhabi harbour, ‘Museum City’ encompasses 23 galleries housed in some 55 buildings and scattered around a massive dome, sitting like a flying saucer.

The dome, 180 metres in diameter, which looms over two-thirds of the museum appears to float over water, its four supporting pillars ‘hidden’ within the structure.

The outer dome is in stainless steel and the inner dome in aluminium. The geometrically impressive domes have almost 8,000 metal ‘stars’ replicated in different sizes and positioned in different angles to create a lace-like look.

It took 800 years for The Louvre in Paris to evolve to its present shape but it only took some 10 years for this Louvre to be shaped in Abu Dhabi. And this decade has indeed been a time of change and upheaval in the Arab world, marked, among other developments, by the global financial downturn that began in 2008, and the Arab Spring that swept through in 2010.

Louvre Abu Dhabi is not a branch of The Louvre; it has licensed the name for 30 years. In 2007, Abu Dhabi signed a deal with French officials to buy the use of the name, to construct the building, and to enable exhibitions and cultural loans. Of the total value of the deal, over $866 million, the branding is worth more than half.

This is but the opening attraction of an ambitious Cultural District set to be built on the island of Saadiyat. The district is also expected to have a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum and the Zayed National Museum, designed by Norman Foster — making it a triumvirate of museums. Work on both these remains in the early stages.

For the oil-rich Emirate, the goal of this unique investment is to go beyond oil. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan said at a summit this year: “Maybe in 50 years, we might have the last barrel of oil. The question is: will we be sad? If today we are investing in the right sectors, we will only celebrate that moment.”

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2020 7:03:03 PM |

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