After seeking funds for many years, the Louvre has finally accomplished its vision of a worthy home for a wonderful collection. A courtyard of the Louvre has been given new life and a novel piece of architecture, housing a unique repository of Islamic art.
Less than a year has passed since the most recent massive happening in the world of Islamic art, and no doubt the Metropolitan Museum of Art thought it had the field covered for a while. That was last October. This September sees the reopening of another, older and larger collection. It has also taken a lot longer to accomplish. In the time between the first discussion about its viability and this month’s opening, France has had three presidents. The one who initiated the new galleries at the Louvre was Jacques Chirac, the only French premier to have an unquestioned passion for Asian art. In 2002, he made a speech that launched the project, and ten years later his dream has been realised, largely because the vision was shared by the Louvre’s president, Henri Loyrette.
It is a project that needed to happen. For such a magnificent collection to have been housed previously in such unassuming surroundings was almost an act of negligence. To make it worse, this writer remembers making an express visit to the Islamic gallery twenty-something years ago in order to see one exceptional item – the Baptistère de Saint Louis. A ‘non’ in French has never seemed as emphatic as when members of the staff were asked whether it was on display. Being among the most widely discussed items in the canon of Islamic art does not mean that those in the vicinity care much about it. There is always a chance that it was on an overseas loan at the time, but more probably it had just escaped the notice of those on duty.
Such an oversight could not be made today. Instead of being the mustiest corner of the museum, the Islamic galleries cascade with a shimmering glow, augmented by the spotlight of world media attention. We will all be becoming more familiar with its contents. The Baptistère itself is a central attraction. The name alone should ensure some excitement, even among Catholic fundamentalists who might not normally find themselves in an Islamic-art department. It is the sort of object that brings different cultures together, just as the Louvre is supposed to do.
Despite the description by Eva Baer in the definitive book Metalwork of the Medieval Islamic World, ‘These basins are not very elegant in shape, yet structurally they are very stable’, this one item is the embodiment of France’s long but unresolved relationship with the Islamic world. For one thing, the basin’s Islamic credentials have sometimes been questioned, as have the Christian credentials of Saint Louis, who many Muslims believe quietly became a Muslim. The basin has been in France for an uncertain length of time but is known to have been used as a baptismal font for Louis XIII in 1601.
So great was the excitement surrounding the Baptistère in 1856, when Napoleon III’s only son was baptised at Notre Dame, a large number of replicas were made. Among the most interesting, although not on display in this section of the Louvre, was a full-size version made in ceramic by Theodore Deck. The great Alsatian ceramicist is a further indication of France’s love of what was then known as the ‘Orient’. Deck was as inspired as any Orientalist by what he saw in the Louvre, and even more so by a small shard of Ottoman Iznik pottery that he used to carry round with him.
The 14th-century Mamluk brass-inlaid basin now sits resplendent in the midst of the new galleries. It is one of 2,500 objects on display from a collection of more than 15,000. The collection is a few thousand items larger than the Metropolitan Museum’s and the number of displayed works is double. The history of these two great collections is in many ways as different as the Old and New Worlds. Of course, in Islamic-art collecting terms there is an even Newer World, but the Gulf is such a recent arrival it cannot begin to match its more established forerunners in terms of numbers.
The Louvre’s collection is very old indeed. It was at a time when interest was waning in France, after the First World War, that the Met really got going. For several centuries before that, the Louvre had been home to a wide variety of Islamic art. French kings had been collectors, often unwittingly, and after the Revolution turned the contents of the royal palace over to the people, there was no lessing of interest. Napoleon Bonaparte may have ridden his horse into mosques, instead of removing his shoes, but he was fascinated by everything from the East. The artists who accompanied him on his Egyptian campaign were the basis for the book L’art Arabe by Prisse d’Avennes, which was a formative work in the development of Islamic-art appreciation.
The involvement of individuals such as Napoleon I and earlier French rulers is not a major feature of the Louvre’s Islamic-art storyline. There is none of the Met’s star-struck homage to benefactors such as J.P. Morgan and Arthur Houghton. The Louvre, and France, would prefer the objects to do the talking. To facilitate this, the architects have created a backdrop that is supposed to provide the minimum of distractions.
