Poised between Gulf waters and Arabian Peninsula sands, the Louvre Abu Dhabi tells us a story of humankind. It hosts a comprehensive synthesis of arts and cultures, which not only imitate each other across eras and continents, but also prove inextricably interwoven.
nly 50 years ago, Saadiyat Island’s 27 square kilometers were something of an empty quarter where sea and sand met only the blue of sky. The few inhabitants mainly earned their livings fishing and pearl-diving, and they had to cross to the mainland to find drinking water. Departing from this image, not that far away in time, we find today a far different one: an urbanism so new it can appear as if it is being swept to the surface from the desert like colossal archeological discoveries.
Opened in November, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the most recent product of the emirate’s ambitious cultural movement, powered by the plan of its Department of Culture and Tourism for a district on Saadiyat that emphasizes education and culture alongside tourism infrastructures. New York University opened a branch in 2010, the Zayed National Museum is under construction, and plans call for a Guggenheim museum and an opera house.
All this is happening, says Louvre Abu Dhabi Director Manuel Rabaté, because “this is a place which has always been connected. It’s a hub. The first object from the uae we have is a vase found on Marwah Island, and it came from Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. We have material evidence of the connection between this country and very important civilizations, religions, cultures and continents. The objects on display here are absolutely powerful and explicit. It was a hub; it was involved in the exchange.” Today, he continues, geography helps the region play a similar role. “You don’t have only one center of the world, you have hubs.”
It is a museum for the world, which connects us all together.
—H. E. Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman, Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism
This outward-looking, seafaring history dominates both the museum’s site on the water and its architectural ensemble. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, it creates a choral harmony among sea, light, modernism and the geometries of traditional Arab urbanism. Water is everywhere; it appears all along the horizon, increasing the sensation of being on an island within an island. Even in the interior, viewed through windows that portray scenes as if they were live paintings, flowing water enlivens the museum complex in a contemporary interpretation of the Arab falaj, which both irrigates and cools.
Conceived as a traditional madinah
in which technologies of the present take inspiration from the past, the galleries, plazas and even museum offices become domains of encounters and human proximity. The resulting atmosphere is far from the ceremonious kind of European classical museums. The visit experience is in itself not only an intellectual one, but also one that plays to the senses and emotions. It does this most powerfully when the basic right angles of the cuboid pavilions meet the prodigious luminosity of the most appealing element of the ensemble: Nouvel’s dome.
Itself an homage to the greatest feature of Islamic architecture, the dome vaults the complex with a recurring weave and entwined geometries of 8,000 square and octagonal openwork medallions, overlapped in eight individual layers, each slightly different in orientation of its pattern and the widths of its ribs and open spaces. As the light of the sun filters through them, it changes continually, sprinkling variegated spots of luminescence on the planar walls and floors—a dance of daystars or, as the architect calls it, “a rain of light.”
The tessellated openwork medallions were inspired by mashrabiya, the decorative sunscreens of traditional Islamic architecture that Nouvel has adapted also for other buildings, most notably the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. For him, as with traditional architects, this was partly necessity, for the design has faced an architectonic challenge from heat, humidity and salt air. Encompassing 180 meters, the dome creates a microclimate, aided by the arrangement of the pavilions, which helps channel sea breezes. The result feels like part oasis, part village and part museum, all from an architect who, in a 2016 interview, said he “always thought that museums should be part of the towns.” It is space in which to linger. No two moments are exactly the same.
“I am fascinated by the relationship of time and light,” he continued, as well as “the kinetic dimension at certain moments.” In the modern interpretation of mashrabiya, he said, “I tried to create kind of poetry of the reaction of the geometry in relation to the light.”
This effect, however, is one we experience climactically, at the end of a visit. The museum entrance is a pair of plain white doors, found after crossing a small park.
Once we enter, white rooms of varying dimensions and angles, of kind of a cubist nature, invite our exploration. It is not unlike entering a traditional city, where irregularity and the sensation of being in a maze draws us around one corner and then another, curious what discovery might catch us by surprise.
