The Louvre Abu Dhabi aims to tell a universal story of human creativity.
It places European treasures next to works of genius from Asia, and the art of the Americas alongside masterpieces from the Middle East and Africa.
Where did we come from and why are we here? Artists have long pondered these great questions.
Art has always been inspired by nature. But artists have held radically different ideas about humanity’s place in the world.
From the first cave paintings, humans have strived to represent their own image. What do we reveal when we depict ourselves?
Many of the world’s great works of art project an image of strength. Some reveal hidden desires for military conquest, political power, or personal glory.
Art and faith have co-existed since the dawn of human religion. Many of our earliest and greatest works of art draw on our deepest beliefs in the divine.
“It is almost impossible visually to address the question, 'Why are we here?'”Neil MacGregor, author of 'Living with the Gods'
Creation, creativity, imagination and art
In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the universe is created from nothing by a God of infinite wisdom. Creation myths from other religions see the universe arise from conjuring tricks, sculpture, drunken conflicts, chance or accidents.
“Every culture has a myth of how the earth was made and human life began. It is almost impossible visually to address the question, 'Why are we here?',” said Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and author of the book “Living with the Gods.” “But if a religion has representational art, then Creation will everywhere be a major theme.”
The best known example is arguably Michelangelo’s painted ceiling in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, depicting Creation as told in the Book of Genesis, said MacGregor, which culminates in the giving of life to the first human, Adam.
Audiences and academics have long asked if Michelangelo -- a polymath with excellent knowledge of human anatomy -- hid a more human shape in his masterpiece: the outline of a brain or a uterus containing a placenta, depending on interpretation. If true, this depiction follows in the line of a long tradition, going back to early ancestor figures and goddesses of fertility: mixing images of supernatural creation with the ongoing miracle of human life.
Even religions without representational art have strived to illustrate Creation. “In Islam, where only the word can be represented, there are beautiful calligraphies of God’s word ‘Be!’, by which Adam, the first human, was given life,” said MacGregor.
Eternal or endangered, nature through human eyes
The earliest surviving cave paintings show humans standing amid fierce beasts. Early religion, art and literature were inextricable from the nature we lived among.
Only later the theoretical divide between nature and culture starts to emerge in the thoughts of certain civilizations. While Western art has long been fascinated with nature, the dominant trends to emerge in Western tradition put humanity and nature in separate spheres.
“Understanding nature and the human relation to it, the world's great religious traditions and traditions of philosophy differ,” explained Karl Kusserow, co-author of the book “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment.”
“And many of them, in ways we’re coming to realize, are more ecologically sound and sustainable than the one that the West has evolved.”
“Understanding nature and the human relation to it, the world's great religious traditions and traditions of philosophy differ”Karl Kusserow, author of 'Nature’s Nation'
Europeans painted detailed images of natural species to categorise them for science, or else represented them as god-given landscapes -- eternal and unchanging. Meanwhile, Buddhist, Aboriginal Australian and Native American art each depicted humans as part of nature.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century -- up to the current age of the Anthropocene -- large scale man-made damage to the environment has forced both Western and non-Western artists to rethink. “The problem is that if you don’t see yourself as part of something, you don’t tend to care for it very well -- which is exactly what we’ve done.”
“You’re not just seeing someone’s face and eyes, you’re getting a sense of the whole world, the world in which they operate”James Hall, author of 'The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History'
Painting ourselves, we reveal a whole world
Humans started depicting their own bodies artistically with the very earliest sculptures and paintings, dating back to tens of thousands of years ago.
Yet artists have rarely crossed the line to producing accurate portraits of regular individuals, worthy of standing apart, alongside leaders, saints, and gods.
“In the Venetian Republic, they didn’t allow portraits of individuals in public spaces, because they didn’t want individuals to assert themselves, at the expense of the Republic,” explained James Hall, the author of “The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History.” “There have often been controls of the diffusion of portraiture.”
Self-portraits are rarer still. Only Europeans developed a prevalent tradition of self-portraiture before the 19th century, said Hall.
European societies traditionally had a preoccupation with the individual and individuality, in contrast with other cultures that emphasize the collective and communal.
But in the greatest self-portraits, we see more than an accurate copy of a person’s appearance, Hall explains. Whether naturalistic or not, we see the material, spiritual and cultural society the artist inhabits, and their place in it.
“The self-portrait becomes the microcosm: those are the most interesting ones,” said Hall. “You’re not just seeing someone’s face and eyes, you’re getting a sense of the whole world, the world in which they operate.”
“Emanating energy and stateliness, those endowed with power are usually depicted in a position above other figures in a scene”Paola Rapelli, author of 'Symbols of Power in Art'
Behind human creativity, a darker desire
Today, the painter’s studio might appear as distant as it is possible to be from the brutal theater of war. But art history reveals an ongoing and intimate connection between base desires of power and the objects of human creativity.
