Art review: Birth of a Museum, Manarat al-Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Monday 29 April 2013
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; www.saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
- 2 Homeless man playing piano in Florida becomes instant online sensation with public performance
- 3 Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
- 4 San Francisco TV news crew attacked by armed robbers during live broadcast
- 5 Greek debt crisis: The photograph that conveys the despair of Greece's elderly
Bad luck, One Direction: Paul McCartney doubts success of The Beatles will ever be matched again
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
The Crystal Maze: Richard O’Brien confirmed to return as more details revealed about show's rebooted format
Guillaume Tell's gang-rape scene caused uproar at the Royal Opera House – but the portrayal of extreme sex and violence on stage is nothing new
What if Nicolas Cage played every character in Game of Thrones?
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture