It really was a toss-up between Ferrari World and the Louvre.
Get on the “Flying Aces”—“the tallest loop in the world at 52m with the steepest cable lift at 51 degrees at a speed of 120kmph,” according to the website—or look at mummies and Monet.
Get on the Formula Rossa, which goes 0-240 kmph in under 5 seconds or sit by the waterside and count the ripples as they hit the museum steps.
Eat at one of five Italian restaurants or sit in a café with reheated food, where the burger takes over an hour to arrive.
I obviously chose the latter—who wouldn’t? Masterpieces should get a preference over myriad rides. How does an afternoon seeped in historical research and discovery even compare to getting some childish thrills on a roller coaster?
I use the term “chose” with some caveats. “Choice” is a word that often simplifies some of the most complicated decisions we take. We choose something because in that moment, for whatever reason, your brain freezes and your mouth says “gulab jamun” instead of “rasmalai”. Sometimes a “choice” is not really a “choice” but just an involuntary nod or pointing of a finger or saying, “I don’t know and I can’t make a decision”, but it comes out as “I love fried paneer” (which I don’t).
Anyway, I digress. Did I regret missing out on driving a Ferrari in Abu Dhabi? Yes I did, but only temporarily before I was distracted by arrival at the newly opened Middle Eastern outpost of the Louvre and hearing the phrase “next time”.
The scale of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as expected, is huge. There are signs leading to the museum off the highway, into what was once presumably nothingness. A nearly 600ft wide (diameter) dome rises from the desert flatlands, its architecture striking against the relative emptiness around it. The dome weighs approximately 7,500 tonnes (the same as the Eiffel Tower in Paris). The structure overlooks the water and includes, though I didn’t visit them all, temporary exhibition spaces, a children’s museum and a cinema.
There is an element of cleverness in having a museum of such magnificence in the middle of the desert and outside of its familiar European environs. The first advantage, straightaway, was the size of the whole thing.
While the original Parisian one is massive, with snaking queues of tourists lining up for tickets and jostling for a view at every exhibit, the Abu Dhabi version is smaller, more manageable and less tiring. How many people have reached the Mona Lisa five hours after entering the Louvre, completely washed out and as a result, feeling slightly cheated with the hype surrounding that little painting of the smiling woman?
In the mini-Louvre, the entire walk can take under two hours, if you are willing to skip some of the less thrilling plates-and-saucers exhibits, and there is no Mona Lisa to build up to, but other spectacular pieces along the way.
Secondly, the lack of an overwhelming crowd—at least on the weekend afternoon we visited—makes the whole experience calmer. There are no stuffy European rules about not carrying large bags or not taking pictures. Everything was par for course—heck, I took a selfie with the self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh after nudging aside some teenagers trying to do the pouty thing.
Thirdly, this mini-me of the mother ship is an appetizer and should be seen as one. It makes the experience of seeing a world-famous tourist attraction less intimidating. Fortunately, coming from Dubai helps. The malls are so huge and exhausting that everything else pales in comparison in size.
Fourth, it’s a great initiation into the world of art for those who are open to a gentle introduction, or for those perhaps unaware or underprepared. My slightly factitious relationship with art has been documented before in these columns. But few experiences can beat a well-designed and stocked museum of the quality of the Louvre.
In the opening weeks, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has at least one work by every great master, so you can have a peek at a Claude Monet and see how his work is different from that of Edouard Manet. There’s a section of sculptures by Auguste Rodin and works by Jackson Pollock, Henri Matisse and Leonardo da Vinci. Some of us Indian tourists squealed in delight to see a (S.H.) Raza hanging next to a (Mark) Rothko (though if you ask me to tell them apart the next time I will fail the test).
Besides, there is the stunning funeral set of princess Henuttawy from 10th century Egypt, a Head of Buddha from roughly 534-577CE China, Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and Child” from the 15th century and Ai Weiwei’s “Fountain of Light” from 2016 and others in a collection that has over 600 artworks and artifacts spanning prehistory to the present day.
So, in just under two hours, I had had an introduction to European and world art (without comparing it to any of the other major museums of the world like London’s National Gallery and V&A, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, etc., keeping in context to where we were). Did I make the right choice? As we drove back to Dubai, passing Ferrari World on our right, I did not look on wistfully. I looked back wistfully.
There is some—actually a lot of— credit to be given to the idea of creating something so magnificent in the middle of seemingly nowhere. Modern-day imagination, assisted by a substantial endowment, no doubt (The total fees paid to the Louvre, alone, are said to be $1billion, besides the cost of construction and acquisitions), helped put together works of ancient day imaginations on this arid, sparse land. Any artist or writer will tell you the biggest challenge is staring at an empty canvas or page before you start. It must have been the same for the Louvre-Abu Dhabi’s architects (led by Jean Nouvel).
“That’s what the Louvre Abu Dhabi does to you—while the masks may be stubbornly silent, your head buzzes with conversation,” wrote Radha Chadha quite accurately last month. As we moved further away, I had images of lily ponds, and bearded men; of exquisitely detailed marble sculpture and stories of the Egyptian civilization swimming through my mind, and the slightly annoying aftertaste of reheated lasagna on my palate.
Next time, I look forward to choosing from one of the five Italian restaurants, because when it comes to food, no amount of adornment and tables with a view can make up for over-priced, under-flavoured, cafeteria food. Because there’s always a “next time” for play.
As for this time, I happily realized how quickly my skepticism had turned to wonder and art had worked as an education—it works out fine sometimes when the brain says no and the mouth says yes.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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