Among the earliest objects in the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a razor-thin stone blade. It is the work of a 20,000-year-old craftsperson, whose technical skill had elevated the practice of toolmaking -- responsible for early humans’ dominion over nature -- to an art form.
Art and power have been connected from the very start, according to Paola Rapelli, author of the book “Symbols of Power in Art,” which connects the ancient reliefs of Assyrian palaces, towering Roman statues, renaissance painting, and contemporary photojournalism depicting military conflicts.
“The population is easily captured by the impressive image of power,” said Rapelli. While the symbols and artistic language used to project power vary between cultures, many attempt to reflect the sources of legitimate power described by the ancient Greeks: physical strength, popular approbation, wisdom, virtue, and sovereignty. “Emanating energy and stateliness, those endowed with power are usually depicted in a position above other figures in a scene.”
Art inspires belief. Belief inspires art
Art is older than any of the great religions practiced today. The earliest objects in the Louvre Abu Dhabi precede the beginnings of organized Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism, and represent a time of early faith, when belief in gods and spirits mixed with the mysteries of the natural world: animals, the sun and the moon, and the great unknown.
“Every human culture that has a sense of the divine has felt compelled in one way or another to create form, sometimes as metaphor, sometimes symbol, sometimes -- as in Islamic traditions -- by eschewing mimesis, by favoring abstraction,” said Deborah Lewer, a senior lecturer in the history of art at the University of Glasgow.
Since the beginnings, art and faith have developed side by side across the world, with artists and artisans finding inspiration in religious belief, and expressing their greatest gifts in honour of gods.
“Every human culture that has a sense of the divine has felt compelled in one way or another to create form”Deborah Lewer, University of Glasgow
But depictions of the divine are anything but simple expressions of something beyond humanity. “All these messy things to do with power, wealth and status, are also involved,” explained Lewer.
“If you look at the works of the Italian Renaissance, some of the greatest works of religious art that we admire and feel moved by, would not be there were it not for the desire of their patrons to express their own wealth and power and status. I think they are best seen in many cases as traces of human beings trying to understand the world, the divine, and humanity’s place in it, and that is what many of these works of art are.”
Osiris was the lord of the kingdom of the dead, where he reigned as the greatest of all gods. As in most civilizations, political power and faith mixed in Ancient Egypt. Osiris, the son of the gods Geb (earth) and Nut (sky), was believed to be the first Pharaoh on earth. This provided the divine basis for the pharaohs’ right to rule. Osiris, often represented with a green or black complexion -- colors that signify rebirth and the fertile lands of the Nile -- was worshiped as the fair judge of the afterlife. But this funerary statue would have initially appeared here as shining bronze, said Noëmi Daucé, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “Afterlife is the main preoccupation, and it’s not really ‘afterlife’ but ‘reaching eternity’ and ensuring nothing -- neither your name nor your body -- is affected by death, so that you can reach eternity after this trial facing Osiris.”
Osiris is usually portrayed in a shroud with arms crossed as if in burial, but eyes half open. Ancient Egyptian culture developed funerary rituals of unprecedented originality and complexity. “We try to highlight the connection, the exchanges, the encounters between civilizations. But we try not to underestimate the originality and uniqueness of expression -- artistic and cultural -- of civilizations,” said Daucé.
Along with the creator-god Brahma and protector-god Vishnu, Shiva is part of the divine triad of Hinduism. Depictions of Shiva, responsible for the cyclical destruction of the universe, are extremely varied. In Hinduism, this periodic destruction, which comes at the end of a cosmic cycle, is not seen as a disaster to be avoided, but rather a process that allows for re-creation, putting an end to ignorance and guiding the world to enlightenment. In this bronze sculpture, from Tamil Nadu at the southern tip of India, Shiva appears in one of his most popular guises, as Lord of the Dance, with four arms. “It is crushing a small, human-shaped being with the right foot, as a symbol of ignorance,” said Guilhem André, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Shiva is associated with extremes of emotion that can include joy as well fierce violence, and he is often depicted as a father and husband, as well as closely connected with the world of nature. This well-known image of Shiva would have been involved in celebrations of the God and of harmony, said André: “It would be carried on processions in the street. It is a living sculpture in many ways”.
The enlightenment of the Buddha is a central event in the foundation of Buddhism, which spread through Asia from the 4th to 6th century BC. It is the time when the Gautama Buddha was said to be spiritually awakened through meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree and have gained insight that became central teachings of Buddhism. The knowledge of the true nature of the world is said to free humans from the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth that characterises unenlightened life. According to some accounts, four weeks after he began meditation, a rainstorm began, and Mucalinda, a serpent-king, wound itself around the Buddha and sheltered him with its hood.
