The first in the third series of Louvre Art Abu Dhabi Talking Art lectures at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Wednesday night was typically understated.
Under the lights, before a darkened auditorium, sat Sylvie Ramond, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon who had flown in to join a panel discussion on museum collections and curation with Dr Ziad Tareq Rajab, a board member of the astonishing Tareq Rajab Museums in Kuwait.
Above them loomed the star of the evening, the Greek hero Theseus, making heavy work of a rock as his mother, Aethra, looks on. Behind them, a finely painted classical portico stretches into the distance.
Theseus Finds his Father’s Sword by Laurent de La Hyre is the latest acquisition to be announced by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and one of three works commissioned around 1639 by the French Cardinal Richelieu, a wealthy churchman, politician and great patron of the arts, to decorate the Guard Room of the Palais-Royal in Paris, France. It’s also the only painting known to have survived from the guard room and its heritage or provenance adds to its value.
The scene that La Hyre depicts is in the 17th-century classical tradition of the hero coming of age, as Theseus who is the son of Aegeus finds his father’s sword and sandals. Jérôme Delaplanche, curatorial assistant of European art (classical period) at Agence France-Muséums, the organisation charged with delivering the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum project, explained how this particular artwork won its place in the Louvre Abu Dhabi collection.
“The La Hyre is so French, so 17th century, and such a classical painting ... so characteristic of a classical mind,” he said. “Regularity, the architecture, the subject from Greco-Roman mythology.
“Last year we bought a Jacob Jordaens painting, a Flemish painter and that painting [The Good Samaritan] is absolutely symbolic of the baroque style. In the same room with only [these] two paintings, you can do this major comparison in western art between baroque and classicism and so you have the heart of European painting.”
While La Hyre’s undeniably pretty but very European aesthetic is sure to divide opinion, the audience at Manarat Al Saadiyat appeared to share a universal admiration for a selection of artworks shown by Dr Ziad from the Tareq Rajab Museum and the Tareq Rajab Museum of Calligraphy in Kuwait. This priceless but little-known collection of ceramics, manuscripts, calligraphy, glass, jewellery, costumes and textiles, was gathered over five decades by Tareq Sayed Rajab, Dr Ziad’s father and a man who he describes as an “obsessive”. Today, it contains more than 30,000 objects from all over the Islamic world, from western China to Andalusia in Spain, Arabia and North Africa and from the 7th to the 19th centuries.
Truly an embarrassment of riches, calligraphic works of great worth include: a significant collection of holy coverings from the Kaaba in Mecca of Ottoman origin; a book from the pen of the great 13th-century calligrapher Yaqut A Musta’simi, who helped refine Arabic script and survived the Mongol sacking of Baghdad; a 9th-century copy of Al Kindi’s book on mirrors and optics; a copy of The Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina, a book that influenced the teaching of medicine in both Europe and the East for almost 700 years; rare examples of 8th century Kufic Abbasid scripts on parchment; and beautifully illuminated pages from the Houghton Shahnameh, the illuminated Book of Kings commissioned by Shah Tahmasp, 16th century Safavid ruler of Iran, that was eventually broken up for sale by the US philanthropist Arthur Houghton.
The Tareq Rajab museum has two major exhibitions abroad with some 300 objects on loan to the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore and another sizeable loan to the Helikon Castle Museum, Keszthely, at Lake Balaton in Hungary. Noticeably excited by the objects in the Kuwaiti collection, Ramond asked whether it might consider making further loans. Dr Ziad was positive. “We are interested in showing what we have because we do realise that it’s nice to have it in Kuwait but it’s quite limited, if we are looking at an international audience.” Dr Ziad is at pains to point out that his father’s ambition in gathering this collection was to show how everyday people lived as well as a handful of royal art patrons. Nevertheless, the result is a kingly collection and one that deserves visitor numbers not in hundreds but hundreds of thousands.
Earlier in the day, Dr Ziad had shared an audience of some 30 students from the College of Arts and Creative Enterprises at Zayed University, all keen to learn more about museum curation as part of their studies. The lecture, the first in an education programme designed to complement the Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Art Series, encompassed the history of the original Louvre Museum as the institution developed from the private collection enjoyed by magpie kings to a public institution visited by approximately eight million people each year. This short lesson in history was given by Delaplanche while a few scribbled copious notes.
Fast forward to the 20th and 21st centuries and an increasingly wealthy elite has, by-and-large, replaced royal patrons such as the late French fashion designer Yves St Laurent whose personal collection of 773 works was sold by Christie’s in February 2009 for an astonishing 374 million euros (Dh1.87bn).
It was at this well-publicised auction in Paris that the Louvre Abu Dhabi acquired the first work of art for its own public collection, an abstract by Piet Mondrian at a cost of almost US$28 million (Dh102m) – more than twice the lot’s estimate, such was the interest in the sale. “We wanted to acquire more but the prices were very high,” Jean-Francois Charnier, the curatorial director of Agence France-Muséums tells the students as he highlights the cultural value of the six works that were successfully purchased.
An overheated art market is not something that vexed Dr Ziad’s father. “My father’s big collecting days were in the late 60s and 70s and 80s, and honestly no one was interested,” he told me. “He bought a lot from Sotheby’s and Christie’s and maybe the value was a tenth or even a hundredth of what it is today.
“Before the Gulf markets grew up in the 90s and 2000s, before that who wanted it? A few collectors like Khalili, the Sultan of Brunei, Gulbenkien, just a few people like that but now you have countries – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha — and they have pushed the market up so high.”
For public institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, the febrile art market requires ever greater ingenuity, not to mention a little help from the state in the form of tax breaks and the designation of “national treasure” status to prevent artworks from being exported. Allowing a collection, however encyclopaedic to remain static is unthinkable, according to Sylvie Ramond: “We have a duty as a director, or when you curate a collection,” she says, “we have to give this collection to the future generation and to give it, not as we receive it, but with new acquisitions. The new acquisitions will last after us.”
Ramond cited the purchase of Nicolas Poussin’s The Flight into Egypt as one of her finest achievements as a director/curator, an acquisition made possible thanks to funds raised from the general public in Lyon, France and further afield as well as a pool of monied corporate donors; children even gave their pocket money, she said.
Everyone who had contributed to the successful acquisition was invited to visit the museum and see “their” painting. “They felt ownership,” she said. It also enabled the museum to reach out to visitors who may never have had the chance to visit before, another important goal if museums are to serve their function as centres of learning.
And it is primarily as a centre of learning that Louvre Abu Dhabi must succeed, regardless of its own collection or any items on loan to it from anywhere in the world in the future. As one student at the outreach lecture asked hopefully: “Will there be a place for me to come and study, not as a student, but as me?” Happily, the answer was in the affirmative.