France’s Oriental Dream: The Louvre Abu Dhabi

Nasser Rabbat on the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017. Photo: Roland Halbe.

WITH THE INAUGURATION of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum in early November 2017, France fulfilled a wish it had harbored for a long time. This ancient dream, which emerged under the Sun King Louis XIV at the end of the seventeenth century, was nothing less than to assume the mantle of Imperial Rome, claiming its cultural and territorial heritage. The dream ebbed and flowed for three centuries, but its crucible and the moment that shaped its colonial, epistemological, and symbolic dimensions was the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt in 1798. This ambitious adventure ended less than three years later with a humiliating defeat at the hands of the British, the traditional rivals of France, and their Ottoman allies, but its moral, material, and intellectual outcomes continue to affect the East-West relations until today. Foremost among them was La description de l’Égypte (twenty-three grand volumes), the monumental compendium composed by more than 150 savants who accompanied Bonaparte’s expedition that attempted to recover all available knowledge about Egypt and to classify, codify, and represent it. This encyclopedia instigated not only a learned fascination with Egypt—and the Orient—in Europe on the eve of the colonial age; it also launched several disciplinary developments in geography, history, ethnography, cartography, archaeology, Egyptology, museology, and the arts. These early endeavors are now recast in utmost splendor in the new Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum, which overlooks the serene waters of the Gulf on Saadiyat Island, opposite Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is one component of a massive, audacious, and perhaps a bit reckless plan to turn Saadiyat Island into a global cultural hub. The plan was conceived more than a decade ago and is only now receiving its second installment; the Louvre Abu Dhabi follows the Saadiyat campus of the New York University Abu Dhabi, designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects, which opened four years ago. Originally conceived as a string of three first-class museums and a performing-arts center along the shore facing Abu Dhabi with a fourth museum inland, this grand cultural district has been stalled for many years, and it is not clear whether it will be completed as planned. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first museum to be finished, after more than ten years of faltering. Rumor has it that only the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum designed by the Canadian American starchitect Frank Gehry, and the Zayed Museum, designed by the British starchitect Norman Foster, will be built, although no concrete time frame has been set.

There is no doubt that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a singular architectural and museological masterpiece with huge touristic, cultural, and political promise. It breaks the record on more than one level. It is the largest art museum so far in the Arabian Peninsula, where competition for cultural preeminence among the Gulf states has emerged in the last two decades as a fast way to assert a global and contemporary identity. The museum has an area of 24,000 square meters with an exhibition area of 8,600 square meters. It is also the most expensive museum built in the twenty-first century (as far as the published figures allow). The Abu Dhabi government paid nearly $1.3 billion to the French government, owner of the Louvre Museum, as fees for trademark use and for museological and managerial consultancies and services. The amount is distributed as follows: about $520 million to use the Louvre name in Abu Dhabi for thirty years, $250 million to borrow about 300 masterpieces from the Paris Louvre to be exhibited in Abu Dhabi in the next ten years, another $250 million for special exhibitions arranged by the Paris Louvre in Abu Dhabi in the same fifteen years, $215 million for the Paris Louvre to manage the new museum and to lend its expertise in buying new works for Abu Dhabi, and, finally, more than $30 million for the restoration of a gallery on global art in the Paris Louvre. The Abu Dhabi building, designed by the famous French starchitect Jean Nouvel, the architect of several large buildings in the Arabian Peninsula, is estimated to have cost more than $650 million. In other words, the total cost of the Louvre Abu Dhabi thus far is about $2 billion. And that before the new museum builds its own collection, which is still to be purchased in today’s overinflated art market. (Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, auctioned off in November 2017 for $450 million, was finally revealed to be destined for Abu Dhabi.)

Approaching the museum, the first thing one notices is the vast, shallow, perforated dome, consisting of superimposed layers of hollow lozenges and octagonal patterns, which hover over a number of white pavilions. These buildings, some of which stick out from under the dome, are the actual exhibition spaces of the museum. Set on a huge slab that appears to be floating on the water, they are supposed to recall the organically arrayed structures in a traditional city or bazaar. The effect of this domed, open arrangement is magical: The mass of white buildings is bathed in an infinite number of uneven spots of light filtered through the dome’s layers, which are continuously changing following the movement of the sun. This composition surpasses all earlier screening experiments that have distinguished Nouvel’s work for his Arabic projects, from his Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (completed 1987) to his Doha Tower (built in 2012). It truly establishes Nouvel as a virtuoso of the manipulation of natural light, who, in the process, gives Le Corbusier’s dictum “Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light,” a new twist, which was probably unforeseeable by the prophet of modern architecture.

Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017. Photo: Mohamed Somji.

The visual impact of the museum architecture, amazing as it is, does not eclipse the grandiose aspirations of its first exhibition, ambitiously titled “The Story of Humanity.” Divided among twelve discrete galleries, a total of about six hundred magnificent objects (three hundred of which on loan from a consortium of French museums), purport to tell the story of a cross-cultural humanity from the “First Villages” to “A Global Stage.” Using a thematic approach that follows the development of the world’s artistic sensibilities comparatively and cross-culturally, the exhibition’s message begins to falter when it hits the colonial age in Gallery 9, titled “A New Art of Living.” Unable to suppress the Eurocentric and stratified conception of art at the moment in which Europe discovers and then conquers the world, the exhibition reverts to a triumphant telling of European artistic inventions despite its sincere though feeble attempts at including artistic specimens from other cultures. Unsurprisingly, the situation is corrected in the last gallery, “A Global Stage,” where the exhibit again becomes truly worldly and global, with artworks from everywhere arranged with no apparent hierarchy. This is undoubtedly a function of the vigor of the contemporary international art scene, with successful artists, empowered by a buoyed art market, acting like creative free agents working and living in multiple abodes.

Aside from the visual, artistic, and architectural dazzle—or perhaps because of it—the Louvre Abu Dhabi is above all a geopolitical event. The inauguration in November was attended by the ruling elite of the United Arab Emirates in addition to a group of international presidents and kings, led by the French president Emmanuel Macron. Macron’s presence and his speech in Abu Dhabi underscored the importance of this cultural event to French politics. The president noted that the museum “is very meaningful for France,” and is “at the crossroads of the Western and Eastern worlds,” facing toward “Europe as much as towards the Arab world, India, and China.” Macron went on to stress that “France knows it must maintain its position in this dialogue of cultures, in this outreach of art and heritage. We’re inaugurating here a very special link between our two countries.” Soft power is at its best display here: Culture, beauty, syncretism, togetherness are all themes that Macron emphasizes in his speech.

But visitors to the museum will also be reminded that France’s glory and global aspirations are not confined only to art and culture: They are also operative at the military and imperial levels. After several galleries celebrating the crossroads of the ancient and medieval cultures, the visitor arrives at the nineteenth-century gallery. In its center and on its axis hangs the stately painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David (1803, the third of five versions), which has been given further visual emphasis by placing it on a freestanding wall painted dark maroon, in contrast to the off-white of the rest of the hall. Gripping the reins of his white steed with his left hand and pointing toward the mountains with his anatomically impossible right arm, Napoleon looks dreamily but resolutely at the viewer. The powerful symbolism of this painting and its carefully orchestrated location cannot be ignored. But if the visitor for any reason overlooks it, a smallish portrait of the first American president, George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1822 and hanging in the left corner of the same hall, will hammer in the allusion to imperial power in the David painting with a potent and contemporary message: France is telling the United States, “We are returning to the center of the events in the Arab world.”

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800, 1803, oil on canvas. Installation view, Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017.

If there are any doubts about the implications of the message conveyed by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its first exhibition, we must remember that the French acquired a naval base in Abu Dhabi—their first in the region—in 2009, eight years before the Louvre Museum. And as some gossipers would have it, the Louvre was the reward for the military base. Located in Port Zayed on the eastern tip of the Abu Dhabi peninsula, the base is clearly visible across the water from the open foyer of the museum. This visual connection was intended by Nouvel. In a symposium we both attended at the Paris Louvre in December 2009 to discuss the then-still-design Louvre Abu Dhabi, Nouvel, with a hint of irony, haughtily declared: “I designed the museum in a way that would allow the visitor disoriented by the glare of the relentless sun and the strong white colors of the desert sands to look toward the French naval base and to rest his eyes on the calm gray colors of the French warships!”

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and the director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.