The 12 permanent galleries lie ahead, sequenced like volumes and chapters, a living vademecum
of universal history, written by people from all over the earth and time. The titles of these chapters already emphasize the interconnection of narratives. The themes they host, and the ways the great art pieces are displayed, intentionally draw cultures together. “Every aspect of the Louvre Abu Dhabi reflects this philosophy of universalism, from the arrangement of the galleries to the works they show,” explains Rabaté. (Indeed, each gallery is not only shaped uniquely, but even has been given its own type of floor color and material, all the better to provide it with personality.)
Identity is a permanent dynamic constructed
through relations with others.
The first artworks await in the small lobby in front of the entrance to the first gallery, and they too set a scene and a tone. A series of nine vertical canvases of “pseudo-writing,” or “emotional calligraphy,” by American painter Cy Twombly hang on a long wall, their uniformly azure backgrounds with white brushstrokes calling to mind not only a brisk sea brushed by wind, but also a connection between a contemporary Western artist and one of the highest traditional arts of Islam—calligraphy. (The series is part of a larger body of work called Notes from Salalah—a city on the coast of Oman that captured Twombly’s imagination.)
From there our steps take us to “The Grand Vestibule,” which, through nine compact sets of objects, introduces the diversity of connections among cultures and civilizations, and their common influences, despite belonging to different ages and geographies: snapshots, as it were, of the universal found in the faces of the individual. In the museum’s catalog, Agence France-Muséums Chief Heritage Curator and Scientific Director Jean-François Charnier writes that “by highlighting what they have in common, the museum also reveals what cultures owe to one another. In the continuous flux of history, identity is a permanent dynamic constructed through relations with others.”
Museums deal with ideas, images, artefacts, concepts, things of the mind, things of the heart. What we need now is greater understanding for one another and a wider field for our humanity to play in. A museum like Louvre Abu Dhabi could be pivotal in reminding people that humanity is, finally, one. Beauty serves nothing if it does not serve humanity.
—Ben Okri, Author and 1991 winner of the Man Booker Prize, The Art Newspaper, September 6, 2017.
Facing the center of the gallery titled “In the Court of the Prince” hangs one of the five almost identical Romantic equestrian portraits by French artist Jacques-Louis David of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Painted in 1803, it dominates the space due both to the oversize dimensions of the canvas as well as the vigorous representation of the emperor on his spirited, rearing stallion, which seems entirely ready for conquest of the Alps that rise formidably in the stormy background.
The figure of Napoleon is a significant one in the context of the Louvre Abu Dhabi—a French-guided museum in the Middle East. In 1798 his invasion of Egypt brought with it also the French Commission for the Arts and Sciences of Egypt, some 160 scientists and scholars who were charged with an exhaustive cataloguing of the riches of Egyptian culture, both ancient and new, as well as Egypt’s geography, language and natural history. In 1802, aided by 2,000 collaborators including artists, engravers and printers, Napoleon ordered the publication of an encyclopedia containing the vast amount of the resulting studies, with illustrations, maps, essays and a detailed index. The Description de l’Égypt became a foundation of systematic museology, and it was called “the richest museum on earth.”
“When we put the concepts of history and art together,” says Rabaté, “this is the way we tell the story. It’s a history which starts with the beginning of beauty, when people stopped [merely] surviving to create it. And these objects that we have in the first galleries are about that birth of ‘a little bit more.’ It is a strong anthropological fact that beauty is a little ‘plus’ that makes us human, and we all share that. Then [the galleries] go through time, and in each period of time we explain what we have in common, what has a connection, what changes in pattern, in objects, in style, limitation, influence and sometimes position, but throughout, we have this common history of beauty.”
And this is exactly what we find in the vestibule, which serves as a kind of prelude or introduction. Our eyes are first drawn toward our feet, which step on a polished marble floor, on which stretches, from end to end of the room, a portolan map of the coast of the uae. Inscribed in antique script using inlaid stone, the coastline is crowded with names not only of major Emirati cities but also names of cities and sites where the artifacts on show here come from—many written in the scripts of their cultures of origin. In the center of the floor, a compass windrose, also made out of inlaid marble of many colors, both draws in and points outward, symbol of discovery and relationship, open to all geographies. With the scripts, says Rabaté, this “aims to represent that central hub, as the region was the birthplace of civilization, and also for the new re-emerging networks, the new links of East with West today.”
