Standing beneath the starship-like, 180m-diameter latticework dome of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, with the sunlight filtering in and casting dappled patterns on the floor, is to be transported to another world. Without doubt, it is the perfect repository for the recently opened museum’s over 600 pieces of historical, artistic and cultural importance that showcase the diversity of humankind.
Pause in the main plaza to gaze at architect Jean Nouvel’s creation. When you are done staring at the ceiling, look down to admire the floor, with its varying types of stone paving. And, yes, don’t miss the walls, either. Some have inscriptions and art works. Within the galleries, the pieces, many on loan from the Paris mothership, create a tapestry that spans the history of humanity, while reflecting the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s theme of portraying man’s universality.
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Don’t rush through the galleries. Take in the details of the alcoves, which hide a wealth of riches, as I did when I visited the Louvre over two days to create this taster guide to (and incentive to explore) the museum’s wonderful diversity.
1. Monumental statue with two heads
This plaster statue dating to around 6,500 BCE was discovered in Ain Ghazal, Jordan, and is said to be one of the oldest known to mankind. The statue is among the earliest large-scale representations of the human form.
2. Latin translation of the Treatise on Optics (Kitab Al Manazir)
Ibn Al Haytham (Egypt 965-1039)
Mathematician, physicist, astronomer and author: Ibn Al Haytham, who was born in Basra but spent a large part of his life in Cairo, was one of the most important luminaries of his times. This optical treatise – part of a seven-volume collection – developed new experimental methods from the theories of the ancient Greeks. Translated and circulated in Europe in the 15th century, his discoveries were fundamental to the development of modern science.
Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Al Battuti
North Africa 1726-1727, cast brass, silver nails
Used to tell the time and to calculate geographic position by measuring the position and altitude of stars, the astrolabe is said to have been invented by Babylonians and perfected by seafaring Arabs in the eighth century. It is of immense importance for navigation on the high seas. This one can be rotated around its vertical axis. An elaborate chronological table engraved with perpetual calendars for the Julian and Hijra eras are also visible.
4. Ramses II Pharaoh of Egypt statue
On a throne inscribed with his name, Ramses II sits in the conventional position that indicates his role as a pharaoh. Sporting the royal nemes – a striped head cloth – with a cobra (broken here), he also wears a false beard, an attribute of the gods. The 2.5m statue dates to the pharaoh’s reign (1279-1213 BCE).
5. Mari-Cha lion
Southern Spain or southern Italy, 1000-1200
This bronze piece is one of the most important Islamic works of art from the Mediterranean region. Experts say that some elements in the piece – the tube in its mouth, the opening in its belly and hollow body – suggest that the lion could once produce a roaring sound when air was pumped through it.
6. Salt cellar with Portuguese soldiers and a caravel (ship)
Edo culture, Nigeria, ancient kingdom of Benin, about 1600
An intricately carved piece of ivory, the cellar is divided into two parts – for salt and pepper. The decoration appears to be inspired by engravings found in Europe and is one of the first and finest examples of cultural exchanges between Portugal and African kingdoms.
7. Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black
Piet Mondrian, France, 1922, oil on canvas
Mondrian’s interest lay in the abstract quality of the line. He is credited for having developed a new form of abstraction called neo-plasticism where he limited himself to lines and basic primary colours.
As he said: ‘Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality.’
8. Young Emir Studying
Osman Hamdy Bey, Istanbul, Turkey, 1878, oil on canvas
The symbolism of Islamic culture, the traveller and the exotic are reflected amply in this opulent work by Osman. Trained in France, he is known for his portrayal of realism and attention to detail. In this one, learning and contemplation are highlighted amidst understated Oriental fabrics.
9. Children Wrestling
Paul Gauguin, France, 1888, oil on canvas
An example where the influence of Japanese art, called Japonism, is clearly evident. Japonism reached its peak in Europe in the 1880s following the opening up of Japan to free trade and the country’s participation in world fairs. The Japanese aesthetic, which inspired a new range of floral and refined forms, influenced the design of interior decoration as well as everyday objects. Japanese prints fascinated painters to the extent that some altered the manner in which they painted. Here, the artist has included extensive open spaces in his work, influenced by Japanese art works of the time.
Vincent van Gogh, France, 1887, oil on canvas
Portraiture assumed the status of a definite modern genre following the growing importance of the individual in the 18th century. Van Gogh is said to have painted over 30 self-portraits – perhaps the most prolific self-portraitist ever. Here’s why: Not having money to pay models to pose for portraits nor having many people commissioning him to do portraits, the artist decided to paint his own portraits, believing that portrait painting would help him develop his skills as an artist.
11. Nautical treatise
Ahmad Ibn Majid, 1576, ink on paper
Some experts believe Ahmad Ibn Majid, a navigator and cartographer, was born in Ras Al Khaimah in the 1400s. Credited with several important maps and treatises, this treatise details intricacies of travel in the Indian Ocean. Ahmad’s maps apparently helped Vasco Da Gama during his historical voyage to India.
