ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — A decade in the planning and five years past its due date, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has finally opened here in this sun-scoured capital city of the United Arab Emirates. And whatever else can be said of the new museum, it’s a sight to see.
Starchitecture is out of fashion these days, but it can still produce visual wonders. The look of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, might be described as Arabic-galactic. In the form of an immense, filigreed gray half-sphere resting on a low base infiltrated by water channels, it could pass as a spaceship, an unfinished mosque or a Venetian pavilion set on the edge of the Persian Gulf.
Seen from beneath, the filigree is porous and open to the sky, but so densely layered as to create a light-dappled shade. And the dome completely covers a cluster of white-walled, flat-roofed museum buildings — galleries, an auditorium, a cafe — that look both white-box Modern and like traditional-style Emirati houses seen in villages outside this vertical glass-and-steel city.
The museum is technically in the city, though not in a way that feels organic. It stands on a large outcropping named — probably by the powerful, government-run Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority, or its development arm — Saadiyat Island, or “Island of Happiness.” Connected by a bridge to the mainland, this site will eventually be a “cultural district,” bristling with hotels, condos, malls and other museums, including an Abu Dhabi Guggenheim. Paid for with hydrocarbon cash and built largely by South Asian laborers, Saadiyat has been fabricated primarily as a destination for a global leisured class.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a fabrication, too. It isn’t an official Louvre franchise. For the equivalent of $1.15 billion, the museum has temporarily leased the Louvre brand. It can use the illustrious name for 30 years and borrow works from the Louvre and a dozen other French state institutions (the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Pompidou, the Bibliothèque Nationale, etc.) for a decade. This will give the new museum time to assemble a permanent collection — the acquisition process is well underway — and create its own version of a global art history.
And what does that history, currently fleshed out with loans, look like? Item by item, pretty sensational. And how does it read as a narrative? The narrative is engagingly well paced, but — and this is true of every encyclopedic museum I’m familiar with — sugarcoated and incomplete.
Spread through 23 galleries, the inaugural display of some 600 objects — 300 from French museums, two dozen from Middle Eastern collections and around 230 from the Louvre Abu Dhabi itself — adheres to a textbook timeline. Where it is innovative is in being intercultural, with Western and non-Western work shown side by side.
A few big international museums have experimented with this kind of mix. None that I know of have committed to it, made it a house style. Elsewhere, old colonialist classifications, shaped along geographic and ethnic lines, are still deeply ingrained, not to mention politically useful. But the Louvre Abu Dhabi has not only gone with a fully integrated model; it also promotes that model as its distinguishing feature.
The way it works is clearly set out in an introductory “vestibule,” where vitrines hold small groups of thematically related objects. A bronze statuette of the Egyptian goddess Isis nursing the infant Horus, from 400-800 B.C.; a 14th-century ivory Virgin and Child from France; and a 19th-century carved wood mother and child from the Democratic Republic of Congo together project a common image of maternity across cultures and millenniums. Three gold funerary masks — from ancient China, Peru and Syria — suggest a widely shared association of precious materials with immortality and remembrance.
This sort of grouping can be simplistic and historically inexact, but as a strategy, it has its uses. It’s really the only way to go for a broad-spectrum collection in progress. Although the Louvre Abu Dhabi has done a lot of buying — prehistoric to contemporary — since 2009, its rapidly gathered holdings have breadth but not depth. To show single strong objects from all over the map is a way to make a virtue of this limitation.
A mix-and-match approach also has potential advantages for education and visitor engagement. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is banking on the theory that pointing out links among a wide variety of cultures will make all art feel more approachable to the global audience it hopes to attract. Once viewers gain the habit of spotting connections, they may come to accept that all cultures are equally valuable and personally relevant. That, at least, seems to be the thinking, and it makes sense.
After the introductory gallery, the installation moves on in epochal chunks, from “The First Villages” to “The Global Stage” of the 21st century, with religion, trade and politics as driving themes. The route, as laid out, doesn’t offer much in the way of scholarly news, but fabulous images abound.
