Culture: Louvre draws a veil over artistic neglect with bold new Islamic wing

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
Thursday July 17, 2008
The Guardian

Plans for Louvre’s glass-roofed Islamic wing

It is known as the Veil and is described by its architects as a giant glass Muslim headscarf in the heart of Paris. The former French president Jacques Chirac saw it as one way to avert a clash of civilisations in the run-up to the Iraq war. President Nicolas Sarkozy calls it the symbol of France’s friendship with the Arab world.The Louvre’s bold new Islamic art wing had its first stone laid by Sarkozy yesterday , launching the museum’s most daring project since IM Pei created the giant glass pyramid 20 years ago. The world’s most visited museum will have Europe’s biggest purpose-built exhibition space for an Islamic art collection, which France hopes will reconcile the secular republic with the world of Islamic heritage.

The €86m (£68m) project will open in 2010, creating 3,000 square metres of gallery space in one of the museum’s neo-classical courtyards. Rather than cover the courtyard, a glass “luminous veil” will “float” above the ground, covering two floors. The Italian architect Mario Bellini yesterday described the undulating roof as “a headscarf blown in by the wind”.It was a pertinent image, coming soon after French citizenship was denied to a resident Moroccan woman who wears a veil. France has outlawed the headscarf and other religious symbols in public schools and yesterday Fadela Amara, a Muslim and feminist junior minister, criticised all form of veils.

The project’s other architect, Rudy Ricciotti, said: “It is important for France, with a Muslim population of 5 million, to create something that speaks directly to the presence of Muslims in this country. This is a political museum in the noble sense of the term, in that the secular republic recognises all its people.”

The Louvre, which registered a record 8.3 million visitors last year, boasts one of the world’s most comprehensive Islamic art collections. More than 10,000 pieces range from the 7th to 19th century, featuring glasswork and ceramics, Ottoman empire art and one of the world’s most important collections of carpets.

Yet most of the Islamic works have been in storage for more than 20 years, never afforded the same prominence as western exhibits. In 2003, when Chirac was setting France apart in the debate over the war in Iraq, he ordered the opening of an Islamic art department and the planning of a wing to do it justice.

Sarkozy used a speech at the Louvre to position France at the heart of geopolitics. “France wants peace, it does not want a clash of civilisations between east and west,” he said.

He was accompanied by the Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, whose €17m contribution to the project is one of the biggest private cultural donations made in France. The prince, a francophile, is a major shareholder in Disneyland Paris and owns Paris’s exclusive George V hotel.

Sophie Makariou, head curator of the Louvre’s Islamic art department, said: “Islamic exhibitions have always been a huge success with the public.”

Asked about the funding from Saudi Arabia, where the Wahabi hardline interpretation of Islam has often been blamed for the destruction of artistic and religious heritage, she said: “We have to move away from fixed ideas. In 2006, we took a show of 136 works to Saudi Arabia. There were 400,000 visitors in two months.”


The Louvre’s new Islamic wing is part of the museum’s development as a major global art brand. France has cemented a 30-year deal to create a Louvre museum on an island off Abu Dhabi in 2012. Abu Dhabi will pay €400m (£300m) for the Louvre brand name and for hundreds of loaned works, shown in a building by the architect Jean Nouvel. Meanwhile, Paris wants to cement its position as a European capital of Arab and Islamic culture. François Mitterrand’s “grand project”, L’Institut du Monde Arabe (the Arab World Institute) attracts a million visitors a year and is reorganising after financial difficulties. Its funding is shared between France and the 22 Arab league countries, some of whom have been accused of being late in their payments.


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