The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is generating an international buzz as one of the most anticipated events of the year. When that will be is anybody’s guess, as officials are sticking to a mantra that this is worth waiting for.
Even in the instantaneously connected, 24/7 world of the internet, it can sometimes take time for news to percolate its way through cyberspace.
When The Times of London took the opportunity last month to look ahead by running a list of this year’s most anticipated architectural projects, half the projects were understandably British.
But alongside Herzog & de Meuron’s already opened Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and Foster+Partners’ new, ring-shaped headquarters for the Apple campus in Cupertino, California, The Times’ Jonathan Morrison also included the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
“A mere five years late, this stylish outpost of the great Parisian institution has not been without its critics,” Morrison wrote.
“But Jean Nouvel’s ‘museum city’, with its art-full streets, plazas and waterways, sheltered beneath a perforated metal dome spilling soft light, should win over even the most intransigent detractors.”
“It will be a much-needed addition to a region where culture is usually synonymous with shopping.”
Despite employing the kind of casual racism at which Fleet Street excels when discussing matters pertaining to the Gulf, and its use of a 10-year-old rendering as an illustration, Morrison’s article caused a stir, prompting a wave of questions about the museum’s likely opening date.
So is The Times correct? After almost a decade of unprecedented intergovernment agreement, cultural cooperation, acquisitions, loan agreements, titanic construction achievements, spending reviews and contract negotiations, will this be the year that sees paintings by Bellini and Ingres, Gaugin and Picasso finally go on permanent display on Saadiyat Island?
Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), the body charged with the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s delivery and operation, certainly said so as recently as last September.
“Louvre Abu Dhabi will welcome visitors in 2017 and its opening date is expected to be announced soon,” said the TCA as it announced the appointment of the museum’s first director, Manuel Rabate, and his deputy, Hissa Al Dhaheri. The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s official Twitter feed also said as much last Tuesday when it responded to a query from an Al Ain resident with “the opening date is expected to be announced soon”.
That came just after Mr Rabate made a similar statement at an award ceremony for Louvre Abu Dhabi student ambassadors on January 25.
“I used to say that the museum is made of four pillars – the building, the collection, the team and its public,” he told an audience that included the Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs, Noura Al Kaabi, and Saif Ghobash, director general of TCA.
“You have seen the building, it is astonishing, the collection is growing with the help of our French partners and the team is there. Hopefully soon enough we will be able to announce the opening date and we will be able to open the doors to the public of Abu Dhabi and to the public of the world.”
Given the number of opening dates that have been mooted since the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s launch, speculation is as understandable as it is unavoidable.
But it detracts from the project’s aims, which appear to become more utopian and ambitious as the current regional and economic climate deteriorates.
“We will talk about all civilisations from the beginning of history to the globalised situation we live in today,” Mr Rabate said, outlining the curatorial direction of the Middle East’s first universal museum.
“And this will be the first time that visitors will be given the opportunity to experience a universal narrative from the very beginnings of beauty in pre-history that always has artworks and civilisations in co-visibility and coexistence.”
That vision has been guided by Jean-Francois Charnier, the scientific director of Agence France-Museums (AFM), the French museum consortium that has been working with TCA for a decade to make the Louvre Abu Dhabi a reality.
“The museum will be a place to have surprises and to make discoveries about the diversity and the commonality of the world,” Mr Charnier said in 2014.
“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”.
The clearest expression of what that story might be and what the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s displays might look like came in April 2014 when a selection of 160 objects from its permanent collection was exhibited as Birth of a Museum at the Musee du Louvre in Paris.
Curated by Vincent Pomarede, director of cultural programming for the Musee du Louvre, Laurence des Cars, then curatorial director of AFM, and TCA’s Khalid Abdulla, the show employed some notable comparisons.
One display juxtaposed a standing statue of a Roman orator with a later Buddhist figure from modern day Pakistan to investigate the influence of Greek sculpture in antiquity.
Another compared a 10th century South Indian figure of a dancing Shiva with an early 16th-century South German figure of Christ to discuss different religious and artistic approaches to the representation of the divine.
This use of comparison will extend to the displays in the museum’s outer precincts, where site-specific commissions from contemporary artists Giuseppe Penone and Jenny Holzer will be exhibited close to an 18th-century mosaic pavement and fountain from Ottoman Syria.
Like Penone’s installation Propagation, which has been manufactured by the workshops of Sevres – Cite de la Ceramique, the French national ceramics museum, and Holzer’s installations, which recreate three historic texts in marble, the Ottoman pavement will be installed as an architectural feature in the museum’s inner plaza. This is a central space that separates the museum’s 23 permanent galleries from the hangar-like temporary gallery that will house four travelling exhibitions each year.
Although the schedule for the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s temporary exhibitions is yet to be publicised, the programme for Masterpieces from the Leiden Collection: The Age of Rembrandt, which opens at the Musee du Louvre in Paris on February 22, reveals that it will also travel to the Long Museum in Shanghai and the National Museum in Beijing before appearing at the Louvre Abu Dhabi next year.
Featuring masterpieces by 17th century Dutch painters from the collection of Thomas and Daphne Kaplan, the show, brought together at a major international museum for the first time, exhibits the largest private collection of works by Rembrandt and about 30 paintings and drawings by Golden Age painters from around Leiden in the Netherlands.
If the Louvre’s contemporary commissions bring its permanent collection into the present, its holdings begin in prehistory, with 500,000-year-old stone tools that will be used to trace the beginnings of art history and the birth of aesthetics and humanity.
Other highlights of the museum’s permanent collection of about 600 exhibits, include Piet Mondrian’s 1922 painting Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black, the very first acquisition made by the museum, Picasso’s Portrait of a Lady, Rene Magritte’s Surrealist The Subjugated Reader, Yves Klein’s double body print from 1960, Anthropometry (ant 110), and Paul Gaugin’s Children Wrestling, artworks Mr Rabate describes as “the identity of the Louvre Abu Dhabi” and “the legacy of Abu Dhabi”.
For the first decade of the museum’s existence they will be joined by loans from 13 French institutions including the Musee du Louvre, the Centre Pompidou, the Musee d’Orsay and the Musee National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet. They will be exhibited side-by-side in the museum’s 6,000 square metres of permanent galleries.
“To understand what the museum is about you also have to understand its space and its programme,” Mr Rabate said.
“You have loans from the Musee du Louvre but you also have the full network of the major French museums and the curatorial team has been working with them to bring some of the masterpieces of world culture to Abu Dhabi on a yearly basis,” he said.
“This is the richness of the collection and the richness of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.”