Luxury through a long lens: the LouvreAD’s winter show

Could there be a better exhibition for the UAE? The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s big winter show is 10,000 Years of Luxury, a title which manages to press all the right buttons – heritage and tradition (which is what you expect from a museum and especially one in this location) with an overlay of glitz, glamour and inessential (yet desirable and high-priced) commodity.

Organised with the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and curated by its director, Olivier Gabet, this show covers fashion, furniture, art, and jewellery – but notably claims to shows ‘luxury’ as “being more than just the valet section of The Dubai Mall: appreciation of craft and even a love of excess are cultural constants”. Manuel Rabaté, Louvre Abu Dhabi director, described the exhibition as exploring the concept of luxury “through a long lens”, putting the concept into context “to illuminate evolving notions of beauty, wealth and value”. 

Soup tureen by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, Paris, c. 1819; originally brass, later silvered (by Christofle, 1907–1908). Photo by Jean Tholance for MAD, Paris

Olivier Gabet expanded on this. “Never in the history of humanity has the word ‘luxury’ been used with such frequency as in these first decades of the 21st century. It is a concept that evolves within a complex, often subtle, sometimes contradictory melting pot of influences.”

He was also on-message when it came to the role of the museum: “The very identity of Louvre Abu Dhabi, a universal museum, shaped by the dialogue between civilisations, is an invitation to embrace luxury’s one thousand and one faces, extending from the earliest times to its most recent manifestations. The project was conceived in line with this unique approach, offering visitors a vision of this pan-millennial phenomenon.”

A ‘pan-millennial phenomenon’? A meme in the making, perhaps. PMP?Obviously this is a be a good-looking show, with around 350 pieces on view. But the historical sweep of the curation suggests that the exhibition is looking at what qualifies an object as ‘precious’ or ‘luxurious’: it could be time, craftsmanship, rarity … or maybe greed, covetousness, or just FOMO. As the blurb puts it: “The exhibition presents multiple narratives of luxury from ancient civilisations and their worship of the gods, to the exquisite finery of the 18th-century French court of Versailles, as well as the ways in which the Industrial Revolution transformed both our interpretation and consumption of luxury goods …”

The show is largely organised by chronology. It begins with luxury in antiquity, including precious home décor items as well as personal jewellery. Highlights include the oldest pearl in the world (the so-called ‘Abu Dhabi Pearl’, discovered recently in the excavations at Marawah Island and dated to between 5800 and 5600 BCE) and the Boscoreale Treasure (more than 100 pieces of Roman silverware, found in the ruins of a villa near Pompeii that had been engulfed by the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius).

The Abu Dhabi pearl, the world’s oldest known and evidence that pearls were being harvested in the UAE 8,000 years ago. Photo by Musthafa Aboobacker/ Seeing Things
Silver and gold salver, 1 BCE to 1 CE, found at Boscoreale, Italy. Photo by Stéphane Maréchalle for RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)

The Abu Dhabi pearl also implies the way that trade, and by extension cultural exchange, affected the development of luxury throughout history. Several of the objects on show are made of a variety of materials or artistic influences from across the East and the West, demonstrating the importance of trade routes such as the Silk Road and the ancient sea routes. The 15th-century Fragment of Velvet from Italy includes exotic silk and gold thread and depicts patterns of curling stems and flowers inherited from Ottoman decoration; a 16th century Shell Spoon from Germany has a very rare shell bowl originating from the coast of West Africa.

Shell spoon, 16th century; perhaps German. The handle is chased and engraved cast silver, the bowl is shell. Photo Jean Tholance for MAD, Paris

France in the 17th and 18th centuries contributed a new dimension to the notion of luxury in terms of production techniques and the growth of ateliers into full-blown factories – typically for decorative pottery and tableware, notably porcelain from the big names such as Meissen, Sèvres and Chantilly.

And coming to more modern times, the exhibition showcases how the Industrial Revolution led to the emergence of the nouveaux riches, a moneyed elite that extended the market for luxury goods (or as the exhibition’s PR puts it, provided “a more democratic access to luxury”). This demand resulted for instance in the development of department stores that could offer a range of fashionably desirable items such as jewellery, haute couture, tableware, luggage and furniture to a wider audience – and simplified access by putting it all under one roof.

Even the demand for female emancipation had knock-on effects, though it’s a bit of a stretch to say Coco Chanel’s Little Black Dress had much to do with Votes for Women. Still, when Vogue published a drawing of Chanel’s simple black crêpe de Chine dress it was described as “Chanel’s Ford’ – meaning it was simple, accessible, long-lasting and ubiquitous (and you could have any colour as long as it was black). The LBD certainly became an iconic example of couture and then an essential low-cost all-purpose wardrobe item for the modern woman … suggesting that sometimes ‘luxury’ can be both mainstream and affordable.

More predictably luxurious fashion figures prominently throughout the exhibition, from a late Ottoman brocaded silk dress that clearly blends Turkish and Parisian design (below) up to contemporary couture. There are loans from several of the big names, including Christian Dior, Givenchy, Chloé, Azzedine Alaïa, Schiaparelli, Lanvin and more (plus an embroidered sequin gown from Elie Saab’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection to bring things nearer to home and bang up to date).

Adélaïde ball gown and coat by Christian Dior, Paris: Spring/Summer 1948 collection. Photo Jean Tholance for MAD, Paris

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is putting on a complementary programme that includes an ‘olfactory art installation’ called USO – The Perfumed Cloud (USO is Unidentified Scented Object). Created by Maison Cartier’s in-house perfumer Mathilde Laurent with Transsolar KlimaEngineering and curated by Juliette Singer, Chief Curator for modern and contemporary art at Louvre Abu Dhabi, the installation invites visitors to climb a spiral staircase to immerse themselves in a scented cloud. It runs from 30 October to 8 November and then 23 November to 1 February. 

Hind Mezaina has curated a series of films that feature luxury in the worlds of fashion and art, most of which we include separately in the Agenda listings. There are also pop-up performances on 6 to 9 November by international artists, musicians and dancers around a ‘money can’t buy’ theme.  Performers include the L.A. Dance Project led by French choreographer Benjamin Millepied; Moroccan singer and actress Hindi Zahra;  and the classical music quartet Quatuor Diotima.

Look out too for Digital Snow Globes, an interactive installation that promises to bring “a festive winter spirit” to the museum with visitor-activated snowstorms surrounding life-sized reproductions of artworks from 10,000 Years of Luxury encased in snow globes. Hmm. It will be available from 12 December to 10 January.

10,000 Years of Luxury runs to 18 February. Access to the exhibition and the associated events (including USO – The Perfumed Cloud) is free with the museum’s general admission – AED 60 plus VAT for a regular day pass, with several discounts available (and free admission for those under 13). The show is expected to be busy, so we recommend pre-booking via the website

Above: Samovar by Josef Hoffmann, Wiener Werkstätte, 1904 – 1905; silver, coral, onyx, carnelian and ebony. In the collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Top: Noisettes Necklace by René Lalique, Paris, c. 1900; gold, diamonds, peridots, enamel, glass. Photo Christophe Dellière for MAD, Paris

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