Art review: Birth of a Museum, Manarat al-Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi

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Stalled by downturns, delays and even the threat of a boycott by artists over the conditions of the building workers, Abu Dhabi’s masterplan to convert a vast sandy swathe of Saadiyat Island into a world-beating “cultural quarter” has sometimes looked like a desert mirage.

The emirate’s vision of a destination arts complex designed by the starriest of starchitects - a local Louvre by Jean Nouvel, the Gulf’s Guggenheim by Frank Gehry, the Sheikh Zayed National Museum by Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Centre – has remained a lot less tangible than the pharaonic hotels already glowering over Saadiyat beach.

No longer. Last week, at the Manarat Al-Saadiyat visitors’ centre, the Louvre Abu Dhabi (due to open in 2015) unveiled a 130-strong selection of the 460 works so far acquired for Nouvel’s still-embryonic landmark. Although the Paris mothership will offer around 300 loans, the bulk of the Abu Dhabi exhibits will be bought for, and stay in, the Gulf. One sign of the times: a first-class Mondrian, snapped up in 2009 at the Paris auction of the Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Berge collection.   

Divided into ten sections, ‘Birth of a Museum’ offers both a whistlestop tour of world art and a snapshot of the big ideas behind the “Louvre of the sands”. The first “universal” museum in the Arab world, it takes a comparative, eclectic and cross-cultural approach to art history. The show draws on the notion of the Arabian peninsula as “a land of convergence” to present a careful account of global art as a polite to-and-fro between warily respectful but discrete cultures. Much like today’s UAE itself, you might say.

Many individual items are exquisite enough to warrant a trip: classic Indian miniatures from James Ivory’s collection; superb Iznik ceramics; a captivating bronze cockerel from Benin; a sumptuously inlaid octagonal box of the Tang dynasty. There are great, little-known pictures by Picasso and Gauguin; a flawless Bellini Madonna; a spine-tingling Magritte. And yes, in answer to a frequently-asked-question, in the buxom shapes of Lagrenee’s “Bathing Nymphs”, you’ll come across the fruitiest of 18th-century nudes.

As for the overarching concept, I detected an unresolved tension. One strand pulls towards a timidly “multicultural” model of art, with each tradition put in its box and placed side by side (say, an ancient Qur’an, Talmud and Biblical carvings in the same case). A bolder “intercultural” ideal admits that mix and muddle drive creative change. By 2015 (let’s hope), the Louvre will lay out its philosophy in the full three dimensions, For now, this global assortment of jewels gives us the strongest proof so far that the Saadiyat vision amounts to more than just lines in the sand.


‘Birth of a Museum’, Manarat al-Saadiyat, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE; 09.00-20.00 until 20 July;