Islamic art at the Louvre
The new department of Islamic art at the Louvre opened to the public last weekend in a purpose-built space that has been a decade in the making, writes David Tresilian in Paris
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Clockwise from top: the dragonfly roof structure of the new department of Islamic art in the Visconti courtyard in the Louvre; members of the media look at drawings of mosaics of the great Mosque of Damascus; a vessel made out of a single piece of rock crystal produced for the Fatimid court in Egypt in 1000 CE, one of the masterpieces of Islamic art in the Louvre; the so-called Saint Louis Baptistere, a 14th-century Mameluke basin inlaid with silver and gold produced during the reign of Sultan Al-Nasser ibn Qalawon
Inaugurated amid much fanfare last week by the President of France François Hollande in the company of major donor Prince Al-Walid bin Talal of the Al-Walid Foundation, the new Islamic art department of the Louvre museum in Paris opened to the public on Saturday as members of the international press vied with each other to find a story relating to tensions over caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed published in a French magazine or images of the prophet himself allegedly on display in the Louvre.
However, while such stories may have made good copy, they could not displace the story that the Louvre itself wanted to convey regarding the opening of its newest department and architecturally one of its most spectacular. While the Louvre has long had a world-class collection of Islamic art, defined as the arts and crafts of the Islamic world from Morocco in the west to Central Asia in the east over a period of more than 1,000 years, this has not been on anything other than intermittent display.
A decision was taken in 2002 to create a new department of the museum to present the collection to the public and architects Rudy Ricciotti and Mario Bellini contracted to design a space for it in the Visconti courtyard in the Denon wing of the Louvre.
It is this space that has now been opened to the public and this collection, made up of the collection of Islamic art owned by the Louvre itself and by its sister institution the Museum of Decorative Arts, that has been placed on display in an exhibition design by Renaud Pierard working with the architects and the curatorial team of the Louvre.
The Louvre's collection of Islamic art, ultimately the property of the French state, contains many well-known pieces that visitors may have seen in different contexts before. They include the Saint Louis Baptistere, a Mamluke brass basin inlaid with silver and gold and signed by Mohamed ibn Al-Zayn that was produced during the reign of the Mamluke sultan Al-Nasser ibn Qalawon (reigned 1309-41) and that seems to have been brought to France shortly afterwards, and an ewer made of a single piece of carved rock crystal produced in Egypt around the year 1000.
Such pieces have a fascinating provenance, going back something like a millennium. The baptistere, until January 1793 housed in the Saint-Chapelle at the Chateau de Vincennes, was confiscated at the height of the French Revolution and assigned to the public collections that ultimately made up the Louvre. The rock-crystal ewer, one of only seven such pieces known and probably made for the court of the Fatimid caliphs in Cairo, was given by Thibaud le Grand, comte de Blois-Champagne, to the Abbey of St Denis before 1152 where it apparently stayed for the next 650 years until it was confiscated during the destruction of the Abbey during the French Revolution and reassigned to the Louvre.
These landmark pieces, together with many hundreds of others, are now on display in the new presentation of the Louvre's collection of Islamic art that opened at the weekend. They have been inserted into a chronological and thematic display of Islamic art that covers two floors of the new galleries and some 3,000 square metres. This is a permanent exhibition of the Louvre's collection, though it represents only a proportion of the over 18,000 pieces the collection contains.
The design is sober with few of the technological accessories still largely banned from the conservative gallery spaces of the Louvre. There are a few video screens at the edges of the visitor circuit and some gesturing towards aural context, with voices to be heard reading classical Arabic and Persian poetry in a few delimited spaces. All the technology used gives the impression of being reassuringly expensive.
A DRAMATIC ARCHITECTURAL SETTING: The new galleries of Islamic art took 10 years to build at a cost of some 100 million euros. Their story, and the effect they produce on visitors, is very much part of the story of the new Islamic art department at the Louvre.
The Denon wing of the Louvre, the one neighbouring the Seine, consists of an ensemble of buildings built around internal courtyards that function among other things as light wells open to the sky. Some of these courtyards, such as the Cour Marly, Cour Puget and Cour Khorsabad in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre, have been glassed over to create additional exhibition spaces. The courtyards in the Denon wing have not been so used, and in their design for the Islamic art department in the 19th-century Visconti courtyard architects Ricciotti and Bellini decided to build downwards by excavating a basement level below the courtyard while at the same time building new exhibition space within the courtyard beneath a new glass roof at first-floor level.
This new roof, undulating in design and covered on both the exterior and interior sides by a golden metal mesh, has been described as a "dragonfly's wing", a "veil", or a "flying carpet" in publicity material put out to accompany the opening of the new department. The challenge for the architects of the new roof structure and for the engineers that built it was how to give the new structure a suitably weightless and evanescent character, more like a dragonfly's wing than a mass of steel and glass, and how to achieve the desired quality of the natural light in the exhibition spaces beneath it, creating different effects of light and shadow as the day wears on and as one season gives way to the next.
