Standing in front of an extraordinary display of Ottoman tiles, a high point of the new Islamic art galleries at the Louvre in Paris, Sophie Makariou, director of the museum’s Islamic Art department, puts into words the labour of love behind the striking ceramics frieze before us.
“We had to comb painstakingly through the collection to find the right pieces; I suppose it gave me a pleasant headache,” she says.
Makariou and her team brought together disparate sets of framed tiles that had previously been displayed in the museum’s Richelieu wing. Using visual clues – matching motifs, borders and hues – she has formed a unified pattern from these random 16th- and 17th-century items.
“We want to create the impression of an Ottoman wall in a monument, so we’ve worked on what can only be described as a gigantic puzzle,” Makariou adds.
The tile exhibit is the dazzling denouement to the new 3,000 sq m suite of galleries built across two levels in the Louvre’s historic Visconti courtyard. More than 2,500 objects drawn from the museum’s 15,000-strong Islamic collection shelter under a gently rippling steel roof (some 3,400 works on permanent loan from the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs also form part of the Louvre’s Islamic holdings). The new wing, which opens on September 22, should attract fresh audiences to the world’s most popular museum, which drew in an astonishing 8.9m visitors in 2011.
“It is important that we try to tell the story of the Islamic world and how it developed on three continents [from Spain to south-east Asia], from the beginning of the eighth century until the end of the 18th century,” Makariou says. “We proceed chronologically and geographically, moving each time from west to east, except for the last section, which goes the opposite way, covering the Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman empires” – culminating in the Ottoman tile section.
How this new wing stands up in comparison to other Islamic art departments at leading museums worldwide will be a point of debate.
“I think the narrative differs from that told by other museums in that we present and consider things in a very French way, one that is deeply sensitive to the [course] of history,” says Makariou. Her thesis is bold and largely convincing: “I’d argue that the Enlightenment does not only belong to the west but that it began in the second half of the eighth century [in the Islamic world] when, for instance, Ptolemy’s theories were translated into Arabic.”
Crucially, the Islamic world has rallied round in a major stroke of cultural diplomacy. The €98.5m project has received state funding of €31m, as well as €17m from the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation founded by the eponymous Saudi prince. The republic of Azerbaijan, the Emir of Kuwait, the Sultan of Oman and King Mohammed VI of Morocco have donated in total €26m.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, the Louvre is still seeking sponsors to cover a €10m shortfall in funding. Yet the Louvre Abu Dhabi branch, a hugely significant project at the heart of the Middle East scheduled to open 2015, is supposed to provide €400m over the course of 30 years for its use of the museum’s prestigious brand.
Looking back meanwhile over the chequered history of the Islamic collection, it’s obvious why the museum felt the need to address the issue of a world-class permanent base for the holdings. The Louvre founded its “Muslim art section” in 1893, with the first exhibition space dedicated to the Islamic collection opening in the decorative arts department.
The collection was enriched in large part through donations from private collectors at the turn of the 20th century, with gifts such as a set of Mughal miniatures from the Georges Marteau collection. The Richelieu wing showcased Islamic works from 1993, but only in 2003 did the Louvre make its Islamic section an official department.
“There is a dual trend between interest and indeed repulsion at times towards Islamic art and towards Islam in particular,” notes Louvre director Henri Loyrette. His aim, he says, is to reveal the “radiant face of this civilisation”. He is adamant that the Islamic collection reflects the “universal vocation” of the institution. “At one point [former president] Jacques Chirac asked me whether it [the Islamic collection] would be better off as a separate museum but I said no, it must be in the Louvre because they are collections that have lived here,” he told Apollo Magazine.
The museum is now keen to make a statement, and there’s no denying that the scintillating golden roof of the galleries flowing over the Visconti courtyard is a show-stopper. Likened to an undulating sand dune or a dragonfly’s wing, the design, by architects Rudy Ricciotti and Mario Bellini, should have an impact comparable to IM Pei’s glass pyramid, the Louvre’s last major architectural intervention, which launched in 1989.
