Are you ready to travel back in time? Welcome to the first temporary exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi “From one Louvre to another: opening a museum for everyone”. This exhibition explores the idea of the birth of a museum and making art available to the general public.
This concept fits well into the context of a new museum, as in both cases genesis and accessibility are emphasized. In 17th century France royal collections, which were housed in Versailles were partially available to the general public. The Louvre museum opened a century later – in 1793 – to formally preserve and display these art treasures. The exhibition is spread over several halls which differ in size, shape and colour.
The history of the collection is told on wall-size screens where flat images of important events and historical figures move slowly. It seems like an old-fashioned way of rendering a story, but nevertheless very powerful. The viewer gets a feeling of being part of the scene without technology distracting from the experience.
At the entrance we are greeted by the patron of arts and science King Louis XIV of France. He looks at us from Jean Garnier’s painting Allegory of King Louis XIV of France, Protector of Arts and Sciences (1672). The portrait of the king in a medallion is surrounded by seemingly random objects, which start to make sense once you decipher the allegory (hint: vine refers to abundance and wealth and Athena, whose bust is at the bottom right corner, is a patron of arts).
Another hall represents the garden of Versailles with two sculptures at the entrance, and the Great Apartment of the palace with Diana of Versailles or Artemis the Hunter (2nd century CE) in the middle (don’t be mislead by the title: Diana and Artemis are the same character; in the Roman history Artemis was identified with Diana). This sculpture was Louis XIV’s favourite, so he took it with him every time he changed residence. In Versailles Diana’s place was in the middle of the Hall of Mirrors. The curators emphasized this detail by fixing a stripe of mirror on the wall. Such small yet significant and well-thought-out elements make the public experience more authentic. By the way, we are lucky to see Diana in Abu Dhabi, as this sculpture left Paris for the first time after 1556.
Diana shares the hall with Peter Paul Rubens’ painting Thomyris Immersing the Head of Cyrus in a vase of blood (circa 1625). This violent historical event was described by Herodotus and Louis XIV, who bought the painting in 1671, it was placed strategically in his throne room – Apollo Salon. The resting location was strategically chosen so that the artwork could produce a moralizing effect; where Cyrus’ death is a warning about the danger of power. One more curious fact mentioned by the curator Juliette Trey. The picture was originally smaller, however the king wanted a larger scale canvas, so local artists were ordered to enlarge it. (If you look closely you can actually spot the traces of joints)
From the Grand Apartment we now move to the king’s Private Apartments, access to these was granted to a select few. The Oval hall had four niches decorated with small scale bronze statues, two of which arrived at Louvre Abu Dhabi. The curators partially recreated the hall. Private Apartments used to be home of the king’s favorite vases made from semi-precious stones. In Versailles there were several thousand of them surrounded by other beloved artworks.
From Versailles visitors are invited to the XVIII century Louvre, which was a place occupied by painters, sculptors and artisans. Among them were the clockmakers Claude Siméon Passemant and Jean-Baptiste Dutertre , who in 1454 created a truly magnificent clock - Creation of the World. It was meant to be gifted to an Indian prince, but King Louis XV decided otherwise, and it remained in Paris. The 143 cm high clock consists of several elements. The globe is placed between the rocks and waterfall with the clouds, the moon and seven planets above. The composition is crowned by the sun, whose long rays go in all directions. One of them touches the globe and points to … Abu Dhabi. It is not a mere coincidence; the clock was dismantled during transportation. When the specialists assembled it again, they decided to flirt with the new audience by rotating the globe to the desired side.
In the same hall another exhibit that immediately commands attention is a medallion with 92 diamonds, work of Jean Pittan the Younger and Jean Petitot the Elder. Several hundreds of such medallions were commissioned by Louis XIV to be offered as gifts; however, very few have been preserved to our day in their original state. Sadly, it was common practice to remove and sell diamonds separately.
Now we move to the Salon where contemporary art was exhibited. The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture regulated the entry of artworks to the exhibition. Needless to say, the competition among artists was fierce, as being chosen meant being noticed by potential buyers. The Salon was a place where not just painters and sculptors but rather all creative minds, met and exchanged ideas. Louvre Abu Dhabi offers its visitors a sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle Mercury Fastening His Winged Sandals (1744). When it first appeared in front of the jury, made of clay, it immediately attracted attention. Pigalle was invited to present the Salon with a marble version of the sculpture. Moreover, he was commissioned a real size copy of Mercury , together with another sculpture, Venus, to be sent to the Prussian King Frederick II. The story of Mercury might not have been as glorious, had Pigalle given its first version as payment for his short stay in Lille.
Don’t miss a copy of the catalogue to the 1785 exhibition, where you can read the name of the artist, title and a brief description of the artwork. Such brochures were cheap to produce while the spyglass housed in the same glass case as the catalogue was a luxury item due to its intricate design. The porcelain spyglass was used in theatres and at exhibitions, as some paintings used to be displayed too high to be able to appreciate the detail with the naked eye.
In the next hall visitors will come across massive sculptures created for the Grand gallery of Louvre to commemorate celebrated historical figures. Philippe Laurent Roland made Louis II de Bourbon (1784-1787), while Clodion sculptured Montesquieu (1783). Both sculptures were meant to be housed on the first floor of the museum, but taking into account their weight (the latter being 3 tons) it was deemed too risky and was hence avoided.
Other halls are devoted to the new stage of the museum’s history. When Napoleon was in power, the Louvre’s collection grew enormously, in fact it became the largest museum in the world. In 1803 it was renamed The Museum of Napoleon. Its director Vivant Denon commissioned a bust of Napoleon to Lorenzo Bartolini, to be placed at the main entrance. It was completed in 1805 but its moment of glory didn’t last long.
In 1814 Napoleon abdicated and the monarchy was restored. This exhibition can be proud to display this bust of Napoleon, made of bronze and having the size of 155 x 91 x 76 cm. Unfortunately for Louvre more than 5000 items confiscated by Napoleon went back to their owners, which we can see in a short video presentation. In spite of this, Louvre can still be proud of its huge collection showcasing the history of the world. Apart from the paintings and sculptures, visitors can enjoy engravings, etchings, furniture, French tapestry of XV century, a statuette from the Easter Island, a Syrian vase of XIII century and many more impressive pieces of art.
From one Louvre to another runs until April 7th at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and is definitely worth the visit.
P.S. I wrote this article first in Russian for Russian Emirates magazine (No.83/1-2018).
About the writer:
Katerina Baginskaya’s career in art can be traced back to 2004 when she joined the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was appointed to the Russian embassy in Abu Dhabi as Chief of Protocol and Cultural Attaché. Later, she studied art history at Oxford University and in 2013 founded an art gallery in Dubai. Her passion for arts has lead her to contribute to numerous publications and seminars over the years. Along with completing multiple courses on art education from Russia and the US Katerina has also a degree in teaching from Moscow Pedagogical State University. She currently runs art appreciation lessons for children in different galleries around Dubai.