French connection

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 53, Winter 2017

Page 40

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a staggering new museum, built on a desert island. Its director, Manuel Rabaté, shares his lofty ambitions with Claire Wrathall

In their mission statements, most national museums use the lofty term: 'encyclopaedic'. If anything, Manuel Rabaté, the 41-year-old director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, ratchets things up a notch. He claims it will be "the world's first universal" museum, arguing it is a place that will allow us "to see humanity in a new light" and gain "enlightenment through art".

That's no small ambition, especially as the museum – which opens this November and is said to be the most expensive ever built – is the first major cultural offering in what was quite literally a desert. It is on a triangular island – until recently uninhabited – 500m off the coast of the Emirati capital, attached to the mainland by the ten-lane Sheikh Khalifa Bridge.

But then Rabaté is on a mission, not just to bring the best of 5,000 years of global civilisation to the United Arab Emirates, but to shake up the often inward-looking world of museology by showcasing works of art from all over the world as part of a bigger picture. A Frenchman who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 2010, Rabaté argues that, too often, "museums are over-compartmentalised". His approach "will be to reconnect the works, to stress our common values. Our aim is to tell the story of humanity from its earliest days to the present, because all the world's cultures have something in common."

It's an idea that stems in part from the museum's Middle Eastern location, historically the bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa.

As Jean-Luc Martinez, the overall president-director of the Musée
du Louvre in Paris, observed, "In today's globalised world [the Gulf] has become the transport crossroads of the planet, linking East and West. At the Louvre in France, we take a French view of the world. In Abu Dhabi, we have a global view."

I meet Rabaté at London's Mayfair Hotel, where he has just arrived from New York on a whistle-stop international tour of press conferences. Despite his 'if it's Tuesday it must be Belgium" schedule, Rabaté's enthusiasm for the project has the press hanging on his every word. Bespectacled and lightly bearded, he has the air, indeed the genes, of an academic: his father was a professor of comparative literature, his mother a head teacher. But it turns out he has an unconventional background for a museum director. His first degree was from Sciences Po, the Grande École (as France's elite universities are known) that specialises in politics. This was followed by postgraduate study at the HEC Paris business school, after which he joined first the Louvre and then the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, in administrative roles. He then moved to Agence France-Muséums, the organisation that oversees France's 17 national collections, embracing most of the major institutions in Paris, as well as the Château de Chambord in the Loire and the Cité de la Céramique – Sèvres et Limoges. Thirteen of these collections have lent works to the Louvre Abu Dhabi for its inaugural exhibitions.

In some ways, the Louvre Abu Dhabi's title is misleading. It has paid an undisclosed but reportedly ten-figure sum for a 30-year licence to use the Louvre's name. But in fact only about 100 of the 600 or so objects and paintings in the inaugural exhibition have come from the Louvre itself. Half of them belong to the Emirate, which, under guidance from the Louvre, has been amassing quite a collection of its own.

The first acquisition for the new museum was Piet Mondrian's 1922 Composition avec Bleu, Rouge, Jaune et Noir, previously owned by Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, who used it as the inspiration for his 1965 collection of sack dresses. The painting was bought at auction in 2009 for €21,569,000. Since then, 620 works have been added to the collection. These range from an ancient Egyptian turquoise faience hippopotamus from around 1850 BC to a chinoiserie commode by the 18th-century Parisian cabinet-maker Bernard van Risamburgh. Other exhibits include a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, a rare 15th-century Aq Qoyunlu steel-with-silver-inlay turban helmet that once belonged to the Orientalist French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, a bronze Oba head from Benin, and the striking abstract painting Bindu (1986), showing a black circle within a square, by the Indian artist Syed Haider Raza, who died last year.

There are stellar paintings, too, by Caillebotte, Hakuin Ekaku, Gauguin, Liotard, Magritte, Manet, Picasso, Shiraga, Cy Twombly, Utamaro and Yan Pei-Ming... and site-specific commissions from Emirati, Indian and Syrian artists, as well as well-known Americans and Europeans. There is the large-scale site-specific piece by Jenny Holzer, for instance. It consists of three stone walls, engraved with texts from The Muqaddimah, 14th-century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun's Islamic history of the pre-modern world, from the Atıf Efendi Library in Istanbul; with a Mesopotamian creation myth from a tablet in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin; and with an essay by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, published in 1588. Another commissioned artist is Giuseppe Penone, of the Italian Arte Povera movement, whose four tree-based works include Leaves of Light, a towering bronze model of a trunk and branches that, thanks to mirrors among its branches, will reflect the dappled light that permeates the museum's landmark dome.

Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that the museum's architecture will prove as much of an attraction as its contents. The museum was designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, whose first great project, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, established his reputation in 1987 as the go-to designer of buildings with an Arabian sensibility. It consists of 55 low, white buildings, above which a gigantic dome appears to float.

The dome is huge – 180m in diameter, 36m tall at its highest point and supported by four gigantic piers, each 110m apart, that seem to disappear into it – the boxy structures beneath containing 8,600sq m of exhibition space. There are 12 main galleries, space for temporary exhibitions and a children's museum, as well as a 200-seat auditorium, a restaurant, café and shop, all clustered to form a sort of stylised medina, cross-hatched by cooling channels of water reminiscent of falaj irrigation. As Nouvel told The Art Newspaper: "I wanted the place to be more of a neighbourhood than a building, with streets, squares and terraces, where the works of art are shown outside the galleries as well as inside. [So] I began with interconnected blocks of differing proportions inspired by white Arab cities. This concept allowed us the flexibility we needed."

It is its perforated dome, however, that is the museum's crowning glory – an eight-layer structure, its form deliberately reminiscent of a mosque, composed of geometrically complex star-like arrangements of thousands of angular shapes, evocative of the fretwork on a mashrabiyya screen. During the day, what Nouvel calls "a rain of light" will be filtered through them, casting an ever-changing pattern of rays on the white walls and pale floors of the museum, an effect inspired by the sunbeams that penetrate the palm-frond roofs of a souk. At night, by contrast, the building will emit light, shining like a giant filigree lantern, at once a beacon of learning and a radiant symbol of enlightenment.

As to what you'll find inside, there will be a concentration of works familiar to anyone acquainted with Paris's main art galleries: for example, Leonardo da Vinci's La Belle Ferronière from the Louvre; Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps from the Château de Versailles; Van Gogh's 1887 self-portrait and Manet's Fife Player, from the Musée d'Orsay; and Matisse's Still Life with a Magnolia from the Centre Georges Pompidou. But seeing them here in unfamiliar surroundings will, Rabaté told me, enable visitors to see them anew, to look at them with what Marcel Proust called "new eyes".

Not every work is well known, however. He points to the presence of Francesco Primaticcio's bronze Apollo Belvedere (1540-1543), which hitherto stood in the Galerie des Cerfs at the Château de Fontainebleau, where it was all too easy to miss.

Its prominence here is evidence that nudes have not been proscribed – a Fang reliquary of a female figure from Equatorial Guinea, a fertility figurine from Mali, and a rococo fête galante by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée are also on display. Neither has overtly Christian imagery been avoided: witness Giovanni Bellini's Madonna and Child and a Northern Renaissance figure of Christ "showing His wounds"; nor allusions to liquor (Rodin's Bacchus in the Vat). But then, just as unexpectedly, the museum's restaurant is licenced to serve wine.
There are loans as well from other important international institutions, among them the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The result is a wide-ranging survey of international art from the lower palaeolithic era to the present, embracing work not just from the West, but right across Asia, the whole collection seeking, says Rabaté, to "tell the story of global civilisation".

To this end, golden funeral masks from Egypt, China and Central America are displayed alongside one another, drawing parallels not just between different peoples' funerary rites but the eternal, international veneration of gold. Another display will look at fertility symbols across different cultures and ages. By grouping objects chronologically in terms of their aesthetics and type, visitors will be able both to find a commonality between people the world over and "to walk through time".

Of course, Abu Dhabi is not the first Gulf state to begin repositioning itself as a knowledge economy and tourist destination, lest the world become less reliant on oil and gas, or its resources begin to dwindle. (Qatar already has a clutch of fine museums, notably the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, which is very much worth a layover if you're flying via Doha.) Nor is it the first nation to want to assert its place in the world with a museum. Rabaté points out that, in 1793, the Muséum Central des Arts – the basis of what we know as the Louvre – was opened as a symbol of the First Republic and new French nationhood. The union of seven semi-autonomous sheikhdoms that comprise the United Arab Emirates has existed as a nation only since 1971, and wants, as he puts it, "a museum of their own... even if it has been developed in collaboration with France". It's not, he stresses, a satellite, like the Louvre Lens that opened 200km north of Paris in 2012. Rather, it is the first "national museum of the United Arab Emirates".

Claire Wrathall is an award-winning writer for the FT and other publications.

Louvre Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Cultural District, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
+971 600 56 55 66, Entry 60 AED, free under-13s.

Related auctions