|One of three Jenny Holzer script walls in For Abu Dhabi.|
When I visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi this week for a preview before it opens to the public this weekend (and boy is this a gorgeous building) I was particularly looking forward to installation commissioned from the American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, titled, aptly, For Louvre Abu Dhabi. Although she is often known for using neon light, most recently seen in her current exhibition, Softer, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Holzer’s Louvre Abu Dhabi piece features something much different - and she is not messing around with the details.
She has used three stone walls to recreate three magical-looking historical texts throughout the museum. The first marble relief (pictured above) is located to the left upon entering the main foyer under the dome, behind August Rodin's sculpture from 1900, Walking Man, On a Column. This piece represents the oldest of the three texts, found on a Mesopotamian clay tablet excavated from the ancient city of Assur in modern-day Iraq. It recounts a creation myth imagined almost 4,000 years ago and told in two languages, Sumerian (left) and Akkadian (right) cuneiform scripts. That myth? Well, as it goes, after creating the heavens, earth and rivers, the gods created the first humans by mixing clay with the blood of a sacrificed diety.
The original, which is part of the Berlin Vorderasiatisches Museum in Germany, can be traced back to the birth of writing in Mesopotamia. It is something else to see.
The choice of Holzer is enlightened, particularly for this region, something that was echoed by Roxane Zand, Sotheby’s deputy chairman for the Middle East, when I spoke to her earlier this autumn.
“That is extremely exciting, because in the conceptual world there aren’t that many women who are as successful as the level of Jenny Holzer, so that in itself is significant, that a female artist has been chosen,” says Zand. “Secondly, she’s at the forefront of her field and to have an American woman having a work there is a significant thing.”
Leonardo Da Vinci's La Belle Ferronniere
|Photo courtesy Louvre Abu Dhabi.|
Although there are many who believe the identity of the woman depicted in La Belle Ferronniere remains a mystery, Martin Kemp, professor of art history at University of Oxford, a Leonardo expert and author of the newly published book Mona Lisa: The People and The Painting, isn’t one of them.
Kemp believes the woman is Lucrezia Crivelli, mistress to Leonardo’s patron, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, and mother to his son. The painting is one of only four portraits Leonardo painted of women, with the others being Lady with the Ermine, which depicts another of Sforza’s mistresses, Cecilia Gallerani; the Florentine aristocrat Ginevra de' Benci and, of course, the Mona Lisa.
Kemp is reasonably assured La Belle Ferronniere is Crivelli, because there are poems that refer to the actual execution of the painting, and the date lines up: Leonardo lived in Milan from 1482 until 1499, and the painting was done sometime between 1490 and 1496. Most telling, however, is the way the woman is poised.
“There’s a very characteristic way that he paints the duke’s mistresses, rather than the members the court,” explains Kemp. “Members of the court, the high-ranking people, were always shown in profile… interestingly when Leonardo came to portrait other women who obviously didn’t have that high aristocratic status, he went what I call ‘free style’. He turned the figures towards you, he used their eyes and their mouths to communicate the nature of the subject. I think La Belle Ferronniere looks out in our direction but actually looks, if you trace it, slightly above eye line, so somebody of importance is being looked at who is more elevated than us.”
La Belle Ferronniere was the first artwork that Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, the Musee du Louvre and Agency France-Museums announced would be loaned to the Louvre Abu Dhabi from the The Louvre in Paris during its first year in operation. The painting’s stay in Abu Dhabi, after a stint at the Milan Expo in 2015 followed by a restoration in Paris, not only marks the first time it has been outside Europe, but the first time a Leonardo has been shown anywhere in the Middle East.
“Any painting by Leonardo, in that we have under 20 surviving, is obviously an item of major interest,” says Kemp.
It had long been thought, Kemp points out, that perhaps the parapet in front of Crivelli, which was not a standard technique in Leonardo’s paintings, may have been added some time later. However examination at the Louvre during the restoration showed that not to be true.
“It’s interesting that the figure is set above a parapet, above that stone band along the bottom, which is unusual for Leonardo,” says Kemp. “But we know that he was aware of portraits by Venetian artists, particularly Giovanni Bellini. He sets his portraits very often behind a parapet, it’s a way of setting it up in space. It gives a kind of distance between us and the picture surface.”
