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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Louvre Abu Dhabi's collection: art from every corner of the globe

The new museum on Saadiyat island will be the first 'universal museum' in the Middle East

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, "Kaire. Ayoucha fig[ure] entière", 1843, quarter-plate daguerreotype
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, "Kaire. Ayoucha fig[ure] entière", 1843, quarter-plate daguerreotype

Speaking to an audience at Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat in January 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s director, Manuel Rabaté, outlined the curatorial direction of the Middle East’s first universal museum.

“We will talk about all civilisations from the beginning of history to the globalised situation we live in today,” Mr Rabaté explained.

Maharaja Man Singh of Jodhpur, India, c. 1805-1810. Courtesy of APF
Maharaja Man Singh of Jodhpur, India, c. 1805-1810. Courtesy of APF

“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.”

Not only had this had an influence on the works that had been acquired for the museum’s permanent collection, for which 600 objects had been acquired by March 2017, but it will be seen most visibly in the way the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection is exhibited and interpreted.

“The aim is to create a universal perspective on things, not from a western or an eastern perspective, but from Abu Dhabi’s position as a crossroads,” explained Jean-François Charnier in 2014, the scientific director of the body charged with establishing the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its collections alongside Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), Agence France-Muséums.

A Young Emir Studying by Osman Hamdy Bey Photo: Louvre Abu Dhabi
A Young Emir Studying by Osman Hamdy Bey Photo: Louvre Abu Dhabi

“If you want to understand the links, for example, between ancient Egypt and the Near East in antiquity in other museums you would have to go to different departments, but in Louvre Abu Dhabi there are no more departments [of this sort],” he added.

“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”.

Just what that new museum’s displays might like look like became clear in April 2014, with the launch of the Birth of a Museum exhibition at the Musée du Louvre in Paris in which 160 objects from the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection were presented to the museum’s curators and the French public for the first time.

For example, in a thematic display that investigated the various ways in which different culture’s visualised the divine, statues of deities from the Hindu, Christian and Buddhist traditions were displayed next to 13th century Soninke dynasty that was founded in the Sahelian kingdom of Ghana in a manner that would normally only be seen in temporary exhibitions in more traditional museums.

Standing Bodhisattva, Gandhara region, present-day Pakistan, 2nd-3rd AD
Standing Bodhisattva, Gandhara region, present-day Pakistan, 2nd-3rd AD

Curated by Vincent Pomarède, director of mediation and cultural programming at The Musée du Louvre, Laurence des Cars, the former curatorial director of Agence France-Muséums who is now director of the Musée d’Orsay and TCA’s Khalid Abdulkhaliq Abdulla, the show built on a similar exhibition from 2013, which was also entitled Birth of Museum.

Exhibited close to the Louvre Abu Dhabi construction site at Manarat Al Saadiyat, the show had given the public in Abu Dhabi the first opportunity to see some of acquisitions of its own fledgling collection, including the very first object that was acquired in 2009, Piet Mondrian’s 1922 painting Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black, a painting that the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s director Manuel Rabaté has described as being part of the museum’s identity and legacy.

Acquired at Christie’s auction 1209, the sale of the art collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, a 733 lot sale that was held over 3 days at the Grand Palais in Paris, the painting was not only one of three paintings owned by Saint Laurent that are credited with inspiring his famous Mondrian collection, but set a record for the artist at the time when it finally sold for €21.5 million (Dh87.2m).

As an initial acquisition for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Mondrian was surely a statement of intent. Not only was the painting an internationally-recognised masterpiece, one of the most eloquent statements of 20th century, Modernist abstraction, but it came with an impeccable provenance, having formed part of the collection of a French designer who had not only transformed the world of fashion, but who also represented the epitome of good taste.

The Mondrian was not the only object acquired for the museum from the 700-piece Saint Laurent-Bergé collection. It was accompanied by an Art Deco stool designed by Pierre Legrain that had once belonged to one of France’s other great couturiers and art collectors, Jacques Doucet, a man now famous for living with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in his hallway.

Like later acquistions made for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, such as Theseus Finds His Father’s Sword, a 17th century painting by Laurent de La Hyre that once belonged to the Cardinal Richelieu or the collection of Indian miniatures that were acquired from the filmmaker James Ivory, Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian not only sheds light on the history of art but on the history of collecting and the story of passionate, well-informed and famous collectors.

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Read more:

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Why I will always remember the Louvre Abu Dhabi I saw first

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