From Arab Geometry to European Perspective
Under this heading, two pieces, displayed side by side and both produced in the 17th century, illustrate two ways of representing space and, with it, knowledge. One is an Ottoman ceramic tile showing the Great Mosque of Makkah; the other is a colored engraving titled “The Royal Tennis Players,” by Flemish artist Dirck van Delen. On the Ottoman tile, the Great Mosque is placed in the middle of the open courtyard, in a central layout that obeys the graphic conventions of its time and place, surrounded by other notable holy places, including minarets, gates and fountains that, combined in both plan and elevation, revolve around the cube-shaped Ka’ba and also describes the site’s hilly topography. In van Delen’s painting, one-point perspective renders the effect of depth in an urban scene while limiting the inclusion of objects that may lie outside the line of sight as prescribed by the mathematics of perspective. The European development of perspective built much upon optics research carried out centuries earlier by scholars writing in Arabic.
From the points on the windrose, rhomb lines trace across the floor and up the walls to the ceiling, amplifying the concept of civilizations connected without end. The nine display cases, arranged irregularly and shaped as irregular polygons, gather themed juxtapositions of small pieces that lead us to reflect and formulate questions about difference, similarity and the meanings of “universal.” Below a display of gold masks from the Levant, South America and China, all separated by centuries, the legend reads (in English, Arabic and French), “Why did so many civilisations cover the faces of their dead in gold? Does gold, as an incorruptible substance, confer eternal life, liberating our existence from the finite realm?” Other cases raise similar questions about sets of mother-with-child figures; ornamental water vessels; ceramics with symmetrical “solar” patterns; figures in prayer; and, from the earliest times, exquisitely knapped axes and arrowheads. The tacit promise of responses to these questions takes us by the hand into the main galleries.
The galleries are organized chronologically, and the marks of the Louvre’s encyclopedic curation are present in the systematic approach to both the 600 artifacts and their narratives, which are often supplemented by touchscreen displays. The works are interrelated sometimes through esthetic contrasts achieved through placement—a Chinese dragon sculpture alongside a Mediterranean sphinx; the youthful energy of a cast-bronze ballerina by Edgar Degas against the aging repose in a painting of artist James Whistler’s mother—and sometimes as variations on a theme, such as a Christian Madonna and Child from 14th-century France, the Egyptian goddess Isis with son Horus from 800–400 bce and a wooden maternity figure from 19th-century Congo.
Ceramics, metalworks, stone; daily life artifacts, religious objects, commemorative works; paintings, tapestries and installations all take us from the earliest figurations through the global influences of Greece, China, the cultures of Islam, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and global modernisms, up to the present moment: Who influenced whom, and who responded similarly yet out of coincidence? It all tells us how life was in different cultures, from the spheres of power to the hearths of homes, and how ideas of beauty were expressed, transmitted, absorbed, reinterpreted and expressed again.
From the Tower of Babel to the “Fountain of Light”
The final gallery, “A Global Scene,” reflects on today’s globalization and how it affects concepts such as difference and similarity, individuality and collectivity. The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s French-led curation team has brought to this Arab-world museum a work by Ai Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist with a studio in Berlin, and the work itself offers multiple layered inspirations and referents. Its form is a scale reproduction of an unbuilt tower by Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin, intended as a monument to the universalizing ideals of early communism that became an icon in the early 20th-century avant-garde movement known as Constructivism. Weiwei also calls to mind the mythical ziggurat-like Tower of Babel, which appears in the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the gallery devoted to the development of trade routes, on a canvas painted by Abel Grimmer in Antwerp in 1595 as an allegory for the hubris of globalization in that era. The image is based on the Biblical story that at first, people all understood each other, but when humans attempted to build a tower as high as the heavens, God punished them with permanent confusion in the form of different languages, and scattered them all over the earth.
Using interior light refracted through hundreds of hung strands of hexagonal chandelier crystals, Weiwei’s “Fountain of Light” literally illuminates the universalizing aspirations that both Tatlin and Babel share, as well as the cautionary challenges they offer for today.