In Cambodia, this image of man and naturalistic spirit-beast became a popular symbol. “The representation of royal ornaments emphasises the idea of the Buddha being distinguished from ordinary mortals and reveals him to the faithful as the ruler of the spiritual realm,” write curators. This meter-high sandstone statue bears signs of once having been painted.
Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini depicts Jesus beside his mother, the Virgin Mary, who is seen praying. Although the image depicts the Christian Messiah as a newborn, it is heavily laden with symbolism of his destiny -- dying to redeem humanity for its sins. The infant Jesus’ hand rests on a book, symbolizing his already written fate, and Mary is shown dressed in red, a color traditionally associated with the Passion, the short final period in the life of Jesus before his crucifixion. The image, which invites the viewer to pray, was of a type commonly found in the homes of wealthy Christian adherents during this time.
This is one of three depictions of this type of scene displayed in a collection at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, including a painting by Francesco Traini from the early Italian Renaissance and a work by an unknown artist from 15th or 16th century Greece. Over time, the paintings become more complex and more recognisably humane: “You see that there is a clear evolution on this topic between the Greek and Byzantine way of representing this scene, in the early Renaissance period with the Primitive Italian painters, and then what is happening at the end, with Bellini,” said Guilhem André, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “It is the tenderness, of course, which is getting more and more developed through time, and through different paintings that we have on display in our gallery.”
This scene of hands clasped in front of the body, in stillness, listening and prayer, appears in disparate cultures across the distance of millenia. The Louvre Abu Dhabi displays a 19th century wooden statuette from Gabon holding a similar pose and -- more than 4,000 years older still -- a marble woman from Greece and alabaster figure from Syria from the third millennium BC, all bowed, hands touching. This painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, the most celebrated Dutch artist of the 17th century, displays the pose as a key symbol of Christian devotion. But the artist hints at something more. Likely painted from life, as a sketch for a painting of a young Jesus, it displays the psychological depth and torpors of emotion for which the Dutch artist is praised. “It also demonstrates the great Master’s understanding of the fragility and intense spirituality of life, which inspired so many artists after him,” said Dr. Souraya Noujaim, management director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection.
The image may have been intended to portray a famous biblical event, known as the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, according to Sotheby’s. Following the Last Supper, Jesus prays aware that he will soon be betrayed by one of his followers and may soon face death. Jesus appears here not as a powerful leader but as a human, deep in prayer. The austere scene reflected its social context, during the Dutch Golden Age, a period of economic growth in the Netherlands, when religious art declined relative to more grounded, everyday scenes, still lifes and landscapes, painted with increasing realism.
Before the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 19th century, the center of any Fijian Village was the burekalou, a temple often built on hills and raised foundations. “The burekalou was usually the grandest dwelling in the village, in many cases even bigger than the chief's house,” according to the Museum of New Zealand. Temples in Fiji were built with tall towers so that priests’ prayers could reach the gods. Portable shrines such as this one were designed as miniaturised versions of the temples, which priests took with them when they travelled. Made from intricately woven coconut fibre, these provided a portable home for spirits to inhabit, so that they could remain close to the priests, who were the only people who provided for them.
At the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the shrine is displayed along with other “houses of the dead:” urns and containers for relics designed to look like miniature buildings. “The house of the dead resembles that of the living. Why keep the deceased with us?” ask the curators. “The living need the dead in order to inscribe their short lives into the long history of their community. They listen to their ancestors telling them stories, talking about the country, teaching them how to live and die.” In Polynesian society, priests communicated prayers from regular people to gods. If prayers were seen to have failed, such as in the case of a natural disaster, priests would be held responsible -- and it could cost them their lives, according to the Polynesian Cultural Centre.
When visitors first enter the Louvre Abu Dhabi, they discover this early hand axe, alongside similar tools found in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. These were among the first objects designed with purpose and crafted by human hands, more than 300,000 years ago. The first humans that made these blades, as tools for survival and domination of nature, likely had no language, religion nor symbols. “The birth of aesthetics? Design? Identity? With hand axes or bifaces, the production of which began wherever homo sapiens, our common ancestor, settled, man became human in symbolic terms,” writes the museum.
The curators explain that we know for certain that this handcraft gave birth to arts, such as a 20,000-year-old blade found in France, which is displayed nearby in the museum. Too thin to be used to cut, the perfectly symmetrical blade in the shape of laurel leaf demonstrates a high level of skill and some ceremonial or symbolic purpose. In these geometrical bi-face axes, we see the earliest representation of human power in objects designed by our common ancestor to elevate itself above nature, and the beginnings of human culture laid out in the rest of the museum.
Since the invention of currency, money has communicated political power. Coins bearing the head of a political leader and were among the earliest mass communicated images of a living person, while others spread symbols of cities’ and empires’ economic strength. Alexander the Great, one of the most successful military leaders in world history, minted inumerable coins during his life, which circulated far beyond his native Macedonia. While some bore his face, others showed the mythic hero Heracles -- which led many to mistakenly associate the image of the legendary demi-god with Alexander himself.
