The Louvre of the 18th century was what might today be branded an "arts hub". The palace, once a royal residence, had been vacated by French royalty and served as studio spaces and apartments for elite artists and artisans. Painters, sculptors, clockmakers, woodworkers and all sorts of craftsmen lived and worked side-by-side, trading ideas and co-operating on different artworks and objects.
A collaboration between an astronomer and mechanist, and a silversmith, for example, resulted in the boisterously outre object known as the "creation of the world" clock: a clock face surrounded by gilded bronze rays, which emanate outward like a sun in mid-explosion. A second dial, nestled in folds of silvered bronze, shows the moving position of the stars, while at the clock's bottom, a silvered bronze globe once rotated throughout the day.
When the Louvre in Paris shipped this extraordinary feat of 18th-century engineering to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the museum reoriented the globe so that the long ray emanating downward from the clock face points towards a particular location – Abu Dhabi.
From One Louvre to Another is the Louvre Abu Dhabi's first temporary exhibition, showing the institution setting out its identity as an heir to the eminent French museum. Curated by Jean-Luc Martinez, president-director of the Louvre, and Juliette Trey, curator of the prints and drawings department, the exhibition has two aims: to showcase exemplary pieces from the Louvre in Paris, particularly from its decorative objects collection, and more importantly, to tell the story of the museum itself.
It begins with Louis XIV, the Sun King, who moved the royal residences to Versailles, freeing up the Louvre to be a site of artistic activity. A dedicated believer in the arts, Louis XIV used the Louvre to display the royal collection, and as apartments and studio space for artists and artisans working there. He also transformed his new home, Versailles, into a site where the public could enjoy and engage with art. Here, the public had three levels of access: a garden, where visitors could walk among the mostly classical or classical-copy statuary; an inner ring, of statues and paintings, accessible to courtiers; and finally, his private apartments, populated with works particularly special to him.
The exhibition re-creates these circles of engagement. The first room collects works that would have been in the gardens; one sees, for example, a pair of sculptures that Louis XIV commissioned of the nymphs Acis and Galatea, as well as vases brought from other palaces, indicating the continuity of tradition between these royal sites and Louis XIV's new residence.
A stunning sculpture of Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting, graced the more exclusive areas of the palace; this is Italian from the second century, itself based on a Greek statue from 330 BC. Artists of the Louis XIV era inserted themselves into this Greco-Roman lineage – copying classical statuary, or often simply adding to it – to legitimise themselves as equal to the heights of antiquity. (Here, the antlers on the small deer at Diana's side are a 17th-century improvement.)
In the inner sanctum of Louis XIV's quarters, the exhibitions shows the ornate vases he commissioned: bowls made from semi-precious stone that the king ordered to be further embellished, with enamelling and miniature animals composed of rubies, diamonds and sapphires. They are extraordinary monuments to opulence, and a reminder of Louis XIV's canny use of arts and decor as a means of governance; setting the standard of dress so high that courtiers had to divert all their resources to keeping up with the latest styles.
The museum, in these three rooms and throughout, tells its story not just through the art objects, but through an almost theatrical evocation of the time period. The rooms showing the outdoor statuary, for example, are given strips of wallpaper of garden scenes of the period, as if the visitor is outdoors. The site representing the rooms open to courtiers is painted a deep red, of the hue fashionable to the period, and statues sit within mocked-up arches, suggesting how they might have been displayed in the palace itself.
Elsewhere, videos animate contemporary illustrations to evoke a sense of life at the time, in the studio spaces of the 1700s, for example, or amid the revolution of the century's end. While museum exhibitions typically adhere to white-cube displays, From One Louvre to Another swaps this for scene-setting, and indeed makes the argument that the white-cube display is not the norm but simply the style du jour – a reminder of the many different aesthetics that create the context for the production and evaluation of art.
In some cases, this stagecraft does not go far enough: one mirrored wall is meant to signal the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, but does little either to communicate that particular vertiginous example nor to get across the more-is-more, cluttered aesthetic that reigned in art-making, exhibition display and domestic decor during the period. But the sumptuous paintings and objets d’art in the middle portion of the exhibition, which illustrates the 1700s’ moment of artistic collaborations, step into the breech.
Here, a strong display of finely wrought objects and academic-style paintings, installed in the salon style of multiple rows of paintings reaching up to the ceiling (traditionally, though not here, with those on the upper level helpfully angled downward towards their viewing public), positions the 1700s as the highlight of the Louvre years, both in terms of the quality of the works and the role of the Louvre palace itself in fostering artistic production. The Louvre was also at this time the home of The Academie Française.
To be accepted into the Academie, artists had to paint a portrait of another academician; many of these paintings eventually become part of the collection of the Louvre, enriching the museum both with the artworks and with remnants of this cultural history.
What we would today recognise as the Louvre opened in 1793 as the Museum Central des Arts, when the royal collection became the state collection, open to and representative of its public. It was a hugely symbolic event for post-Revolutionary France, and inaugurated the model that the Louvre has followed since: a public museum, with an eye towards presenting comprehensive and impressive chronologies of cultural history.
Many of the museum's most famous works, such as the Laocoon and His Sons (which is not in this exhibition), arrived during the Napoleonic years, when France's plundering armies vastly added to the museum's collection. (The museum also changed its name here for a bit, to the Musee Napoleon, and its first commission – included in this show – was an almost comically large bust of the emperor.)
It is at this point – the early 1800s – that From One Louvre to Another shifts from being a very French exhibition to one cognisant of the world outside. The painting The Visit by the Pasha of Mosul to the Excavations at Khorsabad (1853) shows the French-led expedition to uncover the remains of the Assyrian capital in what is now northern Iraq; a richly engraved copper vase from Syria is inscribed with the honorifics of the sultan of the time (circa 1239-1260) in angular Kufic script. A lone, skinny statue represents the culture of the Easter Islands; my guide suggested it had been recovered from a shipwreck.
Rather than lingering on this sudden moment of horizon expansion, however, the museum hurries from here quickly to the present, signalling the move to Abu Dhabi only by stagecraft. In the last room, three works in a series by German artist Candida Hofer show the galleries of the Louvre, devoid of people. On the opposite wall is a window looking onto Abu Dhabi island. But the museum Louvre Abu Dhabi itself is missing, which feels like a particular shame within the narrative that From One Louvre to Another sets out.
Wending through the compact line of influence from Greece and Rome to northern Europe, one is reminded of the necessity for major museums, with major budgets and major publicity platforms – such as that of the Louvre Abu Dhabi – to complement the concentration of art histories in the West. The Louvre Abu Dhabi can do more to show how it is both a continuation of the desires towards universal knowledge that animate the collecting strategies of the great world museums of the West, as well as how it breaks with them, and opposes their national histories with a more prominent placement of the art and artefacts of non-western cultures.
This will be the first of a series of exhibitions showcasing the collections and museums comprising Agence France Museums, the group of 12 French museums that lend work to the Louvre Abu Dhabi under the founding French-Abu Dhabi agreement. At the very least, this will be an opportunity for the French museums to highlight their collections and bring them to the attention of the Abu Dhabi public and its visitors – which is not half bad. But at the best, the Louvre Abu Dhabi uses these exhibitions to further define what an “another” Louvre can offer the world.
From One Louvre to Another runs until April 7 at Louvre Abu Dhabi