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey's Ayoucha whole fig[ure]
The image was taken in 1843 Egypt, by the French artist and photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey when he was on a tour of the Middle East, and remained in his private archive until the Louvre Abu Dhabi acquired it in 2011. The early photography method Girault de Prangey used to capture Cairene was painstaking and expensive. It involves polishing a sheet of silver-plated copper, treating it with fumes to make the surface light-sensitive, then using mercury vapor to reveal the image. It was then treated, rinsed and sealed behind glass. The result is ethereal, with the colors changing as it appears either positive or negative according to angle and lighting.
“It is an image that will become one of the icons of 19th century photography,” Laurence des Cars, the former curatorial director of Agence France-Museums and now director of the Musée d’Orsay, told UAE newspaper The National in 2013. “You are dealing with a very rare and fine example of a new technique in 19th century art.”
Egyptian funeral set for the princess Henuttawy
When the acquisition was unveiled earlier this year, Jean-Francois Charnier, the scientific director of Agence France-Muséums, and head curator for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, said he expects Henuttawy to be a centerpiece not only of its Egyptian collection, but the museum as a whole.
“The great care and attention given to the delicate features of the princess’s face and her ‘living’ eyes still watching us across the millennia remind us of the identity of the deceased person, who was a Pharaoh’s daughter,” the curator explains.
The Bactrian Princess
For some reason I am obsessed with this curious little 25.3-centimeter tall creature. In the permanent collection, an air of mystery and allure surrounds her, this 4,000-year-old sculpture representing one of Central Asia’s earliest empires, located in modern-day Afghanistan. She is strangely beautiful, but also slightly alien with her sharply oval eyes, wearing a woven dress carved out of a soft, soap stone-style chlorite, her arms outstretched, handless, her ivory face almost mask-like.
Having the Bactrian Princess places the Louvre Abu Dhabi among other world-class institutions, Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky, professor of Archaeology and Ethnology at the Harvard University department of anthropology, told me. He estimates there are only about 20 in the world, with most all of the major museums in the world having one in their collection. It is believed the Bactrian princesses were used as part of some sort of religious object, or in a ritual - perhaps a funeral.
Another person as captivated as I am by the Bactrian Princess is Dr Lamees Hamdan, the commissioner of the first United Arab Emirates pavilion at the Venice Biennale, founder and creator of the luxury beauty line Shiffa and one-time Oprah Winfrey guest.
“I’d like to know more historically about what kind of dress and beauty fabric they were using, did they have oils, did they have makeup, quote unquote, and where did they get it from? Did they get it from their place of origin?” she told The Art Newspaper. “So just from that one item you can actually look into a whole society. It’s important for me, as a woman, to know and be interested in the roles of women, not only in society, and modern societies in different parts of the world, but also ancient civilizations in different parts of the world.”
“The burials that are found are really quite rich, they have pots, pieces of metal, things like that,” says Lamberg-Karlovsky. “And in those burials it seems that women have greater amounts of burial goods than do men…So that leads to some individuals concluding that the status of women in the Bactrian civilsation was rather high, maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not.”
Giovanni Bellini's Madonna and Child
Considered the father of Renaissance painting, Bellini specialized in such devotional depictions. Yet while the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s painting is typically luminous, unlike many of his others that also feature landscapes, it offers only darkness in the background.
There is, however, a parapet, which in this case acts like an alter. The child sits on it, atop the Madonna’s scarlet robes, gazing up at her.
Alberto Giacometti’s Standing Woman II
Another female subject, on loan to Louvre Abu Dhabi from the Collection Centre Pompidou, is Alberto Giacometti’s Standing Woman II, circa 1959-1960. The Surrealist Swiss painter-sculptor’s figure, with its rough surface and elongated, emaciated frame, embodies one of his standard themes: the unclothed woman.
A search for meaning and truth is believed to have driven the obsessive artist, whose work was the subject of a major retrospective earlier this year at the Tate Modern. In a letter to an art dealer in his prime, he describes the depths plumbed during five years spent battling through a piece that he had thought would take mere weeks: “Nothing was as I imagined. A head, became for me an object completely unknown and without dimensions.”