This coin bears an image of Heracles wearing a headdress made from the pelt of the Nemean Lion, a fearsome beast that Heracles was said to have slayed. These silver coins were larger denominations than the bronze coins that were used in the marketplace, and were originally paid to mercenaries involved in Alexander’s conquests, which stretched from northwestern India to northeast Africa. At the Louvre Abu Dhabi, coins minted by Alexander and his father Philip are displayed alongside coins from as far apart as modern day France and the United Arab Emirates. “Although the territories of the Parisii in Gaul were separated from the kingdom of Abi’el in the United Arab Emirates by almost 7,000 kilometres, the coins of the two powers resemble one another extraordinarily, with their stylised and schematised head of Heracles-Alexander,” write curators.
This pointed helmet is so shaped to be worn over a cloth turban or twisted hair. It is one of a group of such helmets made in Persia and Anatolia -- modern day Iran and Turkey respectively -- between the 14th and 16th century. This example has a steel chainmail lower part, below an inscription, which speaks of allegiance to an emperor, called “the shadow of God.” On the twisted steel and silver dome, another inscription, inspired by the mysticism of Sufi Islam, speaks of belief in God and modesty of material desires. This marriage of creative inscription with weaponry and armor was common among adherents of Sufism, seeking a symbol of spiritual power of protection, said Rose-Marie Mousseaux, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “This inscription is completely connected with this [Sufi] way of life: putting these kinds of words, this kind of motto, exactly at the core of the weapon,” said Mousseaux.
While helmets like these were worn in combat, this helmet was likely saw no military action, and was used for ceremonial purposes. A dramatic plume of feathers would have sprouted from the top: “Imagine the impression, with all these elements and all this ornamentation, with a feather at the top,” said Mousseaux. “It is a masterpiece of weaponry.” In the 19th century, it came into the possession of Jean-Léon Gérôme, one of the leading figures in the Western discovery of the Islamic arts, and was shown in a 1903 exhibition in Paris.
The capital of the kingdom of Benin, Ife, was an artistic centre of West Africa, located in the south west of present day Nigeria. From the 11th century the walled city was an architectural marvel, paved with terracotta and decorated with mosaic. At the centre of the city, the palace of the Oba, the ruler, was highly decorated with bronze and terracotta sculptures. This sculpture, showing an ancestor of the Oba, likely praised in a form of ancestor-worship, was once part of a more complex iconographical system, along with bronzes showing scenes of daily life, said Rose-Marie Mousseaux, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Another bronze on display at the museum shows the Oba with two warriors beside him and two musicians, depicted much smaller. “It’s interesting to compare these two approaches. You have, here, civil life: the daily life, not of all the population, but of the Oba, and the King’s entourage, and you have, in the head, the ancestors of the Royal Family,” said Mousseaux.
Between the 15th and 18th century Benin became key to the Portuguese and Dutch trade with West Africa in gold and ivory, as well as slaves. The kingdom of Benin stood until 1897, when British imperial forces razed Benin City, then the center of the kingdom, in a punishing attack, which resulted in the loss of thousands of artworks collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. The present Oba and the ethnic Yoruba descendents of Benin have lobbied for years for the return of treasures such as this, which are currently held by the British Museum and institutions across the world.
Among the world’s best known portrayals of military might and heroic leadership, Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” depicts the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte leading his army across the mountains, through the Great St. Bernard Pass, in May 1800. The historical event formed part of Napoleon’s reconquest of land in Italy that had been lost to Austrian forces. It shows a highly dramatized and idealized version of events, encouraged by Napoleon’s belief that communicating political and military heroism was more important than historical accuracy. “This image depicts an episode before Napoleon became emperor, but it was made after he received the crown of the emperor,” said Rose-Marie Mousseaux, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. In it, we see the way “biographical history is built through paintings,” she adds.
In reality, Napoleon did not lead his troops through savage weather at the time of the crossing, but followed them in pleasant spring sunlight, on a mule. David’s depiction quickly became an influential image of French nationalism, with copies appearing on stamps and posters, and signified the re-emergence of France as a European power following the French revolution of 1789-99. The writing at the base places Napoleon’s name next to other European military leaders, famous for leading armies across the same mountain range many centuries before -- Hannibal and Charlemagne -- with the clear intention of telling readers that Napoleon’s conquest marked a new chapter in the legacy of such historic figures, according to Mousseaux.
