Abu Dhabi's universal museum is finally open, writes Anna Somers Cocks, and it is truly astonishing
The five gifts Louvre Abu Dhabi offers to the UAE and the world
With the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the UAE has given us a new wonder of the world (of the seven ancient ones, only the Great Pyramid of Giza survives). As the sun moves over the geometrically pierced dome, it dapples the buildings in a constantly changing light show and the surrounding water reflects rippling light up onto the underside of the dome.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is truly astonishing and cannot fail to join the very short list of monuments that everyone, everywhere, recognises: the Sydney Opera House, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum Bilbao and the Eiffel Tower. It will probably be seen as the masterpiece of its architect, Jean Nouvel, and Abu Dhabi now has a memorable symbol with which to project itself. That is the first achievement of the museum.
The vast, shallow dome floats protectively over its 55 buildings, clustered informally like the low houses in an old medina, with "streets" and a "square". I asked Mr Nouvel how he decided what size to make it when he first sat down at his drawing board, because there was no collection yet, so he had nothing to measure it by. “It’s very simple”, he said, “I wanted to create a meeting place”.
And that is the second gift of Louvre Abu Dhabi to the city, of which, if one wanted to be critical, one could repeat the famous saying about Los Angeles, “There’s no there there”, meaning that it lacks the equivalent of an Italian town square, where people congregate. Now, the city has a spectacular place where you can meet, eat and drink, watch the sun set over the sea, hear a lecture or performance and visit the museum.
And what a museum. The Louvre in Paris and the 15 other museums that form part of the contract between France and Abu Dhabi have not been stingy in what they have lent, starting with the superstar of superstars, a portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. To pick a few more treasures at random: there is the sword of Boabdil, the last Moorish emir of Al Andalus; the two fighting men by Canova; the self-portrait of another superstar, Van Gogh; the monumental statue of Pharaoh Rameses II, and the dramatic equestrian portrait by David of France’s best-loved hero Napoleon.
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These works will change over the 10-year period of loans and people will get used to altering displays that tell different stories. For a museum is not just a box with things in it; as in writing history, it is what you choose to emphasise that matters.
With the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the slogan is that it is a universal museum, but what does that actually mean? It is not that it aims to show all the artistic traditions of the world but the humanity that is common to us all. For example, that the religions of the world feel the need to pray in holy places. Thus, one showcase contains a very early milestone from the pilgrimage route to Mecca, two reliquaries with fragments of saints from the Christian tradition, and a reliquary from inside a Buddhist shrine, still with the jewels and other small precious things that were offered up by pilgrims.
I found one display particularly moving and, as a Westerner, very comforting, because it is clearly defying the intolerance and violence that in recent years have ended the age-old cohabitation of Muslims with Christians and Jews in the Middle East. In a darkened room that feels almost like a shrine, three great religious texts are laid out with equal prominence: the Quran, the Bible and the Torah. All are beautiful but their symbolic value here is greater even than their beauty. As Emmanuel Macron, president of France, said at the inauguration of the museum on Wednesday night, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is part of the battle against obscurantism. This requires courage and the courage that the museum displays is its third gift.
The fourth is that it expresses and benefits the geopolitical shift in the world’s axis. When the Louvre Abu Dhabi project was first launched in France in 2007, a small but noisy group protested at the idea of masterpieces being sent “down there”, where, supposedly, no one would appreciate them. That “down there” has, as Mr Macron said, become the balancing point between Africa, Europe and the East, with the last in rapid ascendant. It is no longer Europe and the United States that are the obvious centres of the world and Louvre Abu Dhabi has a huge potential public on its near doorstep. It is only three hours’ flight to Mumbai, Delhi and Islamabad, after all.
The fifth gift is to the whole UAE. The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s curators have studied art education and its majestic deputy director, Hissa Al Dhaheri, working with the ministry of education, will be implementing this knowledge right across the school system, which will change the whole country as children get used to being creative and visually aware from an early age. The attraction and sheer fame of the Louvre Abu Dhabi will also give a leg-up to the entire art scene of the UAE, from the art trade in Dubai to the highly original, internationally wired exhibitions of Sharjah, with its art foundation and biennale.
Perhaps the Louvre Abu Dhabi will also stop Westerners boring me with the same old question about whether nudes are allowed, as though that were the only thing that mattered. You won't find any spoiler alerts here, you will need to go and see for yourself.
Anna Somers Cocks is the founder-editor and chairman of The Art Newspaper