“There is no doubt that the [Louvre’s] showy, 3,000 sq m structure trumps the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic galleries of 2011, however well displayed they may be,” says Anna Somers Cocks of The Art Newspaper.
Ricciotti and Bellini have always had a clear vision for the historic space. The courtyard would not be covered over, they insisted. On the ground floor, the surrounding façades and “sensual movement” of the shimmering roof covering can be seen from any angle.
The internal layout is just as appealing. A swish multimedia point presents Islam’s complex linguistic history through a series of astute, accessible tales woven around historical figures; we discover, for instance, that Suleiman the Magnificent, 16th-century sultan of the Ottoman Empire, corresponded with his lover in vernacular Turkish and prayed in Arabic.
A central row of carpets in the lower gallery, raised off the floor, flow into the Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman areas. The curatorial staff relish this display of 18th-century rugs: Loyrette points out that there was never enough space to show these items previously. More than 200 rugs have been restored, part of a conservation campaign encompassing more than 3,500 works in total. Another must-see is a spruced-up 15th-century Mamluk porch, shipped from Cairo in the 19th century, which has been installed in an alcove off the lower gallery; the 10-ton piece, made up of around 300 stones, was reassembled using stainless steel pegs and then gently nudged into place.
Delicate items also catch the eye: a host of precious vessels made for emirs and sultans include a 13th-century Syrian glass flask covered in cartoonish doodles, while a dagger from India damascened with gold and jade is embellished with the head of a whinnying horse. A 14th-century Mamluk copper baptistery inlaid with gold and silver, in which Louis XIII was christened, is singled out by Makariou: “It’s fascinating that an Islamic concept has been translated into an object subsequently aimed at a Christian religious practice.”
The interchange between the cultures is telling; indeed, this new wing feels more relevant than ever as the Arab Spring continues to transform the Middle East. Against this backdrop, the Islamic art market is volatile, with more and more collectors worldwide, private and institutional, competing especially for high-end items. Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art has driven the market in the past decade. And restitution claims continue to be an issue for western museums, with Turkey putting pressure on institutions worldwide to return certain antiquities.
Makariou, meanwhile, stresses that “if this new display teaches us anything today, it is that beauty and cleverness will prevail”.
The lights then dip in the gallery and we are warned that we could be locked in for the night. “Can you imagine, what a dream!” she exclaims, eyeing up once more the floral designs of the meticulous Ottoman tile display.
5 rue des Deux-Ponts, 75004 Paris, www.galeriekevorkian.com
The Paris-based gallery specialises in Islamic and Indian art. The best of its Islamic pieces at the Biennale includes an important Egyptian Fatimid marble kilga and an Ottoman Iznik plate decorated in a striking graphic style – the last remaining piece in a rare group of ceramics.
The gallery will also show an Indian miniature depicting a Mughal princess holding a flower and a small cup of wine, and a fine 17th-century Turkish tapestry, whose “cintamani” (Sanskrit for “auspicious jewel”) design is emblematic of the Ottoman world. It may represent peacock ocelli (the eye-like feather markings), a symbol of wealth, or the three crescent motif, signifying Islam.
For this edition of the Biennale, Alexis Renard will also present a series of calligraphic objects. Highlights include a set of three Marinid tiles and a beautiful 18th-century pierced silver Shia ‘Alam inscribed with the names of imams.
Also on show is a 10th-century Samanid plate with an epigraphic pattern. The plate’s still-vivid amber and yellow hues are unusual – most caligraphic objects of this kind are black and cream-coloured.
21 quai Malaquais, 75006 Paris, alexisrenard.com
Corinne Kevorkian’s gallery, also in Paris, deals in Oriental and Islamic art. Objects of note at the Biennale include an enamelled ceramic bowl decorated with horsemen in the Seljuk style of Kashan, dating from the 12th-13th centuries, and a copper basin inlaid with silver from the Fars province, now in Iran.
A highlight of the gallery’s two-dimensional work is a Mughal painting from 18th-century Lucknow, India, depicting a harem garden scene.