George Washington was the military commander who led American forces to overthrow British rule in the American War of Independence, later becoming the first President of the United States. In the US, he is considered the Father of the Nation, for his key roles as both a military leader and statesman. This dual role is reflected in this image, which portrays him with one hand cradling the hilt of a sword, the other resting on a legal document. Jean François Charnier, curatorial director of Agence France-Museums, who helped build the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection, bought this image to accompany the epic portrait “Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps,” by Jacques-Louis David. Together they are intended to display the heroic ideal of a new type of leader emerging at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century: “They’re new men, they no longer belong to the aristocracy,” said Rose-Marie Mousseaux, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “They were chosen, at some point, by the people and they’re part of this new history.”
Stuart made more than 100 paintings of Washington, including the so-called Athenaeum Portrait, which was copied in engraving for the $1 bill. In this version, made 23 years after Washington’s death, Stuart paints a rainbow in the sky, to represent a hopeful dawn for a new nation after the end of the war.
The hippopotamus no longer lives in the Egyptian Nile, but when this nearly 15cm-long model was produced almost 4,000 years ago, these large animals represented not only a daily danger to people living and working on the river, but were also an important symbol of rebirth. In Egypt, the Nile was essential to local ecosystems, in an otherwise arid landscape. For ancient civilizations, it was central to survival -- washing ashore fertile soils in the river’s yearly floods. Curators at the Louvre Abu Dhabi explained this ceramic hippo covered in aquatic plants is a symbol of rebirth that was placed in the tomb of an important dignitary during Egypt's Middle Kingdom (around 2030-1650 BCE).
As both the source of agricultural wealth and a mortal danger, the Nile flooding elicited an ambivalent response from ancient Egyptians, said Noëmi Daucé, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “The river and the hippopotamus were both a threat and a blessing.” This story of a valuable river ecosystem inspiring religious and cultural belief is not unique to Egypt. “We’ve chosen to illustrate the benefits of the Nile river, but it could have been, in Mesopotamia, the Tigris and the Euphrates, or the Yellow River [in China]. The idea is to highlight the importance of these ecosystems that first [spurred] the development of huge civilizations in antiquity.”
This winged dragon has horns like a stag, a head shaped like an alligator’s, cat-like hind quarters, feathered wings and talons of an eagle. Nevertheless, the more than 2000-year-old chimeric animal is distinguished by the extreme naturalistic accuracy of its body, such as the appearance of muscles and ligature beneath the skin. “If you see it in the gallery, you see all the movement and the dynamism of this dragon,” said Noëmi Daucé, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “It seems like he is just about to jump, to fly, as if all the muscles were ready for this big impact.”
The exact use of this bronze statue -- unusually large at around 70cm in length -- is unknown. But it is among the first large-scale representations of a hybrid animal in China, according to Daucé. It was likely influenced by the country’s neighbors, the semi-nomadic peoples of Central Asia, whose culture frequently features such chimeric animals. The knowledge of these animal-rearing and hunting cultures inspired this zoomorphic depiction of a dragon, a mythical beast that had for centuries been an important symbol of good fortune and fertility in China. “It’s an artistic expression in movement, always in movement,” said Daucé. “Starting from an anatomical description, it’s going towards something that is more poetic.”
The lion’s historic range extended from southeastern Europe throughout Africa and much of southern Asia. The animals appear in cave paintings in France that date back more than 30,000 years, among the oldest figurative artworks still in existence. The lion is one of “the most universal symbols” of strength, courage and power, said Guilhem André, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. This 73cm-tall one is decorated with Arabic inscriptions and other natural imagery: a mythical griffin is seen on the front leg, a parrot and bird of prey on the rear legs, against plant motifs. “It consists of one of the most important medieval works in the Islamic tradition from the Mediterranean area,” said André.
The sculpture is surrounded by an air of mystery, as its exact origin, age, and purpose are unknown, and only a couple of similar sculptures still exist, like the Pisa Griffin and the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra, Spain, explained André. Originally, the face of the Mari-Cha lion would have been decorated with the contrasting colours of enamel or ivory. It features a realistic nose but an otherwise stylized face with wide-open eyes and a peculiar tubular mouth opening. This mouth was believed to have been a fountain or incense burner. A more recent study, however, has shown that the lion may have been a mechanical toy, with a mechanism in the body that would produce a roaring sound.
French impressionist Paul Gauguin’s painting shows two boys play-fighting in Brittany. The rugged peninsula in the north of France was seen at the time by artists in Gauguin’s circle as a conservatory of ancestral traditions, such as traditional folk wrestling, according to the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. While French cities were undergoing rapid industrialization and change, Gauguin sought out areas he saw as remote, unspoiled, and “savage”, said Juliette Singer, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Gauguin wrote to a friend: “I love Brittany. I find a certain wildness and primitiveness here. When my clogs resound on this granite soil, I hear the dull, matt, powerful tone I seek in my painting.”
