Three ancient gold masks stand next to each other—silent, beautiful, holding secrets they won’t tell. From three far-flung spots of the world—China, Peru, the Levant—they are very old, dating as far back as 600 BC, when there was no obvious connection between these three places. Yet they all have one purpose—they are funerary masks that were placed on the dead and buried. You stand in front of them and wonder, why did these unconnected people do the same thing—find gold, make masks, bury them? Are we human beings programmed to follow similar paths? We may express ourselves differently: The masks vary in style—one is shiny, rounded and flimsy; another more solid and elongated; and the one from Peru looks like something Picasso would have made—but are we, at our core, the same?
That’s what the Louvre Abu Dhabi does to you—while the masks may be stubbornly silent, your head buzzes with conversation. There are unsettling juxtapositions: For example, a dark room that reverently holds exquisite old versions of the Torah, the Quran, the Bible, as also the Buddhist Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, and the Jain Kalpa Sutra, collected from all over the world—Yemen, France, North Africa, China, India—brings you face to face with your own opinions and prejudices about religions. What’s more, you ask, can this seemingly conservative Muslim city of Abu Dhabi, in a region racked by fighting, actually be suggesting religious coexistence? And just outside this room, a 10th century bronze Dancing Shiva, arms a-whirr, signals destruction and creation. Your mind whirs too, not sure what to think.
It is like no other museum that I have visited, in that it makes you question and think about universal human existence, delivering one intellectual sock in the jaw after another. There is plenty of art, yes, ticking all the heavy hitters, the Manets and Monets, and, of course, soon it will display the most expensive painting purchased in the world, the $450 million (around Rs2,880 crore), Salvator Mundi, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Christ, but it is the way that it is curated that sets it apart. It is ambitiously global in scale, somehow managing to tell the history of mankind through some 600-odd pieces of art, and tell it extremely well at that. And it does so by focusing on what connects us, and how we have influenced each other over time and space.
I found these connections and influences fascinating. A life-size marble statue of a Roman orator dressed in a toga stands next to a Bodhisattva from Gandhara—both made around the first or second century—looking eerily similar, especially in the way the folds of the garment are sculpted. Both statues are influenced by Greek art, its influence having spread to India with Alexander the Great.
Jump a couple of millennia, and you come to magnificent African sculptures from the 1800s and 1900s—like the shoulder mask of D’mba from Guinea—with exaggerated features and distorted proportions, and you realize this is what inspired Picasso. He wasn’t the only one with Africa on his mind, though, for just round the corner is a super-slim, super-tall Giocometti sculpture, next to a Brancusi sculpture, next to an African headdress in the form of a snake, all super-slim and super-tall, looking like three brothers from the same family.
Or take geometric abstract art—the paintings of Josef Albers, Mark Rothko, and S.H. Raza are lined up on a wall, and you gasp at how clearly visible the line of influence is.
There is plenty more to gasp about, especially some of the “brand name" pieces borrowed from France, which come as part of the agreement with Abu Dhabi. Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait
Of A Woman, called La Belle Ferronniere, on loan from the Louvre in Paris, is simply stunning, prompting comparisons with his Mona Lisa. Edouard Manet’s The Fife Player, Claude Monet’s Saint-Lazare Train Station, Vincent Van Gogh’s Self Portrait—all three from the Musée d’Orsay—are familiar, much loved works, and you feel a thrill seeing them here.
The final piece you see is Ai Weiwei’s Fountain Of Light, a massive 4m-tall tower spiralling upwards, decked out in dazzling crystals like a gigantic chandelier that has been grounded. It is shaped like Tatlin’s Tower, which was planned to mark the Russian Revolution but was never built. Ai Weiwei, of course, is China’s most famous artist in exile, a political activist and a vociferous advocate of free speech, and you wonder what’s going on here. Is he commenting on the futility of communism? Or the dazzling lure of capitalism?
And you walk out into the playful light and shade created by the beautiful latticed dome of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The dome is monumental, so massive you can never see it all in one go. There is a strange meditative quality. The sea water laps gently along the sides of the pristine white buildings. The dappled sunlight, very Renoir-like, lulls you. Peace reigns. Wherever in the world you might have come from, you feel included.
It’s not only a museum that makes you think, it makes you feel too.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.
The writer tweets at @RadhaChadha