Open Sesame! David J. Roxburgh on the Musee Du Louvre's Galleries of Islamic Art

Article excerpt

THE MOST CONSPICUOUS architectural intervention distinguishing the Louvre's new galleries of Islamic art is an iridescent, undulating, anodized gold screen. It lifts, falls, and stretches horizontally across the Visconti Courtyard, nearly filling the space, and seems to hover in the air, serving as the roof of two floors of galleries--one at ground level, the other below it--that together make a museum within a museum. This diaphanous metallic scrim appears to rest atop a glass curtain wall that wraps around the perimeter of the first-floor gallery. Excavators carved out a sufficient mass of earth to provide thirty thousand square feet of exhibition space, roughly four times what was previously assigned to display Islamic art at the Louvre.

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Yet for all the labor such a massive undertaking entails, its end result seems less a building than a gesture whose form and effect suggest a response to I. M. Pei's pyramidal intervention of 1989. In contrast to the perfect geometry, stability, and classicism of Pei's pyramid, architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti's wire-frame form, a computer-generated topographic map formed from a lattice of triangles, evokes the protean, the shape-shifting, the unstable. But please don't call it a flying carpet, veil, scarf, Bedouin tent, or sand dune, even though these references are clearly in play. Indeed, it's hard to accept that any of these analogies--steeped in nineteenth-century thinking about Islam as a monotheism fostered in the desert or in cultural tropes formed through The Arabian Nights--are still possible, or could have credence, today (perhaps especially after the ban on wearing the full-face veil in public in France in 2011). Bellini and Ricciotti's avowed inspiration was Montesquieu's 1721 Lettres persanes--a proto-novel comprising letters written by the fictional Persians Usbek and Rica about their visit to Paris--but these days they prefer to liken their screen to a "dragonfly wing," though the resemblance is, at least to my eyes, remote. Somewhat paradoxically, the architects also assert that while the screen responds to the genius loci of the architecture that surrounds it, it was not informed by the original contexts of the art it houses, but could have been designed for the art of anywhere.

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Sometimes ambiguity can be annoying. Why not mention Herge's Tintin in the Land of Black Gold as a formative influence of equal importance? In any case, for me the associations are less, as it were, high-flown: The animated and animating screen, tantalizing and seductive, appears to have landed at the Louvre transporting aesthetic associations, as well as economic possibilities, characteristic of contemporary architecture in the Gulf. The relation might become all the more evident when the Louvre opens its first global outpost in Abu Dhabi in 2015 in a building designed by Jean Nouvel.

But such considerations don't necessarily detract from the experience. The Louvre is the latest among a number of museums throughout the Middle East, Europe, and America to reinstall its permanent collection of Islamic art. Among all of these reinstallations, the Louvre's stands out as the most ambitious and most consequential. Whatever one thinks of the spectacular gesture staged in the Visconti Courtyard, the museum has built an impressive space--opulent in its materials, steadfastly contemporary, thoughtful in its curation--in which to present one of the world's largest and most diverse collections of Islamic art. The demand for new galleries to display this collection (of approximately fourteen thousand objects, plus thirty-five hundred on permanent loan from the Musee des Arts Decoratifs) can be traced to 2001, the first year of director Henri Loyrette's tenure. But the Department of Islamic Art only became an autonomous museum department in 2003, when it was unmoored from the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities. …

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