This pursuit eventually led him to the South Pacific, where he painted many of his most famous works, which controversially depicted local cultures in “primitive” images. The industrial revolutions of the 19th century unleashed environmental change and led many Western artists to view nature not as eternal and separate from human action, but threatened by modern civilization. This was also the time of the Meiji Era, a period of rapid modernization in Japan, when European artists first became aware of Japanese prints with bright colors and a radically different, flat appearance. “It was such a shock for artists of this time,” said Singer. Prints of sumo wrestlers influenced Gauguin’s subtly violent image, she added.
Cuban artist Wifredo Lam was born to a Chinese father and mother with mixed Congolese and Spanish heritage. In his work, we see an even broader range of cultural influences, showing his friendships with European surrealists like Picasso, the mid-century American avant garde, African poets, and fellow Cubans from diverse backgrounds. In his images of nature, Lam painted slave-worked plantations, ancestral African traditions, occult and Catholic beliefs. Lam first visited the island of Martinique in 1941, returning to Cuba full of inspiration from the lush forests and a meeting with poet Aimé Césaire, who encouraged Lam’s artistic exploration of his own African heritage.
In Havana, Lam created a new, Cuban art that reflected both his own background and the Afro-Cuban traditions while challenging the European-dominated Cuban society, said Juliette Singer, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. He aimed to “paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the Negro spirit”, he wrote: “In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.” “It’s like a tropical vision,” said Singer. “As if the visitor were just a citizen coming from a city, entering into a jungle or a very frightening place. It’s for people to be afraid of the deep black power they can discover in that image.”
Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone created this sculpture specifically for this space inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi. For decades, the artist’s work has explored the relationship between humans and nature, often casting real trees in metal. This work, a bronze cast of a cherry tree with reflective steel leaves, was commissioned in 2007 and installed below the museum's latticework dome. That way it can reflect light, allowing visitors to experience the seemingly natural, yet clearly artificial texture of the bark-like bronze.
It forms one part of a bigger work called Germination, which also includes a human fingerprint drawn in concentric circles, like tree-rings. “It has this tension between nature and culture,” said Juliette Singer, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “The word ‘germination’ means to have life from nothing. So it’s a symbol of life, shared universally by all cultures, as the artist says. It’s something very beautiful and it was another symbol for the birth of the new museum: growing like knowledge and going toward the light.”
This two-headed statue, almost a meter tall, is among the earliest surviving monuments depicting the human form. It was discovered in 1983 near Amman, the capital of Jordan, along with more than 30 similar monuments, each carefully made from bundles of reeds covered with plaster. All statues discovered -- some with one head, others with two -- have the same arresting stare, with disproportionately wide eyes, carefully outlined in black bitumen. In each they have the uncanny appearance both as a familiar human being but also un-human or deceased: “What they express is probably some of the first beliefs of these ancient villagers or communities of agriculture,” said Noëmi Daucé, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
More than 8,000 years ago, the statues were laid in two carefully prepared pits and buried. However, little is known about why they began producing these models -- likely for public display -- only to bury them soon after. At the same site, human skulls -- also covered in plaster -- were found, likely evidence of a cult of ancestor-worship, according to Daucé. As farming was developed, moving people into stationary homes on the land, such monuments of humans, real or mythical, may have played a role in consolidating power, creating seasonal rituals, and developing early society.
The ancient city of Teotihuacan, near modern day Mexico City, was one of the largest in the world at its peak, in the 5th or 6th century, with at least 125,000 residents. However, it left no written records or portraits -- only many masks showing human faces. In the 20th century, this particular mask came into the possession of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957). It appears in one of the works of Rivera’s partner Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), “My Nurse and I” from 1937. Kahlo's work considers the open questions posed by this ancient mask: of the identity of the face and its maker, whether this mask was modeled as a realistic depiction of a certain individual or a class of people in Teotihuacan society, and why it was produced. “It was probably part of a larger figure. Whether it represents a specific category of human, we do not know,” said Noëmi Daucé, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
In “My Nurse and I”, the mask covers the face of a woman who breastfeeds a baby Kahlo, making reference to the artist’s indigenous heritage. The Mexican mask ended up influencing the development of the surrealist aesthetic when Rivera gave it to the surrealist artist André Breton. Curators at the Louvre Abu Dhabi hope to emphasize the sometimes-overlooked quality of pre-Columbian artistic output: “It highlights the huge quality of artistic production in Teotihuacan civilization that was on the same level as the Han Empire or the Roman Empire,” said Daucé.