The new exhibition space is the most ambitious that has been built at the Louvre since I.M. Pei's famous entrance pyramid and the reorganisation of the public circulation system that took place at the museum in the 1980s. Visiting the Islamic art department's new first-floor space, easily accessible from the museum's main entrance through the Denon wing, early in the morning and again late in the afternoon on an overcast but intermittently sunny September day, it was possible to gain a sense of how the natural light falling through the translucent roof structure could work with the museum's discreet system of artificial lighting to create changing light effects over the course of the day.
The first-floor structure, tent-like in some respects perhaps in a reference to Bedouin or desert tents, is placed above a much-larger basement level that feels like a kind of Aladdin's cave. This uses entirely artificial light and has black-painted walls. Visitors descend down into it from the natural light above via a set of stairs placed in a corner of the gallery. While the exhibition design across the two levels is the same -- square or rectangular glass exhibition cases of the same height arranged asymmetrically on the first-floor and on a grid-like pattern in the basement below -- the atmosphere changes as the visitor makes the dramatic transition from light to darkness and from a tent-like structure beneath a dragonfly's wing to a dark, double-volume space in which the objects on display gleam like jewels beneath the artificial light.
VISITORS LEFT FREE TO BROWSE: Unlike the presentation of the collection of Islamic artefacts at the Islamic Museum in Cairo, which is arranged geographically by region or Islamic dynasty, the Louvre presentation is roughly chronological, with Islamic art up until the year 1000 being presented on the first-floor level beneath the dragonfly's wing roof and everything else, from 1000 to around 1800, consigned to the basement level below.
Within this broad chronological structure, items are arranged by theme, there being one theme per case and a set of sometimes very disparate objects chosen to illustrate it. The theme of calligraphy, for example, could entail objects of very different date -- in the case of the lower gallery from 1000 to 1800 CE -- geographical and cultural origin -- from the Arab Maghreb to Moghul India or Safavid Iran -- and material or function -- household ceramics, architectural elements, or metalwork -- being placed together in one case. While this arrangement has the virtue of underlining some of the major features of Islamic art, for example the tendency of decorative features to migrate across materials and to remain remarkably constant across the Islamic world, it can also strip objects of their context and the circumstances of their manufacture and function.
Such observations are as old as Islamic art museums themselves, which started to be built in Europe at the end of the 19th century. Soon all the major European capitals either had galleries dedicated to the arts and crafts of the Islamic world, at the time largely under European colonial control, or at least had departments displaying such materials in larger "universal" or "encyclopedic" museums such as the British Museum or the Louvre whose ambition was to build up collections that represented the world's major cultures.
The Louvre's original presentation of Islamic art dates from 1893, when an "arts musulmans" section was created in the museum. The contents of this were later divided among the department of objets d'art, the department of Asian arts and the department of oriental antiquities. It was only a decade or so ago that it was decided to build a separate department of Islamic art at the Louvre.
This history signals some of the uncertainty about the identity of Islamic art, since not all Islamic art is Asian (some of it comes from Africa or Muslim Spain), not all of it can reasonably be contained within a department of oriental antiquities, and not all of it is what in Europe would traditionally have been considered art. Aside from the issues of geographical scope, covering objects made in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, as well as in India and Southeast Asia, and temporality -- did Islamic art develop over the 1,000 years of its existence, or did it remain essentially the same -- much of what counts for museum purposes as Islamic art is actually functional in character and is closer to craftwork or the decorative arts than it is to the traditional fine arts.
As a result, Islamic art tends to be a rather mixed bag, perhaps a convenient curatorial label rather than a genuine category, made up of the traditional metalwork, woodwork, textiles, architectural decoration, weaponry, ceramics, bookbinding and illustration, scientific instruments, glassware, carpets and so on of the Islamic world. It tends to be presented thematically, as it is in the new department of Islamic art at the Louvre, because this enables connections to be drawn between materials that are otherwise rather disparate in character, allowing the arts and crafts of the Islamic world to be drawn together as the expression of a single civilisation.
One can respect this intention while still wondering about the juxtaposition of materials that it sometimes entails. In the presentation in the Louvre, for example, 18th-century weaponry from Moghul India, 17th-century ceramics from Safavid Iran and 13th-century metalwork from Mameluke Egypt are pressed together a few feet from each other in a single gallery space. Some of the themes are almost comically recondite, one case learnedly illustrating "the development of historiated decoration" with objects made in 13th-century Egypt, for example, while being pressed up against another on "the development of sculpture in the round" (small three-dimensional sculpture) that is entirely unrelated to it.
However, this procedure makes for wonderful browsing, and watching visitor behaviour in the newly opened galleries at the weekend served as a reminder, if one were necessary, that a strong narrative or chronological line is not necessarily a condition of enjoyment. People seemed to be quite happy to browse among the display cabinets in the new department without apparently being too concerned to make connections between them, like honeybees moving between flowers in an abundantly planted bed.
LANDMARK WORKS? A visit to the Louvre is always an occasion, and even if one gets there before the museum opens there is a line of people waiting to be admitted. Since many, if not most, of the objects in the Louvre are already masterpieces, works that express to the full the potential of the materials from which they are made, it is possible to come across pieces hidden at the ends of corridors that in any other museum would be exhibited to draw visitors to them or at least made the focus of the rooms in which they are located.
Perhaps an expression of house style, this is emphatically not the case at the Louvre, and in the new department of Islamic art few concessions have been made to crowd-pleasing. Buying a ticket for the new department last weekend, the person in the line in front asked the sales clerk, "which way to the 'Mona Lisa?'" Nobody wants to miss the masterpieces or landmark works on what may be a rare visit to the Louvre, but unlike for the "Mona Lisa", the object of a special display in the department of Italian painting, the curators of the department of Islamic art seem to have gone out of their way to hide the department's masterpieces in what may be an unnecessarily academic display.
The uniformity of the display cases means that there are few obvious focal points to orient the visitor, and the fragmented thematic display means that there is no obvious visitor circuit. The first-floor space can be entered from four directions, with what seems to be the main entrance marked by a panel on "imagery and its miniaturisation in the Islamic world." This is an interesting subject, but it seems a strange way to begin an exhibition, especially if one had been expecting a landmark work that would make some kind of major statement about the nature of the collection to follow.
Landmark pieces are sometimes almost hidden from view, and there is little indication from the exhibition itself, which avoids notions of qualitative hierarchy, of which pieces should be taken as masterpieces and which should be taken as merely illustrative of a particular theme. The Saint Louis Baptistere, for example, one of the masterpieces of the collection, is hidden away in a corner of the basement level in a section entitled "precious vessels of emirs and sultans". It took quite some time to find the piece used for the publicity for the exhibition, the so-called "Monzon Lion", an engraved bronze fountain spout in the shape of a lion made in 13th-century Spain. (It is also in the basement gallery).
Such things wouldn't matter much, except that the careful placement of landmark works creates focal points for visitors to an exhibition and helps create memorable ensembles. There are large-scale works that create focal points for the gallery displays, with the mosaics from the Great Mosque in Damascus on the upper level and the displays of Ottoman tiles on the lower level drawing the eye towards them. However, these works are not used to create thematic units, and neighbouring display cases explore other themes.
Smaller glitches might include the Louvre's audioguide system, which seems to use an adaption of a Nintendo games console. The technology used is out of date, and the console is fantastically fiddly and only intermittently functioning -- a pity, since the quality of the commentary seems to be high. The catalogue of the exhibition, resplendently produced by the Louvre, is another puzzle because of the graceless quality of the English translation, and visitors are advised to buy the French edition.
ISLAMIC ART IN A PARIS FRAME: The Louvre's new galleries of Islamic art are a welcome addition to the Louvre museum and to the institution's French and European context. They are sure to attract many interested visitors. However, the Louvre's new department of Islamic art is not the only world-class exhibition of such material in the French capital, since the Institut du monde arabe also opened a permanent exhibition of Islamic art earlier this year only a few miles away on the left bank of the Seine (reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly in March 2012).
Paris now has two major museum exhibitions of Islamic art, and they have been opened in the wake of others, among them the Doha Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar and the reopening of the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art in 2010 following an eight-year redesign and the reopening of the galleries of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and later South Asia at the Metropolitan Museum in New York late last year. This activity, together with the growth of a network of private collectors, has meant that few institutions anywhere could now hope to build up a collection of Islamic art to rival that in the Louvre.
The new Louvre exhibition has been sponsored by the Al-Walid Foundation, with other major donors including King Mohamed VI of Morocco, the emir of Kuwait, sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said of Oman and the republic of Azerbaijan. Much of the press coverage on the opening of the new galleries related to the role that they could play in broadening the knowledge of European and international audiences of the history of Islamic art, and the prestige of the Louvre, one of the world's most important museums, has attracted a long list of donors.
Following last week's triumphant opening of the Louvre's new department of Islamic art, it is to be hoped that the museum will now initiate an ambitious series of temporary exhibitions building on the promise represented by its magnificent new galleries and possibly drawing on the many thousands of items in its collection of Islamic art for which room could not be found in the permanent display.