As Chief Heritage Curator and Scientific Director Jean-François Charnier writes, this caution extends to the word “universal” itself, which comes to us with a Latin etymology from unus, “one,” and vertere, “to turn.” That is to say, he writes, “turning around one.” The word “universal—created by a Europe convinced that the world revolved around it—bears within it the ethnocentrism of its origins.” He quotes Martiniquan poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, who defined the universal as “nothing other than the sublimation of the particular.” This etymology, concludes Charnier, “can also be interpreted differently and indeed in-versely, as plurality turned into unity, a striving for coherence, for what humanity has in common.”
“The connection between the building and the contents through the museography narrative is a full experience,” says Rabaté. “But above all, it is both knowledge and that which is the most important thing in our world: values, [such] as tolerance and respect…. You need to know yourself to be able to understand who you are, and knowing yourself doesn’t mean you don’t respect the other.” This, he adds, is why the gallery sequence ends with “the room in which we have the work by Ai Weiwei, ‘Fountain of Light,’ [see sidebar, p. 14] and all those questions and identities and artists from all over the world. We started with questions, and we finish with questions.” Along the way, he says, “we hope something happens, a changing a little bit inside you, and maybe that little bit is very important.”
At the end of the 12th gallery, lit at its center by Weiwei’s striking, luminous installation, we exit through another simple door. As in the most refreshing finish to any journey, it leads to a modern oasis of the most spectacular kind: Nouvel’s dome and plaza that frame the sea.
No one who steps into this space can avoid saying “wow” while looking up at the arc and expanse of the day-star dome. Visitors of every age and nationality all seem to experience it in a literally breathtaking way, mouths open in enthusiasm, eyes wide in surprise and awe; children, grandparents—just a few steps and, despite the breadth of the plaza before them, the next impulse seems to be to raise a camera, for in every direction we find dramatic images.
Here space itself reclaims a mystical hold on our imagination as the myriad of illuminations aloft, and their reflections on the walls and floor, induce us to meditation. Many are the ways people describe the feeling: the luminous intermittency of sunlit leaves in a breeze; the shade of palm trees; a vast solar kaleidescope or, in the words of a young visitor, “a symbol of heaven.” This is not far from Nouvel’s aim: “You are under the sky, but the cupole is a second sky. It is a symbol of cosmology. You are in a spiritual space.”
Once this initial euphoria calms, in part thanks to the mild breeze that often blows here, and we accustom to what can feel like walking on a ceiling, there are, as a coda, six final artworks, all at once both modern and ancient, keystones of the plaza and symbols of the museum’s universalism.
Raised on its high column base, a casting of French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s “The Walking Man, On a Column” appears to stride confidently toward the center of the vast space, toward a suite of four pieces by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone called “Germination.” Most prominent is his cast-bronze tree, whose organic form rises over our heads to contrast with the fractal geometry of the dome; alongside, a thumbprint of uae founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is ringed by concentric circles like a cross-section of a tree, and nearby, both large and small hand-shaped lumps of clay from soils around the world link us back to one of humanity’s first means of creative production and to legends of our own origins.
One of these legendary accounts, from Mesopotamia, appears in us contemporary artist Jenny Holzer’s monumental reproduction of a clay tablet written in cuneiform script in both Sumerian and Akkadian, which covers a high wall facing the plaza. Holzer has used the most advanced technologies to enlarge and precisely engrave the ancient texts, found in Assur, now in Iraq. A lyrical account of the creation of the world and the first humans, it sends strong symbolic messages that reinforce both the central importance of writing in cultural exchange while at the same time reminding us that the challenges of translation—of dialogue across cultures—have faced us since the very beginnings of language.
Another monumental text-panel by Holzer is nearly hidden. It lies around the corner that leads toward the Children’s Museum pavilion. On it appears a passage from French writer Michel de Montaigne, who wrote on tolerance in the 16th century, when France was in the throes of religious wars. A humanist, his own motto was “Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition,” and the page Holzer selected for this wall comes from the original manuscript of his celebrated Essais. In its marginal notes appears a single question, “What do I know?”
Washed by the rain of light from the dome, there could be no more fitting affirmation to Rabaté’s observation that the Louvre Abu Dhabi “starts with questions, and we end with questions.”