Among the most instantly recognizable artworks in the world, “The Thinker” by French artist Auguste Rodin was originally known by another name: “The Poet.” Rodin conceived the sculpture, originally just 70cm tall, as part of an elaborate doorway named “The Gates of Hell,” intended for the Decorative Arts Museum in Paris. The intricate door frame told the story of Dante’s Inferno from the Divine Comedy, which describes the poet’s travels through hell, purgatory and heaven. The figure was intended to represent the writer, Dante Alighieri, leaning forward to observe the circles of hell, while meditating on his work, according to the Musee Rodin. “It was Dante, but we wonder if it is not also a self-portrait of himself,” said Juliette Singer, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Rodin himself explained he originally planned a clothed Dante, but the idea progressed, to bear little relation to the Italian poet. Instead, it has been interpreted as a universal figure, depicting a person in thought on the cusp of action: “The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer dreamer, he is creator,” wrote Rodin. “Once it moved away from that big Gates of Hell, it became one of the most known sculptures because every person can look at it and understand what it is about,” said Singer. Here, at original size (rather than the monumental size it would be reproduced at), “The Thinker” is more human. We can see the spine and back: “It’s almost fragile… you can almost hear him breathe,” said Singer.
French artist Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” (1960s), were landmark performances in 20th-century art. Klein used the bodies of models as “living paintbrushes,” guiding them to create monochrome paintings in a particular pigment he had patented, known as International Klein Blue. “The body and the soul is one in a print,” said Rotraut Klein-Moquay, Klein’s wife and collaborator. Klein directed his performances in bow tie and jacket, serving blue cocktails and conducting an orchestra to perform his “Monotone-Silence Symphony” (a D major chord played for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of silence).
The Anthropometries series resulted in dozens of works, completed shortly before Klein’s early death, aged 34, in 1962. This painting, ANT 110, is a rarity among Klein’s works because it featured a man and woman. “It is the only one I know of the artist Yves Klien himself and his wife,” said Juliette Singer, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “I think it’s very moving, because it’s like a self portrait, for a couple. When you look at it, it’s like a chromosome, like a helix, or something that is very linked to DNA of the body. Or something from old [caves], something very primitive but powerful, also.”
Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga painted this image using his feet dipped in oil paints, suspended over the painting. “That allowed him to put all his energy, that vital force into that painting,” said Juliette Singer, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. In the 1960s, many artists, including Yves Klein, were also experimenting with using the body as a paintbrush. Yet Shiraga prefigured many Western peers. He was a member of Japan’s Gutai (“concrete” art) movement, founded in 1956, which explored contact, often brutal, between the artist’s body and the material.
In this work, he achieved an intense expression of his own body and “spiritual energy,” using vivid color and violent movement to capture “all of his action and energy in his work,” said Singer. Across many cultures, this combination of red and black has associations with danger and violence. Shiraga, who was not internationally recognized until after his death, saw the performance of his painting as integral to the work. “I want to paint as though rushing around a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion,” he wrote in 1955.
American painter Cy Twombly (1928-2011) developed a form of self-expression that he called “pseudo-writing.” Twombly was influenced by painters like Jackson Pollock, said Juliette Singer, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Pollock communicated feeling not by painting evocative objects and scenes, but through his unique ways of applying paint to canvas -- dribbling, flicking or smearing. Similarly, Twombly saw his pseudo-writing as a form of calligraphy without words. This was one of the final works produced by Twombly before his death in 2011 and he was likely reflecting on his life and the history of human artistry, said Singer, all the way back to the French cave paintings that fascinated him. “He was very inspired by the first graffiti, the first signs humans put in the cave,” said Singer.
This work acts to tell the “story of his life,” but one that through its gestures connects Twombly with countless artists before, added Singer: “It’s the gesture of a painter: to feel the connection to the painters from those very early times to now.” It was part of a series the artist called Notes from Salalah, a kind of diary from the city of Salalah in southern Oman, a place that Twombly had never visited but whose lush greenery is linked with the vibrant color of the painting.
This female figure from Central Asia, more than 4,000 years old, is displayed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi near two terracotta figures with expressively rounded female forms: the first is a similarly aged statue from South America, while the other is a 7,000-year-old figure from Mesopotamia. Across the world, divided by thousands of miles and by millenia, similar totems were often produced to coincide with the development of the early agricultural settlements. In each case, we associate their shape -- and emphasized breasts and hips -- with femininity and fertility. This figure, however, made of chlorite and calcite minerals, is set apart by its complexity and intricacy.
This god was reproduced on drinking goblets and pins. “She is always associated with animals, and not random animals but wild and dangerous animals such as lions, snakes, eagles,” said Noëmi Daucé, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “So the latest interpretation is that she’s probably controlling the wider world and nature. She would be the major deity in the area between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.” Daucé said there are other similar statuettes, but this one is considered a masterpiece, even though it has likely lost a metal necklace and lapis lazuli decorations. It reflects a significant development in religious thought beyond the other, simpler female figures, researchers believe: she is a god who reigns at the top of a complex pantheon of gods and spirits, and watches over the all-important cycle of nature.
This wooden statue showing a hermaphrodite figure is believed to be a mythic ancestor of the people who carved it. In the mythology of the Dogon people of central Mali, humans are born with both sexes and are differentiated between male and female in life. This figure is believed to have been made by earlier, pre-Dogon people but shares the later civilization’s representation of people of dual sex. This question of sexual duality and separation permeates Dogon culture. The Dogon creator god, Amma, is of dual sex, and holds the world protectively in its hands. Figures of this type are still very present in Dogon iconography and mythology, say the museum’s curators, where they figure in the initiation rites of adolescents.
