The Acquisitions of the Louvre Abou-Dhabi

1. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
Children Fighting, 1888
Oil on Canvas - 93 x 73 cm
Abou-Dhabi, Louvre-Abou-Dhabi
Photo : Wikimedia

We will soon be able to see the exhibition currently showing in Abou-Dhabi here in Paris but a glance at the accompanying catalogue already gives us a good idea of the acquisitions policy pursued by France-Museums.
We said it before : whether one is for or against this project, an agreement was signed and must now be implemented in the least damaging manner for all involved. As concerns the acquisitions, the Emirate was supposed to benefit from the savoir faire of French curators and we had expressed our utter disapproval of the ensuing conflict of interest : no other country in the world allows its curators to acquire works for a foreign museum. Utmost care was needed so as not to deprive French museums of important works which might be added to the collections one day.

The Louvre Abou-Dhabi will thus be an "encyclopedic museum". The absurd character of such an ambition has already been copiously illustrated : even with unlimited means, the task is almost impossible since most of the world’s major masterpieces are already owned by other museums and certain artists are no longer available on the market. The Louvre and France-Muséums should have started out by advising Abou-Dhabi to limit their ambitions and focus on developing certain guidelines which would have resulted in a more coherent and more interesting ensemble.
As we will see, the assembly of works published here corresponds more to an artistic "potluck" than an actual museum collection. In a world where "surfing" is the word of the day, we have here yet another instance of this concept as applies to art history.

2. Jérémie Plume (active in the first half of the XVIIth century)
Still-life in a Pantry, 1628
Oil on Canvas - 103 x 186 cm
Abou-Dhabi, Louvre-Abou-Dhabi
Photo : D. R.

This is not to say that the quality of the works is in any way mediocre. We would be dishonest in refusing to acknowledge certain gems, a small number of masterpieces (ill. 1) and many objects of very high quality. However, any one of the large museums in the French provinces is still richer and more interesting than this assemblage of objects brought together mostly by chance and with no clear unifying point.
We should remember the statement made by France-Muséums and the Louvre almost five years ago (see article, in French). At the time, we considered that the "scholarly program"["programme scientifique"] did not merit this term. This is indeed the case and the issue at stake in the project.
The works are classified by theme, as announced in 2008 but they present absolutely no sense of coherence. The section "17th century European paintings" is on equal footing with "Landscape painting and photography". When we say on an equal footing...the second group includes seven works and the first...four. This encyclopedic museum thus represents the 17th century with, for the moment, four paintings : an Italian (a large study by Luca Giordano), a Spanish (Jacob’s Dream by Murillo), a Flemish (The Good Samaritan by Jacob Jordaens) and a French one. The French work is by a certain Jérémie Plume and is a still-life (ill. 2). We are quick to say that this is a masterpiece. In fact, this canvas alone symbolizes the absurdity of the entire project. On the one hand, representing 17th century French art with a still-life and the only work of an unknown artist is nothing short of ridiculous ; on the other, because of its quality and uniqueness, this beautiful painting would be much better off at the Louvre which, we repeat, is supposed to show French painting in all its diversity. How can we imagine a French curator helping an American museum to acquire a still-life by Lubin Baugin when he was being rediscovered... This painting is therefore of minor interest to Abou-Dhabi (it would have been better off acquiring a major still-life by Louise Moillon for example, more representative and less rare on the art market) and a loss for the Louvre or another French museum. A double strike out.

The same can be said of the sections "17th century European painting" and "18th century French painting". In the first all of Europe (well, all of Europe...except Holland, Bologna, Rome, Milan, Venice, etc.), in the other just France. With just as few works and, if possible, even less representative ! For instance, how can one represent 18th century French painting with a painting, even if it is very beautiful (indeed the case) by Jean François de Troy and another (in this instance rather mediocre) by Louis Jean François Lagrenée. Adding one from the section "European exoticism in the 18th century" (a Chinese Scene by Jean Pillement) in no way solves the problem. Jean François de Troy, Louis Jean François Lagrenée and Jean Pillement ? Although we do appreciate these artists, 18th century French painting is much more than that. During this same period, the art market offered up several works by Watteau, even more by Boucher, Hubert Robert and Fragonard, all artists which should be included in an "encyclopedic" museum. These were the ones which should have been purchased first.

3. Jacopo Bassano (1515-1592)
Jacob’s Trip, c. 1565-1570
Oil on Canvas - 62.5 x 96 cm
Abou-Dhabi, Louvre-Abou-Dhabi
Photo : Galerie Canesso

While Venetian painting is missing in the 17th and particularly in the 18th century, there is a section for it in the 16th century. The title is eloquent : "Venetian paintings from Bellini to Bassano". We say eloquent because it presents one painting by Giovanni Bellini and another one by Jacopo Bassano. Though the Bellini appears to be beautiful (we have not seen it in person) and the Bassano (ill. 3) is indeed first-rate (it was presented by Canesso at the first showing of Paris-Tableau and we had reproduced it here), once again, the stated ambition and the end result are incongruous even if in this case these are two of the major Venetian artists of this period.
Another section is devoted to Neo-classicism. It appears to refer to "European" Neo-classicism though this is not stated. However, this term is a bit overdone since there is only one work, thus only one artist, Canova, represented with two casts, original models for marbles which reside at the Vatican today. Canova is obviously a major artist in Neo-classicism but, once more, creating a section just for him appears ridiculous. And why show any interest for Neo-classicism but forget Romanticism so blatantly ?

Some will respond to our irony by saying that this corresponds to just four years of acquisitions and that more works will of course be purchased. True. But when a project has taken this many years to plan its scholarly program and has this to show for it, it does not send out any promising signs for improvement in the future.
Furthermore, what are we to think of a museum wishing to create a section on modern painting (called "The modern painter"), with the goal of acquiring Impressionist masterpieces which purchases two fragments of a Manet. The two canvases, cut off from a larger work (Gypsies, whose overall composition is known thanks to an engraving) are undoubtedly fascinating for art history, but their purchase by Abou-Dhabi can only be seen as absurd here again. It would have made more sense for an establishment like Orsay or the Metropolitan which already own a significant group of works by the artist ; in the case of a museum which is just starting out, much less so.

Recently, we wrote that the risk of buying works which would deprive French museums of interesting acquisitions appeared to be unfounded given the policy pursued by France-Muséums. Except for the Visigothic fibula, the still-life by Jérémie Plume and perhaps The Angel with the Censer by Bernhard Strigel [1], the agency management has respected its commitment on this point. However, what does shock us is the fact that an agency of the French government, directed by civil servants, is participating in the exportation to a foreign country of décors and architectural elements from the demolition of real estate ensembles or buildings.
We are referring here to three purchases : that of a group of four Romanesque columns and capitals from a destroyed church sold in 1928 by the city of Beauville in the Lot et Garonne region ; that of a 17th century painted and sculpted ceiling from a private Parisian residence and, above all, an Art Déco décor which was still in place less than five years ago.
The fact that the French Ministry of Culture allowed the dismantling and auction in 2009 of a décor by Jacques Emile Ruhlmann and Louis Pierre Rigal produced in 1925 for the Parisian apartment of Lord Rothermere is in itself more than regrettable (this auction had not come to our notice). We also find it legitimate that a dealer or a foreign museum purchase it. But that French civil servants, who have been entrusted with enriching our national heritage, approve such vandalism in this way and even help it along leaves us with a very sour taste indeed. If it was absolutely imperative to acquire an example of Art Déco, Romanesque capitals or a painted ceiling for Abou-Dhabi, professional ethics demanded this be done abroad and not in France.

Under the supervision of Laurence des Cars, Louvre Abu Dhabi. Naissance d’un musée, 2013, Skira-Flammarion, 320 p., 45€. ISBN : 9782081232372.
We would like to emphasize the high editorial quality of this catalogue, offering very complete and detailed entries which, if we overlook the shaky foundations of this project, is at least a true art history publication about the works, many of which were previously unpublished. The bibliography of the works, which we had not seen initially, can be found at the end [updated on 24/4/13]. Finally, we also regret that there is no mention of the art dealers from whom these works were purchased.

Version française

Didier Rykner, samedi 27 avril 2013


[1] The Louvre does not own any works by this rare artist and this painting was for sale in Paris.

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