The Louvre's new wing for Islamic art is a show of good faith in times of trouble

The Louvre's new wingof Islamicart is a cultural bridge to the Muslim world, coming at a time of great religious tension, writesFionnuala McHugh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 4:42pm

Last autumn, after eight years of re-thinking how it should look and what its new appearance should say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reopened one of its wings. The official title of this newly expanded section is Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia. The emphasis is on geography - somewhere wondrous but distant - and not on religion.

Now it's the turn of the Louvre in Paris to re-house part of its collection - and the French museum's approach could hardly be more different. The new wing is officially called the Islamic Art Galleries and the Louvre is hoping that the works on display will show how the connection between France and Islam has spanned centuries. The emphasis is on a shared history through religion.

History, of course, is a prankster and the day the galleries were unveiled - as it were - to the international press, there were demonstrations in Paris against the now-notorious video, Innocence of Muslims.

France has had a difficult relationship with its Muslim community, the largest in Western Europe; only last year, it officially banned full-face coverings in public places. But the Louvre, which has been planning these new galleries since 2001, wants to convey Islamic inclusion - the most obvious manifestation being the position of the new wing, nestled within one of the Louvre's stupendous courtyards, the Cour Visconti.

It certainly looks remarkable. Even before the opening, those who'd seen it were comparing the golden undulations of the glass roof to a sand dune, to a scarf, to a flying carpet, to a Bedouin tent. It's the first architectural addition the Louvre has commissioned since I.M. Pei's glass pyramid in 1989 and, like Pei, architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti set out to create something visually distinct from the museum's monumental bulk.

Unlike Pei, Bellini and Ricciotti have had to grapple with post-9/11 political correctness and some philosophical breast-beating. They have said, in a press release, that the Louvre "does not subscribe to the view that the West is always best" and that they didn't want the Islamic galleries to feel trapped within the overwhelming magnificence of the Louvre's architecture from which "the East would have no escape".

Hence the light, airy construct. "It is something I don't want to call a building, but a bowl of space which is floating here among the courtyard walls," Bellini says as he escorts a press group at the opening. "We had to give it this nice skin, which is letting you dream," the Italian adds, out in the courtyard, touching the golden mesh which encloses the glass and swoops almost to the ground. "The idea is a honeycomb of shining aluminium so that as you look through you see one portion of it, then another, in an atmosphere of suspension.

"You feel inside and outside, in a building but not a building, in something transparent but not transparent. It's continuously a matter of fertile contradiction."

Those contradictions would seem to be not just architectural or even spiritual; they include the Louvre's attitude to its own Islamic artefacts which, like a desert wind, has blown distinctly hot and cold over the years. The medieval kernel of the collection came from former royal palaces, and there was a flurry of acquisitions at the end of the 19th century, but as France began shedding its Arabic colonies, public interest waned.

"The collection was poorly displayed when I was a child," recalls Henri Loyrette, the Louvre's director. "Then it was hidden for 10 years. Finally, in 1993, we saw more of the collection but there was a lack of space."

Soon after being appointed director in 2001, Loyrette went to then-president Jacques Chirac who agreed both to his suggestion that there should be a new wing and to the creation of a new department dedicated to Islamic art. That the 9/11 attacks took place after that discussion, Loyrette says, "reinforced … the need to do it".

Major Muslim sponsors were successfully courted: 60 per cent of the €100 million (HK$1 billion) cost came from the combined purses of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, and the rulers of Morocco, Kuwait, Oman and Azerbaijan.

Asked on a tour of the interior if any of these sponsors has pressured the museum's selection of objects, Sophie Makariou, the department's head curator, replies, "No! I swear on the Bible. And the Koran."

Makariou spent a decade whittling down 20,000 pieces to the 3,000 on display. Many of these objects had never been seen in public. Opening neglected case after case, Makariou began to suffer Stendhal Syndrome, that sense of being overwhelmed by the accumulation of so much beauty. "Then you have to cool your mind to work, you have to have a line: what history do you want to tell?"

The answer would appear to be a history that's immediately accessible (the dynasties of the Islamic past have been greatly simplified) and one whose written captions are in English, French and Spanish but not Arabic.

Makariou bristles at suggestions that leaving out Arabic could be seen as offensive. "Should I put Greek captions in the Greek department? Sumerian for Sumerian pieces? I'm not doing a department only for the Muslim world. Arabic is on the audio-guide - and we talk about the Mona Lisa in Arabic on the audio-guide. This is fair."

The Mona Lisa, of course, is the main reason nine million people visited the Louvre last year. Her gallery overlooks the golden cloud of the new wing: it's likely many people will gaze down on those shimmering billows without exploring further.

But those who do will see some extraordinarily beautiful work, from ceramics to calligraphy to carpets.

Two pieces, designated "exceptional" by the museum, are the Egyptian rock-crystal ewer given to the abbey of Saint-Denis in the 12th century, and the 14th-century Syrian (or, possibly, Egyptian) Baptistery of Saint Louis, a copper basin in which the children of the kings of France were christened. The objects come from the Muslim world, but bear the names of Christian saints and are embedded in French cultural history in a way that no Islamic artefact, in New York's Metropolitan Museum, could be a part of American life.

The day after the press preview, President Francois Hollande officially opened the Islamic wing. In the last line of his speech, he announced that what had been achieved at the Louvre was "a cultural act, an act of faith, an act of peace and a political act".

Timing being all, he's going to need plenty of faith in the ability of culture, combined with politics, to bring peace. By the end of that day, offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed had been published in France and French embassies across the globe were on high security alert.