After the introductory gallery, the installation moves on in epochal chunks, from “The First Villages” to “The Global Stage” of the 21st century, with religion, trade and politics as driving themes. The route, as laid out, doesn’t offer much in the way of scholarly news, but fabulous images abound.
A monumental sculpture of a two-headed, joined-at-the-shoulders human form is hand-modeled in plaster (you can almost see the impression of thumb prints) and dated around 6500 B.C. On loan from the Department of Antiquities in Jordan, it’s Giacometti before Giacometti. Nearby and much smaller, but every bit as magnetic, is a statuette of a gamin-faced Bactrian “princess,” dated 2300-1700 B.C., from what is now modern Afghanistan, wrapped in what looks like a floor-length puffer coat. That this sculpture is a recent Louvre Abu Dhabi acquisition confirms that there’s some smart (and provenance-challenging) shopping going on.
Both sculptures are naturals in a Middle Eastern museum. But there are surprises to come a few galleries on, in a pairing of globalist soul mates: A wood sculpture of a near-nude Jesus from 16th-century Bavaria and an entirely nude male ancestor figure from Mali stand side by side. Elsewhere, Qurans, Bibles and Buddhist sutras float together in protective darkness. Far-flung place names — Beirut, Dakar, Dubai, Fontainebleau, Jingdezhen, Mathura, Teotihuacan — appear on adjacent labels.
Works that qualify as instantly recognizable “classics” to a Western viewer feel surreally exotic in this multiculturalist environment. Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Belle Ferronnière” (1495-99), a kind of second-tier “Mona Lisa” sent by the Louvre in Paris, is one. Another is an 1822 Gilbert Stuart portrait of a schoolmarmish George Washington that has taken up permanent residence here. (The Louvre Abu Dhabi owns it.) And then there’s Jacques-Louis David’s towering, storm-racked equestrian image of Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps, looking very far away indeed, in both miles and mood, from its home in Versailles.