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Saturday, September 21, 2019

Islamic Art at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but first Paris

by Philip Weiss

Peacock Dish
Dish with epigraphic decoration
Flat standard bearer
Lamp from the time of Sultan Nasir al-Din

Little has been done to promote Islamic art in recent years, but with the opening of a wing dedicated to it in the Louvre Paris and plans for a version of the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi that is fast changing

For years it’s been paid little attention, but suddenly Islamic art is becoming popular, not just in the Arab world but in Europe. Now a new wing of the Louvre Paris, due to open this summer, has been dedicated specifically to art from the Islamic period.

Ancient metal ware, old porcelain cups and saucers, brass artefacts and carpets with Arabic designs will be just some of the 18,500 Islamic items on display in the new wing of France’s most famous museum. All of these will be housed in a specially-built space, which is of architectural note itself. This is not the first time the museum, which dates back to the 12th century, has merged modern and ancient architecture. It first did so 20 years ago when it built the I.M Pei’s controversial glass pyramid commissioned by then French President Francois Mitterrand.

This time, a 12 metre-deep excavation was carried out to create the ultra-modern wing which is composed of glass and steel and has a roof shaped like an undulating golden sheath of silk. It hangs within the Cour Visconti, leaving the facade of the 800-year-old courtyard visible. The glass wave-like structure of the roof appears to be suspended in the air and is supported by thin tubes rather than pillars.

Italians Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti are the architects behind it. “I didn’t want to make a supermarket-like flat ceiling,” explains Ricciotti, adding that the new area will be covered by something which looks like an “iridescent cloud” promoting natural light and diffusing a warm glow throughout.

Ten years in the making, the €98.5 million project is still not fully financed and requires another €10 million to be completed. But it will be worth the cost. Sophie Makariou, Head of the Islamic Arts Department at the Louvre says it will house some of the most precious pieces of Islamic art in the world. And although many come from the museum’s permanent collection, hundreds more have been added.

“The Louvre, for example, already has the best collection in the world of luxury inlaid metal ware, made in Syria during the 13th century, the Ayyubid period, and it owns the most famous basin ever made during the Mamluk era (1250-1517), called the ‘Baptistère de Saint Louis’,” she says. “Little has been done to date to preserve or even promote Islamic art,” she continues. “But big progress has been made in recent years…”

One of the museums most recently acquired items which will be on show in the new gallery in the Louvre, is a rare Safavid prayer rug. However other works have been put aside to be exhibited exclusively in the United Arab Emirates at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

“Some pieces will be on loan and we’ve reserved some important pieces for Abu Dhabi,” says Makariou. Originally set to open this year, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be located on Saadiyat Island and has now been rescheduled to open in 2015.

The project is part of a larger cultural plan to build a district on the island that will also have a branch of the Guggenheim Museum, due to open in 2017. A national museum named after Sheikh Zayed, the United Arab Emirates’ first president is also expected to open in 2016 according to the developer, the Tourism Development and Investment (TDIC). There are plans too for a maritime museum and a futuristiclooking centre for performing arts.

Shaun O’Connor, the Chief Financial Officer of TDIC explains the changes in the scheduling of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “The original strategy was to open all three [museums] at the same time in 2014, but the new schedule allows each one to come into its own [at different times].

“So the Louvre Abu Dhabi will open and then experience a year as a single operating museum,” he says. “It lets us pull in the tourists and means that from an operating perspective the museum can settle down before we open the Zayed National Museum. It will have the same time frame when it opens and will be followed by the Guggenheim.

“It means we can now bring the same tourists to the region on three different occasions. Under the original plan, a tourist would come once and from a cultural perspective they wouldn’t have a need to come back for quite a while.”

The development has so far involved excavating 500,000 cubic metres of earth to accommodate the base of the building. The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be the first universal museum in the Arab world displaying objects and art chronologically and exploring connections between seemingly disparate civilisations and cultures around the world.

In the museum, the central display will be detailed, with revealing works lining a pathway – the principal route which visitors will use to travel through the building. Four major historical periods will be featured: Archaeology and the Birth of Civilisation; the Medieval period and the Birth of Islam; the Classical period from Humanism to Enlightenment; and Modern and Contemporary periods, starting at the end of the 18th century.

Two Italian Renaissance paintings are amongst the items already acquired for the museum. ‘Madonna and Child’ by Giovanni Bellini, painted circa 1480-50, and ‘Jacob’s Journey’ by Jacopo Bassano, circa 1565-70, are now part of its permanent collection.

This will also be collections of Buddhist sculpture; funerary artefacts from Pharaonic Egypt; and art produced in the royal courts of the Muslim world. All of which will give a glimpse of the rich and artistic culture that has always existed in the Middle East.

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