Old Bohemians in New Groves

The mad ambition of Saadiyat Island continues to take form. A torrid patch of sand just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island is slated to become one of the world’s most ambitious, built-from-scratch cultural districts. The bluest of blue-chip architects, including Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid, have been enlisted to build a range of museums and performance spaces.

Louvre Abu DhabiToday (May 26), French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the Emirate for the official ground-breaking for Nouvel’s commission, the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. The festivities included the usual diplomatic flapdoodle (“With deep admiration for the people of Abu Dhabi, and for their leaders who believe, as we do, that the arts lie at the very heart of civilization,” gushed the prominent husband of the singer and sometime nude model, Carla Bruni) but also a glimpse of what the museum may become. Along with the ground breaking, a preliminary exhibition, called “Talking Art: Louvre Abu Dhabi,” offered an introduction to the curatorial mission of this new outpost of French culture. The focus is “universalism.”

Which is to say, the new Louvre wants to have a little bit of everything, all tied together with the not terribly shocking notion that art and ideas cross boundaries. It is just the sort of idea that a museum afraid of ideas would pick. And of course “universalism” is a good way to keep the art focus on the larger world—and not ruffle any local feathers. So the first exhibition includes decorative arts from around the world, a Mamluk Qu’ran and lamp, fancy house wares from France, carvings from Africa, ancient classical pieces and a smattering of paintings. Among the last of these is a painting by Manet called “The Bohemian.”

The “crossroads” of civilization is as valid (and empty) a conceit for Abu Dhabi as it is for any other country located on or near a major trade route. But like Dubai, its more extravagant neighbor, Abu Dhabi isn’t really a crossroads at all. Although they are strategically placed along well-traveled sea routes that brought East and West together for millennia, the Emirates today are merely destinations for the wealthy, who can live and play there with a strange, denatured insularity. Despite their efforts to host international book fairs and arts festivals, there’s very little real or permanent depth of intellectual or creative culture in the Emirates. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of creative people there, but it remains a very commercial culture, and a rather decadent one too. And little of the imported international culture intersects with the local Emirates culture, which remains curiously elusive.

Nouvel’s Louvre plans reflect uneasiness about all of this. The building has two central elements, a giant dome with an 180-meter diameter, under which the architect has placed a mini “city” of smaller buildings. The dome is really a large, disk perforated in a pattern inspired by the intricate wood carving of Arabian screens, or mushrabiya. The city underneath resembles, in some ways, an archaeological dig—especially when seen from above, where the square forms poke out from the dome in an almost haphazard form, like the small rooms and stubby walls you find in an old Pueblo ruin.

This suggestion of a city emerging from lost time (with a superficial overlay of Arabic patterning) may function very well as a museum space, especially given the wildly eclectic art that is likely to be on display. The division into smaller rooms lessens the need for some large, over-arching program (a curse of too many new museum designs). But it also reveals what may be a powerful fantasy: That underneath the arid sand there is a lost culture. And so the Emirates, posit a past they never had, and connect it directly with the brilliant future that their wealth (somewhat tarnished by the global downturn) seems to promise. They are ancient, they are new, there’s no troubling history in between.

History, of course, will make its challenges felt, and it will be hard to curate a serious museum in a culture that is deeply traditional and hierarchical. Despite their superficial openness as a destination, the Emirates are intellectually bound to structures and ideas deeply at odds with the antagonistic critique of values implicit in much of Western art since… since…

Manet's "The Bohemian"
Manet's "The Bohemian"

Since at least the time of Manet. So it is curious to see his painting “The Bohemian” is one of the anchors of the new collection. Granted, it’s not Manet’s “Olympia,” that brazen naked beauty, who might find her  power to scandalize renewed by a visit to Abu Dhabi. But, rather like “Olympia,” this painting of a raffish young man with blue sash and yellow head band  personalizes outsider status, allowing a marginal figure to gaze out of the painting with the intelligence of personhood, rather than the blandness of a type or caricature.  The young man challenges the viewer on a number of levels–his shabbiness is its own provocation–half smiling in a way that suggests he doesn’t care much what we think about him.

One wonders what locals will make of “The Bohemian,” seen perhaps after driving by one of the Emirate’s ubiquitous construction sites, where workers from south Asia swelter in boiling temperatures, serving almost as indentured labor. Poverty, in the Emirates, depersonalizes and dehumanizes, creating a hidden-in-plain-sight underclass of invisible men. “The Bohemian” represents a different kind of poverty, to be sure, but he is a very insistent fellow, forcing a confrontation with social categories that have little place (except at the bottom or the margins) in Emirates society.

Images courtesy of Saadiyat Island

Above:  Ateliers Jean Nouvel

Below: Edouard Manet (French, 1832-1883). The Bohemian , 1862. Oil on canvas; 90.5 x 55.3 cm.

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