At Louvre During Ramzan: Lunch Comes Discreetly, Art in Abundance
An immensely satisfying lunch for two costs around Rs 2,000 at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The sandwich is scrumptious, the chocolate cake moist. And yes, do not forget the coffee that comes in two sizes. Ramzan, or Ramadan, restrictions apply.
The opening of this essay is dedicated to a friend who broke up with his girlfriend after she demanded a mango smoothie while the two were standing in front of a Van Gogh self-portrait. My friend was outraged by her flippant philistinism.
I side with the girl.
Must we have a hierarchy for our appetite? Why should my hunger for art be deemed superior to your craving for a mellow cappuccino?
At this juncture, an introduction to Epicurus’ ‘moving’ pleasures and ‘static’ pleasures should be helpful. If a museum gets one appetite right, chances are it will successfully satiate another too.
But wait, the headline promises you a review. And here is a magnificent ‘Dancing Shiva’ for the bismillah moment of this review.
The Times They are a-Changin’
Abu Dhabi’s petrodollar-rich landscape has acquired a new contour. Flanked by the cloud-kissing glass faced buildings of all shapes that have become an Emarati signature, the single-storeyed Louvre stands tall. With its latticed dome and, Lord be praised, powerful air-conditioning, the Gulf-kissed museum is nothing short of a revelation. After all, as stated by its French architect Jean Nouvel, Louvre has been conceptualised as “something between an Arab medina and a Greek agora.”
The museum promises to showcase “humanity in a new light.”
And it delivers.
Louvre’s art collection does not exist in isolation. Right from the moment you enter the museum, you are a participant in the inter-cultural, inter-faith, and inter-century interactions between the artworks. The first few exhibits are dedicated to birth and death.
Winds of change blowing over the Arab world feel cooler inside this museum. No surprise then that Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, bought by a Saudi prince for a record $450 million, will soon be showcased here. For now, there is ‘La Belle Ferronniere’, a far more enigmatic portrait than the Mona Lisa.
The Art of Art
As any diplomat would routinely say, a meaningful dialogue can happen only under comfortable circumstances. Louvre provides comfort, and not just to the visitor. In this museum, art can breathe, cast questioning glances back, and even interact with you. The audio, visual, and haptic aids allow the visitor to converse with the artefacts. But what sets this museum apart is the meticulous placement of art to facilitate a study of common threads weaving the net of world art meandering across time and space.
The folds of the garment worn by the Roman ‘Orator’ are similar to those of the ‘Bodhisattva’ from Pakistan, and they are placed next to each other to facilitate this comparison. Same motifs and colours are found on pieces excavated from different civilisations, different times.
Iconography and texts from different religions sit next to each other without the urge to undermine one another. Abel Grimmer’s 1595 work ‘Tower of Babel’ can easily become the mascot of this museum. After all, like the Biblical structure, Louvre attempts to assert the oneness of humanity.
The museum also pays a solemn tribute to the triumph of art in the face of strife. Artefacts from Palmyra and other parts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region remind us that these names once evoked the memory of art traditions like Byzantine, Parthian, and Gandhara, and not that of militant outfits.
Abu Dhabi’s Louvre is not competing with Musée du Louvre, the world’s largest art museum, and thank heavens for that! While the collection comprises of on-loan items from the older museum as well as many others, it intends to build its own character and identity.
In the decade of its making, there were subdued murmurs in the art world whether the museum, located in a conservative Emirate, would get entangled in the net of self-censorship. It is true that there aren’t any female nudes on display but it is too early to give a definite answer. As the museum procures more art and draws more visitors, display of artistic boldness may become par for the course.
Till then, masterpieces by the usual suspects like Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Paul Gaugin, Édouard Manet are there to feast on.
What can one say about them that has not already been made to academic journals? Perhaps just one thing, most of these painting look better if viewed from an angle. The frontality of gaze does not do justice to them.
Unlike its Paris counterpart, this museum allows you to soak in the magnificence of the displayed artworks without being jostled by selfie-clicking crowds. Step to one side and take a harder look. And get giddy with nationalism when you find an artist from your country being celebrated. Louvre Abu Dhabi houses 150 objects from India.
It will be a shame if this essay did not mention the absolute joy that the Children’s Museum is. Even the most friendly museums in the world can intimidate a child through those ‘Do Not Touch’ signs. In this little nook, children are allowed to make and break art. The space allows them to be wild with wonderment.
Single visits don’t do justice to museums — an art museum like Louvre Abu Dhabi deserves several, not because you can’t ‘cover’ everything but because its collection inspires you to revisit.
And since the essay began with the cafe, it must end with a hat tip to the toilets that are neither an afterthought nor a lazy execution of a mandate. Their robust doors, in matching colour scheme, are as inviting as the palm-lined entrance to the museum.