Louvre, Abu Dhabi: A spectacular cultural desert

Somewhere between the marble statues of a nymph with a shell and a male torso with a fig leaf placed just so, it dawns on me that art isn't the only attraction inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

An Emirati couple wearing traditional floor-length robes are strolling through the centuries (the museum takes visitors on a chronological journey through the entire history of art, but more on that later). He is carrying her handbag and, as they look about in wonder (for there is much to absorb), the backs of their hands brush. It's the most intimate moment I'll witness during five days in the United Arab Emirates capital where shopping malls insist on "no kissing or overt displays of affection".

It's half a lifetime since I visited the original Louvre in Paris, jostling with the crowds for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. Then, I never dreamed my next Louvre experience would involve hurrying past rows of newly planted palms to escape the pressing heat of the Arabian Peninsula in a country younger than me (the UAE turns 46 on December 2). Although Abu Dhabi is the UAE's capital, its charms can be overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of the neighbouring emirate of Dubai, home to the world's tallest building. It's like Canberra versus the Gold Coast (but we all know how hip Canberra is these days).

Snaffling the first Louvre outside of Paris (the UAE government paid €400 million to lease the Louvre name for 30 years) just might snatch some of that limelight from Dubai. For visitors, the experience of the "Desert Louvre" starts well before arriving at the door. The striking museum, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, can be spied from the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge connecting Saadiyat Island – and its fledgling Cultural District – to Abu Dhabi Island. If you have a vivid imagination, you might think the low-lying silver carapace is an aardvark improbably stranded between the gulf waters and the desert sands.

Nouvel's dome is a complex lattice comprising 7850 stars of various sizes arranged in eight layers. Sunlight filters through this dense galaxy of stars to create a "rain of light", mimicking the dappled light thrown by a palm tree. The dome, which weighs about 7500 tonnes, the same as the Eiffel Tower, was inspired by the cupola that is a motif in Arabic architecture. After winding through the museum's 12 interlocking galleries, visitors pop out under the dome that also protects against temperatures that soar into the high 40s in summer. Here, on the shaded plaza, as you wander around the 55 detached buildings catching glimpses of water, dappled reflections and on-duty lifeguards, it's easy to appreciate why the medina-like museum-city is described as an archipelago at sea. Bring on those plans to establish a water-taxi service to the museum's door.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi's grand ambition is to present humanity in a new light – and curators do this with intriguing juxtapositions of works that explore universal ideas, influences and concerns. In the first room, for instance, there's a trio of gold funerary masks: one from northern China that's part of its own collection, another from Lebanon or Syria on loan from the Louvre Museum, and one from Peru that came from Paris' Quai Branly Museum. The accompanying sign challenges readers to ponder why so many civilisations have covered the faces of their dead in the lustrous metal.

The museum has been building its collection since 2009 when it bought Mondrian's Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black. About half the 600 art works on show are drawn from this collection; the rest are on loan from 13 leading French galleries. From December 21, it will host its first visiting exhibition. From One Louvre to Another will trace the history of the Louvre in Paris, with about 150 pieces mainly from the titular museum as well as the Palace de Versailles.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi also showcases work from the surrounding Arab world. One of the most arresting pieces is an 8500-year-old two-headed, bitumen-eyed statue from Jordan's Department of Antiquities. Another room is devoted to ancient Egypt: a tomb-like maze leads to a princess' golden sarcophagus while another case holds a length of mummy's bandage featuring an extract from the Book of the Dead.

On my second swing through the museum, I look to see how many nudes are on display in a country where it's impolite for women to bare their shoulders and knees. Thanks to ancient potters, there is sculptural full-frontal nudity in a vessel decorated with a tattooed woman, a ceramic fashioned in Mexico between 700 and 1500. Rodin, too, contributes three-dimensional nudes with Assemblage: Female Nude Sitting in a Pot, Crouching Venus and Torso of a Seated Woman, called the Morhardt Torso. Christianity also gets a look-in, most spectacularly with Madonna and Child from Bellini (considered the father of Renaissance painting in Venice). There is also Francesco Traini's luminous Virgin and Child to consider.

