A serene Buddha’s head and the face of an Ottoman emir, lost deep in concentration, adorn the enormous banner that hangs next to the Passage Richelieu, the imposing Rue de Rivoli entrance of the Musée du Louvre.
For anyone familiar with Birth of a Museum, the exhibition of the permanent collection of Louvre Abu Dhabi that was held at Manarat Al Saadiyat last year, both objects are immediately recognisable, but for the press and the museum-going public in Paris, the objects represent an event that has been much anticipated and the promise of something new.
Tomorrow, Birth of a Museum will open to the public in the Louvre’s Napoleon Hall, the largest temporary exhibition space of the world’s most popular museum. A larger show than the one exhibited in Abu Dhabi, it features more than 160 pieces from Louvre Abu Dhabi’s steadily growing permanent collection.
For audiences outside the UAE, the objects displayed in Birth of a Museum may be seen as the most tangible evidence of Abu Dhabi’s wider cultural ambitions, but importantly for the French public, it is also a first opportunity to see the fruits of the 30-year, multibillion-dirham intergovernmental agreement that was signed by both nations in 2007 with the aim of establishing the 21st century’s first universal museum.
In the context of the controversy that has surrounded the much-misunderstood relationship between the Musée du Louvre and Louvre Abu Dhabi, the exhibition has a currency that extends far beyond the boundaries of high culture.
“We think that it has been very difficult for the French public to understand why this project is [happening] in Abu Dhabi,” explained Vincent Pomarede, the exhibition’s general curator and the director of mediation and cultural programming for the Musée du Louvre. “So, in this exhibition, we are trying to explain how the museum is helping in the formation of the national collection of Abu Dhabi.”
Works of art
Around 30 new acquisitions have been added to Birth of a Museum since the Saadiyat Island show, but many of the key exhibits from the early exhibition are now on display in Paris.
These include LAD 2009-001, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s first-ever acquisition, a 1922 painting by Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black. The painting was bought at auction in 2009 at Christie’s in Paris. Prior to acquisition for the Louvre Abu Dhabi permanent collection, it had belonged to the estate of the French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, who used the Dutch painter’s saturated squares of colour as the inspiration for his famous 1965 collection of De Stijl-inspired shift dresses.
Other familiar exhibits include a 4,000-year-old stone statuette called the Bactrian Princess from central Asia, as well as important works by painters such as Manet, Gaugin, Magritte and Picasso, whose 1928 gouache, ink and collage Portrait of a Lady takes pride of place in the section of the exhibition dedicated to figuration and abstraction in 20th-century art.
To these have been added objects such as The Puguilists Cruegas and Damoxenos, two monumental plaster models by the Venetian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova that were simply too large to go on display at Saadiyat, as well as new objects that have been acquired since the opening of the first Birth of a Museum exhibition. Of the latest additions, it is the 1960 painting Chirisei Kyubiki by the Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga that really stands out. The effect is a global history of art that begins in the Bronze Age and ends in 2008 with Untitled I-IX, one of the very last cycles of paintings to have been completed by the American artist Cy Twombly before his death in 2011.
Beauty and importance
As Vincent Pomarede and his fellow curators, Laurence des Cars and Khalid Abdulkhaliq Abdulla, readily admit, a more straightforward, strictly chronological approach has been applied to the display of the objects in Paris than was attempted in the 2013 version of Birth of a Museum.
“The idea isn’t to provide a preview of Louvre Abu Dhabi,” said Pomarede. “The idea is only to show the exhibition and to show the beauty and the importance of the collection, of the acquisitions that have been made since 2009 and their importance in the history of art.”
By taking that approach, Pomarede and his colleagues have not only tried to convince the French public of the quality of Abu Dhabi’s collection, but they have also emphasised the universalist impulse that represents the conceptual DNA of both Louvres, in Abu Dhabi and France.
“We have inherited the idea of universalism from the 18th century, but the idea is to reinterpret the concept in the context of Abu Dhabi,” explained Celine Pouyat, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA)’s senior project manager for the new Louvre.
“The idea is to show the commitment of the government of Abu Dhabi to acquiring works of art for a permanent public collection, but we are also trying to see how we can reinterpret the history of art.”
In Abu Dhabi, Birth of a Museum attempted that reinterpretation by creating a series of dialogues between objects that were culturally and temporally disparate to highlight certain themes. A comparison between an early Bronze Age terra-cotta plaque idol and Yves Klein’s Anthropometry (1960), a male and female body print rendered in the artist’s eponymous pigment, was designed to illustrate different approaches to the depiction of the human form. In Paris, however, there is less time travel and these objects are separated, appearing in chronological order at the very beginning and the end of the exhibition.
This latest version of Birth of a Museum is no poorer for that and, if anything, the more straightforward approach makes the dialogue between cultures, objects and artists that informs Louvre Abu Dhabi more meaningful and visible, not less.
What the French public and Louvre Abu Dhabi’s critics make of Birth of a Museum is yet to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Birth of a Museum must be understood as something rather more than an exhibition or as an ambitious attempt to reconfigure the canons of art history.
Birth of a Museum is an example of what diplomats now call “soft power” and the fact that the exhibition was inaugurated on Tuesday by France’s president François Hollande and Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the chairman of the Abu Dhabi TCA, should leave visitors with no illusions as to its status. For the teams from the Musée du Louvre, Agence France Muséums and Louvre Abu Dhabi, one hurdle has been successfully negotiated in Paris, but on December 2, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, an even greater challenge now awaits.