The art of an exhibition: the philosophy of curating Louvre Abu Dhabi’s first collections

The museum will be unlike traditional venues, with a new approach to displaying its collection and organising its interior.
A visitor looks at a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist's work will grace the walls of Louvre Abu Dhabi. Bertrand Guay / AFP
A visitor looks at a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch artist's work will grace the walls of Louvre Abu Dhabi. Bertrand Guay / AFP
The news is finally out. When Louvre Abu Dhabi opens at the end of next year it will do so with a collection that boasts some of the most famous names in art history: da Vinci, Monet, Pollock, Rothko and Matisse. For a while at least.

Many of the major paintings, such as Vincent van Gogh’s haunting self-portrait and Andy Warhol’s Big Electric Chair, will only stay in Abu Dhabi for a year, while many of the books, manuscripts and works on paper will have to be returned after a mere three months. It’s a schedule that has the curatorial teams at Agence-France Muséums (AFM), and Louvre Abu Dhabi looking far beyond the museum’s opening in 2015.

“We are already starting to think about year two and what will be missing after the [return of] the first loans,” says Jean-François Charnier, AFM’s scientific director. “Now is the time for us to work together on what we call the ‘recipe’ and to think about the next list.”

For some, the prospect of having to replace such a rare and seemingly irreplaceable painting as Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière would be a daunting task.

“This is not a museum that will stay the same for 10 years and it’s not a museum that will change completely like a new exhibition – it’s somewhere in between and I think that is interesting,” Charnier says. “We are not working on totally permanent galleries, they will be semi-permanent galleries because the change will be important year-on-year. This mobility, this flexibility, this volatility is a key element of the identity of Louvre Abu Dhabi.”

As Hissa Al Dhaheri, programmes manager for Louvre Abu Dhabi, explains, the constant flow of loans will also define the visitor experience and the museum’s displays and museography. “One of the biggest challenges is to produce a permanent design that is permanently changing. We’re not just talking about artworks, we’re talking about structures, display cases, floors and ceilings.”

For Charnier, part of the solution to Louvre Abu Dhabi’s curatorial conundrum will be the discovery and loan of different works that will explore the same key messages that works such as Claude Monet’s La Gare Saint-Lazare or da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière illustrate.

“There is not just Leonardo da Vinci. There are other fantastic painters from the Renaissance who can allow us to talk about what we want to talk about: the realism of the figure, the importance of the name of the artist, the humanist way of talking about art and society.”

Luckily, the team at AFM have the collections of 12 of France’s most illustrious cultural institutions to draw on but Charnier admits that Louvre Abu Dhabi’s real curatorial challenge will come once the agreed 10-year loan period comes to an end. “It’s the main question,” the Frenchman admits. “We now have 11 years of acquisitions before the end of the loan period [so] we hope we can find pieces that will be able to continue to talk about the narrative of Louvre Abu Dhabi.”

When it comes to replacing the irreplaceable, Charnier is good-humoured: “I don’t know if we will be able to find another Leonardo da Vinci”, but he is also keen to move beyond what he admits is an understandable fascination with “big name” artists and artworks. “We want to show important artworks and masterpieces in dialogue and that is something new in the world of museums. We will not only be showing paintings with paintings or sculpture with sculpture or Near Eastern with Near Eastern. We are trying to cross all of these elements to try to tell a different story and we are very excited to think that this is a key element of Louvre Abu Dhabi.”

Some of these conversations have already been well-documented and provide a tantalising insight into what the first visitors to Louvre Abu Dhabi can expect to see when the museum opens next year.

A display about Romanticism, individualism and political power in the modern age will feature a loan from the Jacques-Louis David’s stirring equestrian portrait Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Mont Saint-Bernard, on May 20, 1800 (painted in 1803) and a portrait of George Washington that has been acquired for Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection.

Another conversation is due to take place between two 170-year-old daguerreotypes by the French photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey that will provide a tantalising insight into what the first visitors to Louvre Abu Dhabi can expect to see when the museum opens next year. An iridescent vision captured in mercury on a copper plate, Ayoucha whole fig[ure] is the earliest known photographic depiction of a veiled woman from the Islamic world and is one of five portraits of a young Cairene that Girault de Prangey made in 1843.

The daguerreotype remained in the artist’s archive until 2011 when it was acquired for Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection at auction in the United States.

In 2015, Ayoucha whole fig[ure] will be reunited with one of its sister images, a very different portrait of the same Cairene unveiled and reclining on a couch with a water-pipe.

The second image is a loan from the collection of photographs and stamps at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Remarkably, neither of the quarter-plate portraits were ever exhibited during Girault de Prangey’s lifetime as his whole collection of images sat overlooked in a storeroom for more than 30 years after the photographer’s death.

Girault de Prangey’s daguerreotypes are now so highly prized that when part of the artist’s collection appeared at auction in 2003, a single 7 x 9 inch image of the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens sold for Dh3.1 million (£565,250).

These two quarter-plate portraits promise to be one of the more affecting highlights of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening collection and will be used to explore the impact of travel, the East and “the Other” on western artists. They embody a sense of dialogue that goes to the heart of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s intent.

“Louvre Abu Dhabi will give a glimpse of time, of evolution, but more than that it will talk about everybody and also it will propose a common expression of art and dialogue between artworks,” Charnier explains. “The museum [will be] a place to have surprises and to make discoveries about the diversity and the commonality of the world.”

Nick Leech is a features writer at The National.

Published: October 16, 2014 04:00 AM


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