Most of the media attention has been given to the exterior of the new wing, which is never a promising sign. This is probably because the outside is more immediately significant to the non-enthusiast of Islamic art than the interior. It is also replete with the symbolism that is so dear to architects and so much easier to appreciate than the curiosities housed inside. Is it a tent? Is it a headscarf? Is it a patch of desert? Some might think it more of a hair net. The possibilities are many, as outlined by the architects, Rudy Ricciotti and Mario Bellini, whose notes on the building tantalise with comments such as ‘the multiple exchanges of shared gazes’ and ‘the roof’s folds and creases offer a silken veil offering a play of lustrous and jocular reflections’.”They sought to avoid mezzanines in the courtyard, which ‘would be a clumsy solution emulating the consumerist culture and spatial organization of department stores’.
The Cour Visconti, in which the new gallery has been placed, is now a very different space from its distinguished but rather forlorn former incarnation. The architects seem to have been genuinely impressed by the contents of the collection and eager to let them express themselves. It might have been a first acquaintance with this subject for Ricciotti and Bellini, who were eager to let the Islamic works breathe the same air as their classical, non-Islamic neighbours.
The whole concept is about integration. Whilst many museums prefer to show Islamic culture as an entity forging its own path in isolation, the Louvre has a more inclusive approach. The museum has also resisted any French intellectual snobbery by making its contents truly accessible. Every means possible is employed to ensure that a visit to these galleries is a voyage of discovery. Among the enticements that visitors can expect when the wing is opened to the public are a number of audiovisual aids to total immersion in the subject. Islamic art has never been presented in such an interactive way. In addition to hearing texts read in key languages of the Islamic world, visitors can listen to commentaries from specialists in the field. Every work comes with a full description, which is a quite different approach from the nearby Picasso museum in Paris. At this more modern institution, the works of the great 20th century marvel are given the most basic treatment, presumably in order to encourage viewers to look rather than read. Or possibly to buy the catalogue. An exhibition from this museum has recently been touring Asia and it has to be admitted that the minimalist approach to caption writing went down quite well.
The biggest threat to the new project is the building itself. Like I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid, there is a danger that the novelty of another spectacular – and largely glass – construction will become the main attraction. For lovers of Islamic art, however, the light and space that have now been created will finally do justice to a collection that represents the most enduring collection in this field that exists. This was not assembled as a symbol of cultural status. It represents centuries of eclectic acquisition by a nation that has long had an ambivalent relationship with religion in general and Islam in particular.
At the Louvre, the Islamic world is seen as comprising multiple civilisations that deserve to be carefully decoded. The emphasis is mainly chronological, as opposed to the Met’s geographic approach. Fortunately, in common with the Met, English is a prominent language of explanation. This is an important concession for a French museum. Crowd pulling as it will no doubt be, the new structure at the Louvre is in some ways a distraction from the quieter but more meaningful aspects of the museum’s approach to collecting and scholarship. Its books on Islamic art are superb, including one of the very few aimed at educating children on the subject without trying to turn them into jihadists. There are also a number of fascinating documentaries from the Louvre; perhaps the most original contribution of all is a series of one-minute animated films. There are no less than 40 of these, created with charm and insight, covering a multitude of objects on display in the new galleries.
The new galleries and all the associated products are more than a stunning display of design and content. They give the prominence that this collection deserves. Having history and magnificence on its side was not enough. Until a mere 10 years ago, the Islamic art collection at Louvre was no more than a section of the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities. It needed a statement such as the new wing to give it true status. The wing is now known as the Department of Islamic Art and has its own director, in the enduring form of Sophie Makariou.
Many visitors will be unimpressed by this piece of architectural whimsy. It is, however, built to last and at huge expense. Most of the money came from the Middle East, where promoting the art of the Islamic world is a high priority, wherever it might be taking place. More important is the admission that the Louvre is making about what is perhaps the world’s best collection of a field of art that is arousing considerably more interest these days than Near Eastern Antiquities.
BY LUCIEN DE GUISE