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Art work labels are in English, French and Arabic but those wanting more of an insight can join a Masterpieces tour (90 minutes for adults, 60 minutes for families; AED40/30). We're guided through the gallery by Dina Turkieh, a Jordanian-Palestinian artist, art dealer and archaeologist who has lived in Abu Dhabi for 10 years. The tour is hardly passive – as we stand in front of a set of Japanese prints and Gauguin's Children Wrestling, she asks me to draw parallels between them. I can't but she cheerfully points out how both feature flat planes of colour and the lightbulb goes on for me.

In the final gallery, A Global Stage, I view the only Australian work – Indigenous artist Ningura Napurrula's 2002 depiction of a rock hole west of Kintore in the Northern Territory. The room, though, is dominated by a glittering centrepiece from Chinese provocateur Ai Weiwei. His Fountain of Light is created from 10 Chinese-made chandeliers and references a utopian Soviet monument as well as the Tower of Babel. To Turkieh, the gradual upward spiral represents Abu Dhabi itself. "In the cultural world and in the region, Abu Dhabi is going up," she says. The capital's vision is "to be a cultural icon of the region, to connect people together and to promote respect". "We can co-exist [and be] a bridge between civilisations and cultures," she says. "Art is the most beautiful language that can connect people together."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/abu-dhabi

FLY

Etihad Airways operates 42 flights a week between Abu Dhabi and Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. In October, the airline introduced a second A380 to Sydney, creating its first double daily A380 destination outside Europe and the Americas, and a third Dreamliner to Australia, servicing Melbourne. See etihad.com.

TOUR

Louvre Abu Dhabi admission is AED60 ($21.50) for adults aged 23 and above, youth admission (13-22) AED30, kids 12 and under free. It's closed on Mondays, open from 10am-8pm Saturday-Wednesday; 10am-10pm Thursday-Friday. Take a taxi (from Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, it costs about $17) or the Number 94 bus to Saadiyat Island. From Dubai, it takes about 90 minutes to drive south-west to Abu Dhabi. See louvreabudhabi.ae

STAY

Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas, on Saadiyat Island, offers a stunning central swimming pool and beach access. The futuristic Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi, near the airport, is built across the Formula 1 Yas Marina Circuit and is near the Ferrari World theme park. Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, across the road from Emirates Palace hotel and within walking distance of Marina Mall, offers stunning views across the city and agate-lined elevators. See abudhabi.park.hyatt.com, viceroyhotelsandresorts.com, jumeirah.com.

Katrina Lobley was a guest of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism and Etihad Airways.

FIVE SPIN-OFF MUSEUMS

GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM BILBAO

Twenty years ago, the Frank Gehry-designed museum with its flashy titanium curves opened in the struggling northern Spanish port town – and single-handedly reversed its fortunes. In 2016, nearly 1.2 million visitors flocked to this model satellite museum. Gehry has also designed a Guggenheim outpost for Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island but the opening date has been pushed back several times and the museum is yet to take shape. See guggenheim.org

THE TATES

When Tate first opened in 1897, it had just one London site displaying a small collection of British art works. Today, Tate Britain is joined by three other Tate sites – Tate Liverpool opened in 1988, Tate St Ives in Cornwall in 1993 and Tate Modern in London in 2000. See tate.org.uk

DALI MUSEUMS

Blow your mind with the surrealist work of Salvador Dali. Join the crowd at the Dali Theatre-Museum in Spain's Figueres or head to his home museum at Portlligat or the Gala Dali Castle at Pubol (the three form a "Dali triangle"). In the US, Florida's St Petersburg is home to The Dali Museum. See salvador-dali.org, thedali.org

PICASSO MUSEUMS

Compare and contrast the works at Barcelona's Museu Picasso, the Costa del Sol's Museo Picasso Malaga and Paris' Musee National Picasso-Paris. If you're looking for his Guernica masterpiece, though, it's in Madrid at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. See museupicasso.bcn.cat, museopicassomalaga.org, museepicassoparis.fr, museoreinasofia.es

SMITHSONIAN MUSEUMS

The Smithsonian is a sprawling institution covering 11 museums and galleries on Washington DC's National Mall, six other museums and the National Zoo elsewhere in the city, and two New York City museums. See si.edu

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