12. Fountain of Light
Ai Weiwei, Germany and China, 2016, steel and glass crystals
Ai is well known for his innovative design and architectural projects. Approximately 23 feet high and created out of ten chandeliers made in China, this piece is an ode of sorts to an utopian Soviet monument that was never built. A reference also to the tower of Babel, the work questions the notions of diversity and what is shared in our contemporary globalised world.
13. Page from Quran
Palimpsest page of a Quran in Hijazi script. From the Arabian peninsula, Medina about 600-700
The page, from one of the oldest Qurans ever found, is preserved in a darkened room and is close to a Gothic Bible, Buddhist sutras and a Torah from Yemen. It reflects the theme of portraying what’s universal among the peoples of the world.
14. Hilye (calligraphy that describes the attributes of the Prophet (PBUH)
Kazasker Mustafa Izzet
Turkey, Istanbul, 1894-95
Another rare piece is the Hilye from Turkey, Instanbul, a type of calligraphy that describes the attributes of the Prophet (PBUH).
15. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Portrait of a Woman, called La Belle Ferronniere
Leonardo da Vinci, Italy, Milan, 1495-1499
Oil on wood
In many museums, you would not be able to get as up close to a Da Vinci as you would at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. This painting is also known as Portrait of an Unknown Woman. Da Vinci, it is said, loved to portray women. Of his five surviving portraits, four are of women.
This work is also interesting because it reveals a renewed interest in the thinking of antiquity that placed man at the centre of all things in Rennaisance Europe. People began to be objects of observation as demonstrated by the importance given to portraiture. Artists no longer simply recorded the status of their sitters but wished to depict real emotions.
Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) which was recently acquired by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, is not yet on display at Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The date is yet to be confirmed when da Vinci’s recently rediscovered work will be put up alongside his other masterpiece, La Belle Ferronnière, Louvre Abu Dhabi told Friday.
Salvator Mundi is one of fewer than 20 known surviving paintings by the Italian Renaissance master.
16. Map of the world
Ink and gold on paper
The rare 15th century map from Iraq is displayed in the Cosmography gallery and is an excellent example of how perceptions of the world varied as people started to venture out into the sea for trade and exploration.
17. Commode decorated with red lacquer from China
Bernard II van Risen Burgh
France, Paris 1753-1756
Wood, lacquer, bronze gilt, marble
Imported from China, the central lacquer panel in this commode depicts a palace scene. With the addition of bronze gilt mouldings made in Paris, it its perfectly with this piece of furniture which attests to the fascination of European artists with the arts of China.
18. The Boulevards of Paris
William Henry Fox Talbot
France, Paris, May 1843
Salted paper print from a calotype (a photographic process Talbot introduced in 1841 using paper coated with silver iodide)
The man in the photograph is said to have stayed in that position for 15 minutes – the time it took to expose the film. The invention of photography in the 19th century revolutionised the world of art and science. By capturing a slice of life, the new medium reflected modernity and became a tool for disseminating information and it did not take long for it to become an art form of its own. It also levelled the field making it easily accessible to all.
19. Portrait of a Woman
Painted paper, gouache and ink on cardboard
Inspired by African and Iberian art movements, Picasso contributed to a number of art movements particularly cubism, surrealism and expressionism. Best known for his pioneering cubism, he reportedly once asked: ‘Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face or what’s behind it?’
Another famous quote: ‘Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.’ That did not stop him from creating over 20,000 works of art.
Oil and spray paint on canvas
After studying painting and calligraphy at the Slade School of Art, London, Ibrahim returned to Sudan where he combined western, Arab and African influences which he mixed with Sudanese subjects to explore his multifaceted culture. Widely regarded as one of the pioneers of modern art in Africa, Ibrahim frequently draws on childhood memories and visions experienced durng meditation for inspiration.
✱ Visiting all 12 galleries and taking time to peruse all exhibits in detail will take you several hours. Don’t forget to wear comfortable shoes. Taking along a pullover won’t be a bad idea – some areas of the museum are particularly cold.
✱ A free audio tour is offered in Arabic, English, Hindi, Japanese, French, German, Korean, Russian and Chinese.
✱ The children’s museum offers plenty of hands-on activity and workshops. Check with the museum staff for timings.
✱ While you can take along water bottles, food is not allowed inside the galleries. Hungry? There’s a cafe inside.
✱ The museum is wheelchair-friendly.
✱ Photography and mobile phones are permitted in the Louvre. However, there are some areas where flash photography is not permitted. Check with security so that you are not gently warned.
✱ Opening times: 10am to 8pm, Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. 10am to 10pm, Thursday and Friday. The museum is closed on Mondays.
✱ Admissions: Dh60 for 22 and above; Dh30 for those between the ages of 13 and 22. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is free for those below 13, and for the disabled accompanied by one companion.