A large amount is known about the Dogon due to studies in the 1940s by French anthropologist Marcel Griaule. Among the group’s traditional beliefs in ancestor worship, spirits and other supernatural beings, Griaule recorded that they believed they had been visited by reptilian people from the star Sirius. Rather than drawing attention to these particular beliefs, the museum hoped to draw attention to how early African statuary represented eclectic myths, said Guilhem André, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “For us, it is a way of presenting the diversity of religion, at this early period, and also the art that was created in these different contexts.”
The Madonna and Child is among the most popular images in Christian iconography, appearing as early as the 6th century BC and reaching its peak in popularity between the 14th to 16th centuries. In its most basic form, it depicts the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, with her infant on her knee. The scene has provided a versatile image that communicated both private religious devotion and the intimate, human connection between mother and child. Francesco Traini, an artist from Pisa, renders the image with gentle emotional connection between mother and child, which contrasts with earlier depictions that more often emphasized the holiness of the figures. “What is interesting in this painting is the gaze of adoration that is very clear,” said Guilhem André, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The painting belongs to a tradition now known as Italian primitive paintings, dating to the pre-Renaissance and early Italian Renaissance eras, and has a gilded background that arrived from the art of the Byzantine Empire, explained André. The composition of the mother cradling the child has been an influential motif in Western art, which developed significantly through the Renaissance, and continues to be reproduced in secular art and contemporary photography.
Each of the Abrahamic religions -- Judaisim, Christianity and Islam -- make explicit links between God, creation and light. A powerful set of symbolic events in religious texts involve light communicating divinity and revelation. This begins with the Creation, in the book of Genesis (part of both the Torah and Bible), which is announced with God’s statement: “Let there be light.” In the Islamic world, particular importance is attached to light as one of the 99 names of Allah, “al-Nur”, explains the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Each of these religions have developed objects and artworks that reflect this symbolism, including the Jewish Menorah and Christian stained glass windows. In Islam, mosque lamps were produced in great numbers in the 13th and 14th Centuries to illuminate mosques and religious complexes, explain curators. “The glass that is used for this mosque lamp is also used for the stained glass of the Christians,” said Guilhem André, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Both glass and glass-working techniques passed along trade routes: “Since the early period, glass is also a good that was very much traded between civilizations.” This lamp, around 25 cm tall and produced by Syrian or Egyptian glassworkers, was originally scattered with gold dust to produce a sparkling light, to represent the divine light that Allah, the creator of everything in existence according to Islam, shines on the universe. The enamelled glass bears the name of its donor, Emir Tankizbugha, a senior royal official.
In Sanskrit, the word “bindu” means dot. For Paris-based Indian artist Sayed Haider Raza, whose work draws on both European and South Asian art history, the bindu is a versatile motif with meanings derived from Hinduism -- representing life and the seed of creation -- as well as appearing as a great void or geometric motif in abstract art. “Bindu could look very simple -- that black dot. But it is almost something perfect: it has that connection to the cosmos, to birth, to the very end, death,” said Juliette Singer, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “The simple circle becomes something totally open, very enigmatic, but also familiar. When you look at it you have the feeling that it's coming towards your eyes, and you’re floating in the cosmos and time.”
Raza, who moved to france in 1950, reinterprets this traditional symbol through the prism of Western abstract art. Artists like Piet Mondrian and, later, Mark Rothko were preoccupied with colour, texture and space, and Raza draws on this legacy, said Singer. “It’s very interesting the way artists coming from [a different context], keep that heritage and transform it into something connected to the whole art history, but still have their own approach.” The large black circle in the center is set amid orange blocks with a glowing orange ring, making an engrossing image of life somehow emanating from the darkness.
American artist Jenny Holzer has inscribed three passages on creation, belief and reality into the limestone walls of the museum. One of the texts belongs to a Mesopotamian tablet and tells the story of the creation of mankind in the ancient languages of Acadian and Sumerian. Another comes from the Muqaddimah, an account of human history by the 14th century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun. The last, in French, was taken from Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne's “Essais.” Holzer has worked with words for four decades. Her choices of French and Arab texts echo the Franco-Emirati partnership of the museum, and she told the Art Newspaper she hoped the work would act as a mysterious creation myth for the museum itself.
“It is very poetic and very moving,” said Juliette Singer, chief curator at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “Inscribing messages in stone raises the question of what information and messages we are transmitting to the next generation,” said Singer, “and the languages speak of a dialogue between communities. It can also be an allegory for the museum itself, coming from antiquity until now. It’s like we have a direct bridge between times, between continents.”