x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Louvre in Paris finally opens its Islamic art galleries

After 10 years of wrangling with more than 18,000 pieces, the Louvre in Paris is finally opening its Islamic art galleries this weekend.

2012 Musée du Louvre / Philippe Ruault
2012 Musée du Louvre / Philippe Ruault

On Saturday, the Musée du Louvre's long-awaited new galleries dedicated to the department of Islamic art open to the public. This comes after 10 years of wrangling with 15,000 individual pieces held in the museum's own collection, and 3,400 works on permanent loan from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The project itself has cost just under €100 million (Dh180m), with sponsors including Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Qaboos bin Said, the sultan of Oman.

The collection stretches across two floors, starting with pieces from only 100 years after the Prophet through to the mid-19th century, with detours along the way to the Spanish fringes of the caliphate, the Chinese frontier of Mughal-era India and the courts of the Mamluk kings.

The Louvre's horde of Islamic art - one of the most extensive in the world - has long been overlooked. A vast number of these pieces have not been seen in public since they were first acquired.

There's a 12th-century candlestick from Khorasan, Iran, with a layer-cake design around which rows of ducks and cats emerge from its brazen surface - even more impressive when we discover that the entire work was beaten out of a single piece of copper.

There are seventh-century ceramics - near synonymous with the time of the Prophet - found in what is today Iraq, as well as an ivory casket given to the son of one of the last Umayyad caliphs of Muslim Spain.

The galleries' narrative is geographical from the start. Every object is annotated with a map, and the passage of time is linked to the expansion and eventual fragmentation of the various great Muslim empires.

"Ibn Khaldun was our guide in putting together this exhibition," says Sophie Makariou, the head of the Department des Arts de l'Islam. He was born in Tunis, "but finished his life in Cairo in 1406, and he reviewed the history of the Islamic world with the aim of writing a universal history. He was a creator of the historical scenario we wanted to put on display".

That scenario, she explains, is a chartable process of rise and fall that the great empires of the Islamic world went through. It is a story that counters the widely held misconception of a single, monolithic Islamic civilisation and presents instead the threads of influence that connect a vast geographic area (right down to direct comparisons of stylistics between craftsmen from ulterior ends of the greater region) and seep beyond its indistinct borders.

"The Louvre was created as an encyclopaedic museum and a big chapter lacking in that was Islamic art," says Henri Loyrette, the president-director of the institution. "You can't understand parts of our entire collection without engaging with Islamic art."

Loyrette refers here to Eugéne Delacroix, one of France's great 19th-century painters whose work dealt directly with an imagined and romantic notion of the East, who would certainly have come into contact with the artisanal history of Islamic civilisation.

But the goals of the Louvre itself - stretching back to its Enlightenment-era origins as a "universal museum" - also demand that this collection be shown and made complicit in the world heritage that the rest of the museum aims to encapsulate.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, tipped to open in 2015, is all part of that; getting a greater universality of perspective by extending the museum's physical reach to parts of the world beyond France (Makariou tells us that more than 60 works from the department of Islamic art have been set aside for the UAE project).

"The first thing we want to show is the collection, of course, which is comprehensive from Spain to India. But we also want to show that it is part of our history and how an object is transmitted from one civilisation to another," says Loyrette.

Indeed, the stories behind how a number of these objects made it to France are as illustrious as the works themselves. A copper washbasin, made in either Syria or Egypt in the 14th century and inlaid with silver and gold paste, was used in the 17th century to baptise France's "children of kings and princes of royal blood", including Louis VIII. Despite being a Mamluk basin and signed multiple times by an unknown artisan called Muhammed Ibn Al-Zayn, the piece found its way into the world of Europe's monarchical pomp - made clear by the fleur de lys that was attached to its surface by later craftsmen - before the French Revolution placed it into the hands of the people.

There's a vestibule from a house in 15th-century Egypt that was painstakingly removed and recorded by the French architect Jules Bourgoin in the 1880s and sent back to Paris for the Exposition Universalle in 1900. Yet, try as they might, the vestibule could never be reconstructed back then. It's taken more than 100 years of waiting and four years of painstaking work to recreate this small porch piece-by-piece inside the Louvre.

The new galleries come at a poignant time in the Republic's history, amid debates over the ban on niqabs in public life and the integration of Muslims in French life. The galleries themselves, says Loyrette, were first discussed with the former president Jacques Chirac just after the September 11 attacks.

"For many visitors to the Louvre, Islamic means Muslim and is entirely a religious phenomena without anything about art and its relationship to the western world," says Loyrette. Seeing the Islamic world as a multi-dimensional series of distinct civilisations as much as a religion appears to be an underpinning idea driving the return of this collection to public life.

An assortment of varied words and terms are being thrown around to describe the rippled roof of the Musée du Louvre's new Islamic Arts Galleries.

A Bedouin tent, a dragonfly's wing, even a "golden cloud" are among the descriptions suggested by Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, the architects behind this nougat-coloured mesh of metal in the Cour Visconti, a courtyard in the heart of the museum.

The architects may be purposely imprecise in describing their creation, but Ricciotti is clear about the implications of a building such as this.

"The shape," he says, "is just a friendly handshake from The Republic towards Islamic art".

 

The most contentious element of this re-emerged collection is the new structure that has been built to house it. Any interventions into the Louvre's 18th-century building tend to be met with derision in the French press. IM Pei's glass pyramid at the museum's entrance may now be as inseparable from the Louvre as the Mona Lisa, but it wasn't so when the structure was first completed in 1989.

But response to the new Islamic Arts Galleries' undulating off-gold rooftop has been largely warm. It seems to float within the courtyard, atop eight slanted pillars, with an inviting glass façade.

Rather than entomb these works in an institution that, it in its origin, embodied ideas of the strength and eternality of the French Republic, the collection needed what the architect Bellini calls, "a delicate hand".

"Many of the pieces come from buildings from another part of the world entirely and were taken off in bits," says Bellini. "Imagine you would have presented all these objects in a palatial space within the Louvre. They would recede in a huge museum full of western art."

Instead, both architects describe entering the galleries as stepping out of the Louvre and being transported on a "trip".

The return of historical items to their country of origin, particularly those objects acquired during eras of colonial expansion, is always a sticky situation when collections emerge to the public. According to Sophie Makariou, the head of the Department des Arts de l'Islam at the Musée du Louvre, the only country "not totally at ease" with the new collection was Turkey. The new Islamic Arts Galleries features an extensive array of tiles and ceramics from the Ottoman Empire. "There is a kind of fantasmer that you can bring back things," says Makariou. "I'm very sensitive to this point because when you go to Istanbul, you don't have the impression that you can't see any Ottoman pieces."

In 2009, the Louvre restituted five ancient fresco fragments to the Egyptian government. The pieces were thought to have been stolen from a Pharaonic tomb but bought by the museum in good faith in 2000.

Henri Leyrotte, the director-president of the Louvre, says that he is interested in proof of restitution. "If there is a claim we look at it seriously, but from Turkey there is nothing official. You read things in the newspapers but we need something that tells us what they want and for what reason, which is not happening."

The galleries dedicated to the department of Islamic art at the Musée du Louvre open on Saturday. The exhibited collection can be seen at www.louvre.fr

clord@thenational.ae