The V&A’s Tim Stanley eyes up the Louvre’s astonishing new Islamic offering
The opening of the new Islamic galleries at the Musée du Louvre in Paris marks the ultimate, most magnificent stage in a series of major gallery and museum redevelopments covering the art of the Islamic world. These include the new, separate Islamic section of the Benaki Museum in Athens, our own efforts at the V&A in London, the Museums of Islamic Art in Doha and Cairo, the David Collection in Copenhagen, the Met in New York, and now the Louvre.
The Louvre galleries were visited by President François Hollande on the morning of September 18. It did not rain, despite his reputation as a bringer of bad weather. Former President Jacques Chirac also made a private visit. This interest at the highest level is no casual matter. Chirac began in 2003 by reorganising the Louvre to create a new Department of the Arts of Islam, and the galleries were then commissioned as a means of asserting France’s relationship with the Islamic world in general and the Arab world in particular.
The Louvre’s already excellent collection was boosted by transferring to it the 3000 and more pieces of Islamic art, many very fine, owned by the Museum of Decorative Arts, which has shown less and less interest in the field since the First World War. A large courtyard on the Seine side of the palace was assigned for the creation of new galleries the size of a respectable museum, and the Elysée no doubt played a role in coaxing huge amounts of funding from Arab sources, as well as providing a good deal of money from the French treasury. The last time I looked, the galleries were going to cost 100 million euros.
Political will, architectural panache, curatorial skill and pure hard labour have produced a remarkable two-storey building encased in and communicating with the rest of the Louvre. On the upper floor, level with the courtyard, the famous wavy metal roof is penetrated by and diffuses light, while the glass walls admit more, reflected off the stone façades of the courtyard outside. Downstairs, underground, is an even larger space with every surface in the same dark colour; here the light is concentrated on the objects. And what objects, and in what quantity!
The physical environment creates a unifying frame for great diversity: archaeological displays, with carefully chosen fragments stabilised and conserved and shown off to great effect; and cases with one, two or three great works of art, all spruced up within an inch of their lives. Then there is the diversity of geography, history and style. If nothing else, through their size, through the number of objects on display, and through these objects’ variety, the galleries tell us that the Islamic world is large, complex and important. They are formidable in both the French and English senses. They have achieved their political purpose.
But what of us, the ones to be impressed? After my first, four-hour visit, I had looked at everything in every case at least once. I had found the display of works on paper behind one of the staircases, and the long gallery beyond the thick wall marking one side of the courtyard; one of the passages that leads there is home to a stone gateway from Cairo. I was happy, but also exhausted, object-blind and dazed. At times I had been lost in the sheer vastness of the downstairs space. I could see the Ottomans because of the prominent wall of Iznik tiles, but where were the Mamluks?
There are pithy introductory texts, numerous explanatory videos and extraordinary animated maps; you can hear poetry read out in Ottoman Turkish, Persian and Arabic, and follow the original text through translations in three languages (including one by me); and there are stations for feeling reproductions of elegant objects, with texts in braille. I concentrated on reading the labels, and they pleased, informed and challenged me. Beneath a display of tablewares from the early Islamic period, for example, was an admission of how little we know about contemporary eating habits – that is, about how these objects were used. This honest approach is relaxing – you know you are not being denied information and are put on the same level as the specialist. More puzzling is the re-attribution of a whole spectrum of formerly “Syrian” ceramics to Egypt, but no doubt enlightenment will come eventually. Gratifying for me was the assertion in one label that some Cizhou ceramics from medieval China took up ideas from the Middle East – a thing some Chinese specialists have been loath to admit.
Many more visits will follow, and I have a word of advice to myself. Act as though the galleries are a separate museum, and do not expect to visit everything at once. Be selective.
Tim Stanley is Senior Curator, Middle East, at the V&A
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