A monumental sculpture of a two-headed, joined-at-the-shoulders human form is hand-modeled in plaster (you can almost see the impression of thumb prints) and dated around 6500 B.C. On loan from the Department of Antiquities in Jordan, it’s Giacometti before Giacometti. Nearby and much smaller, but every bit as magnetic, is a statuette of a gamin-faced Bactrian “princess,” dated 2300-1700 B.C., from what is now modern Afghanistan, wrapped in what looks like a floor-length puffer coat. That this sculpture is a recent Louvre Abu Dhabi acquisition confirms that there’s some smart (and provenance-challenging) shopping going on.
Both sculptures are naturals in a Middle Eastern museum. But there are surprises to come a few galleries on, in a pairing of globalist soul mates: A wood sculpture of a near-nude Jesus from 16th-century Bavaria and an entirely nude male ancestor figure from Mali stand side by side. Elsewhere, Qurans, Bibles and Buddhist sutras float together in protective darkness. Far-flung place names — Beirut, Dakar, Dubai, Fontainebleau, Jingdezhen, Mathura, Teotihuacan — appear on adjacent labels.
Works that qualify as instantly recognizable “classics” to a Western viewer feel surreally exotic in this multiculturalist environment. Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Belle Ferronnière” (1495-99), a kind of second-tier “Mona Lisa” sent by the Louvre in Paris, is one. Another is an 1822 Gilbert Stuart portrait of a schoolmarmish George Washington that has taken up permanent residence here. (The Louvre Abu Dhabi owns it.) And then there’s Jacques-Louis David’s towering, storm-racked equestrian image of Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps, looking very far away indeed, in both miles and mood, from its home in Versailles.
The David has been dutifully integrated into a thematic ensemble, but to some of us — and probably more and more of us in the internet age — it’s a rock star.
In an “Arab world” museum, the presence here of a hagiographic image of Napoleon, colonialist invader of Islamic North Africa and pilferer of non-Western art, is ripe with political irony. Yet nothing is made of this. Only further on, in a section of late-19th- and early-20th-century works grouped under the label “Modern Orientalism,” is the impact of colonialism on art acknowledged. And there it is given a positive spin.
At no point, in fact, does the overall installation, basically an illustrated chronicle of world cultural history, raise basic critical issues. Slavery, ubiquitous through the ages, and notably on the Arabian Peninsula, goes unmentioned. Ideological repression, political and religious, is skimmed over. Warrior culture, the wielding of power through almost exclusively male aggression, is given a pass; more than that, it’s glamorized. In a section called “The Art of War,” the message seems to be: Look how well fighters dressed!
In short, the Louvre Abu Dhabi fails where most, if not all, encyclopedic art museums do: in truth-telling. And the failure applies to the present as much as to the past. In news releases and public advertising, the institution promises to be “a museum for everyone”; to show “humanity in a new light”; to embody an “openness” and “harmony” reflecting the “tolerant and accepting environment” of Emirati society. But in the years since the building broke ground, international human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the Abu Dhabi government for mistreatment of immigrant laborers at work on Saadiyat Island projects.
During the museum’s inaugural week, two Swiss journalists, filming laborers as part of their coverage of the opening, were arrested by the police, grilled, forced to sign a “confession” and then expelled from the country. Over the past several years, people campaigning for workers’ rights have been barred from entering Abu Dhabi, or deported.
A walk through Mr. Nouvel’s domed museum complex, with its luminous shade and its breeze-channeling sea vistas, is an enchantment, almost enough to make you forget grim physical and social realities that went into creating it. And the manifold beauty of galleries filled with charismatic objects nearly persuades you not to remember that art is a record of crimes as well as of benign achievements. It takes an exercise in ethical balance to engage fully with our great museums, to walk the shaky bridge they construct between aesthetics and politics. A mindful visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi requires this balance. That may be what is most universal about it.