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As France’s Culture Wars Simmer, The Louvre Unveils New Islamic Art Wing

The Louvre’s second major addition in 30 years opened amidst ongoing controversy over depictions of Muhammad.

The Louvre has always been a lightning rod in French culture. When I. M. Pei unveiled his massive glass pyramid in 1984, he incited a nationwide debate over whether the building was a “temple” to then-President François Mitterrand–even weathering accusations that the building was based on Satanism.

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On September 22, the museum opened its second modern addition, nearly three decades after Pei’s. The new Department of Islamic Arts, built by Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, adds more than 20,000 square feet of exhibition space to the already-overflowing museum. The structure covers the Cour Visconti courtyard with an undulating, tessellated surface, sheltering around 18,000 artifacts of Islamic art–one of the richest collections in Western Europe.

Bellini, who spent nearly a decade on the project, compares the roofscape to a foulard–a fabric often used for headscarves. He and Ricciotti are careful to point out that the building is not intended to look like another dreaded cliché, the magic carpet. “It’s more like an enormous veil that undulates as if suspended in the wind, almost touching the ground of the courtyard at one point, but without totally encumbering it or contaminating the historic facades,” he explains. The surface is made up of thousands of triangles–a nod to Pei’s addition–that have been wrapped in a fine gold mesh. The surface glitters in the light, but under cloudy skies, it’s nearly the same hue as the Louvre’s facade.


Bellini says that the idea behind the veil was to give the collection its own, unique context. “It would have been far easier to generate a new space simply by covering the Cour Visconti with a classic glass roof,” he says, “but this would have exposed the art of Islam to an embarrassing cross-contamination with the 18-century character of the palace of the kings of France.”

It was only two weeks ago that a French weekly published new, satirical cartoons of Muhammad, offending many in France and abroad. There is plenty of challenging imagery in the new Louvre wing, as well–one piece shows Muhammad’s face a number of times. But officials hope the art will offer a counterpoint to the emotionally charged debate that continues to rage in France. Speaking at the opening ceremony, French President Francois Hollande tackled the subtext head on: “The best weapons for fighting fanaticism that claims to be coming from Islam are found in Islam itself,” he said, according to the AP. “What more beautiful message than that demonstrated here by these works?”

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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