Museum's goal: 'universality of art'

As 29 masterpieces go on display, as government authority pledges not to shy away from works that focus on touchy subjects or show nudity.

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ABU DHABI // The Abu Dhabi Louvre will be "beyond censorship" and embrace openness, the government authority developing Saadiyat Island said yesterday, answering concerns that nudes or controversial works would not be displayed when the gallery opens in 2013.

The first 29 masterpieces to be housed in the new Louvre went on display in the capital this week, aimed at giving the public a sense of the museum's universal spirit, said Rita Aoun-Abdo, director of the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC). The works are arranged to emphasise the commonalities of artistic movements from around the world, Mrs Aoun-Abdo said, adding that such a presentation was the first of its kind.

"There hasn't been anything like this in any other museum, and it is not pretension to say that," Ms Aoun-Abdo said. "This museum will not be a replica of the Louvre in Paris. It will be a crossroads of civilisations. It will explore the connection between artistic expression in different countries." Last year's Picasso exhibition in Abu Dhabi has put paid to doubts about censorship of art that might offend local sensibilities, such as pieces containing nudity, Ms Aoun-Abdo said. The Picasso Abu Dhabi: Masterpieces from the Muse National Picasso, Paris, exhibition featured paintings, sculptures and drawings that included nudes.

"The spirit of the museum is based in universality and is against unilateralism," she said. "Among other things, it will marry European enlightenment with an Arab soul. But Abu Dhabi wants an international standard of museum and we are beyond censorship. "Pragmatically speaking, last year's Picasso exhibition, containing some nudes, ended those questions. "Conceptually, the museum is about the universality of art and is a statement about the openness and tolerance of Abu Dhabi."

Because the museum will bring together art from all over the world, in the manner of institutions like the British Museum in London, rather than concentrating on one particular niche, like the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, it can be described as a universal museum, the first outside the West, Ms Aoun-Abdo said. "But the galleries will not be separated into sections, which is the encyclopaedic approach of, say, the British Museum," Ms Aoun-Abdo said. "Instead, a cross-referenced approach will offer a platform for dialogue as well as reflecting the cultural diversity of the UAE."

The arrangement of the different pieces in relation to one another is crucial to bringing out what they have in common and what sets them apart, and great thought has gone into placing the 29 works in the Talking Art: Louvre Abu Dhabi preview exhibition, which include a 14th century Mameluke Quran as well as paintings by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and Cézanne. "In the middle of the space there is the 14th century Quran, one of the last of the large-format Qurans," Ms Aoun-Abdo said. "As you contemplate it, you see on the right the head of a Buddha from northern China and on the left a Christ from Bavaria in Germany. So your view contains a dialogue of religions. This is the spirit of the museum and when you are among these works it is palpable."

As part of an educational drive, TDIC is holding events for teachers and pupils, Ms Aoun-Abdo said. "We want teachers to come in, grasp it, and spread the word," she said. "We have started acquiring a permanent collection for the Louvre and TDIC is working to develop all the other institutions to provide all the services for visitors and new kinds of city resident, such as students at the new international universities. There is a renaissance in all domains."