In Joris-Karl Huysmans's 19th century novel, A Rebours, an eccentric aristocrat called Jean des Esseintes retreats from Paris to the countryside and fills his house with beautiful things: fine art, exotic flowers, and expensive jewellery. At one point, des Esseintes decides to have the shell of his pet tortoise set with dozens and dozens of gemstones. The weight of these gemstones is too much for the tortoise to bear and it eventually dies, literally crushed by decadence.
As you walk around 10,000 Years of Luxury, a vast new exhibition at Louvre Abu Dhabi, it is hard, at times, not to feel like des Esseintes's poor tortoise. The sheer volume of stuff – jewellery, clothing, tapestry, musical instruments, furniture and cutlery – can be overwhelming. Unsurprising, perhaps, given the ambitious title of the show. One needs an awful lot of dots, in order to trace a coherent line from, say, a 7th century BC Iranian drinking vessel to the latest haute couture.
Even so, did we need quite so much repetition? Are three "cosmetic spoons" from Ancient Egypt really better than one? How many 18th century porcelain flowers is too many? There are more than 350 objects on display here – yet one of the fundamental attributes of a luxury item is its uncommonness. It is a tricky conundrum to navigate and 10,000 Years of Luxury occasionally get snagged on its own (very expensive) rocks. The volume risks diluting the flavour.
For all this, however, I haven’t left an exhibition feeling this exhilarated in a long time. In every room, there is something so delightful, so ravishingly pretty, that it quickens the pulse. Curator Olivier Gabet, director of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, has mercifully reduced information about the exhibits to a minimum. Many of them transcend context. “People don’t need to have a lot of knowledge and background to understand the beauty of these objects,” says Gabet.
As you enter 10,000 Years of Luxury, you are greeted by the Abu Dhabi Pearl, which was discovered on Marawah Island in 2017. It dates back to 5800-5600 BC and is the earliest pearl yet to have been recorded. This beady little eye stares out at you from the darkness of its glass case, very much of the natural world and yet, in its profound simplicity and elegance, somehow apart from it, too. "Small is beautiful, always," says Gabet.
These words provide the key to the show. It is rarely the biggest or the glitziest objects, begging too hard for your attention, that surprise you. Far more exciting are the items that refuse to give up their secrets so easily. A 16th century spoon from Germany, with its silver handle and bowl of pink shell, whispers at you to come closer. A late 16th century or early 17th century stemmed glass from Venice is so thin and delicate, it seems as if it could be punctured by a single champagne bubble. A collection of 18th century German and French paper fans have been painted with intricate rural scenes, which you could study for hours.
The exhibition is largely chronological, but each room is also structured around a theme. “Luxury at Court” explores how “new horizons in Africa, Asia and the Americas” introduced new wonders into the European princely courts of the 18th century. “The Far Reaches of Luxury” looks at China and Japan and features what is, to my mind, the finest piece in the exhibition, a Chinese lady’s headdress from the 19th century. It is made up of kingfisher feathers and semi-precious stones and the colours – reds and golds against blues and turquoises – leave you giddy with joy. To Gabet's great credit, he has included objects from all over the world, resisting a Western narrative.
For those of you looking for unashamed opulence, there is a wonderfully over-the-top section dedicated to “The World’s Fairs”. The first of these fairs, where nations competed to exhibit the most lavish objects, was held in London in 1851. And nothing could be more lavish than Henri-Auguste Fourdinois’s colossal oak, bronze and marble door from 1878. It’s a monstrosity, really, and no-one bought it. Nevertheless, you can’t help but admire the chutzpah. This section is neatly followed by a set of minimalist 20th century furniture, designed by Jean-Michel Frank, which illustrates how our notions of luxury continue to change and evolve.
The final part of the exhibition focusses predominantly on 20th and 21st century fashion. It is a privilege to see dresses side-by-side designed by, among others, Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel and Helmut Lang. Here, right at the end of 10,000 Years of Luxury, the idea that less is more, which had gnawed away at me throughout, is most explicitly illustrated.
An evening gown by Madeleine Vionnet, from her 1920 Winter collection, is simply four silk panels stitched together. It is intimate and self-assured, so at odds with the brash high fashion of the late 20th century and early 21st century when, we are told, “heels became higher” and “shoes boasted rhinestones and sequins, feathers and lace, their luxury of elegance according with a fashion that had few inhibitions”.
If 10,000 Years of Luxury has a message, it is that luxury can mean all things to all people. As a result, it lacks a bit of focus. You never quite get a sense of what exactly binds all these objects together. Wealth? Power? Creativity? Perhaps it’s better to give up on trying to find a common thread and instead pick out, like a magpie, the bits that catch your eye. Just don’t get greedy, try to absorb it all, and end up like the tortoise.
10,000 Years of Luxury is at Louvre Abu Dhabi from Wednesday, October 30 to Tuesday, February 18. More information and tickets is available at louvreabudhabi.ae