Louvre Abu Dhabi’s ‘10,000 Years of Luxury’ art exhibition deeply contrasts two key elements: the idealized luxury of “less is more” against the backdrop of extreme opulence. From jewelry to haute couture to objet d'art, including the renowned Boscoreale Treasure – one of the largest collections of silverware preserved from Roman Antiquity – ‘10,000 Years of Luxury’ is currently on display until Feb. 18, 2020. It surveys 350 handcrafted, bespoke, and uniquely sourced historical items that continue to challenge cultural stereotypes of the meaning of luxury.
Opening the exhibit is recently discovered 8,000 years old pearl, aptly named Abu Dhabi Pearl. Its origin suggests that the Neolithic people of Marawah, an island which is located off the west coast of the United Arab Emirates, engaged in pearl trade with nearby civilizations. As part of 10,000 Years of Luxury exhibit Abu Dhabi Pearl also serves as a strong allegorical symbol of limited natural resources, that transform into luxury objects by talented hands of craftsmen and women. Case-in-point: Housed in the same display case as Abu Dhabi Pearl there is the gorgeous antique natural pearl necklace that belonged to Arab diva Umm Kulthum, loaned from the collection of Zayed National Museum. Think of these objects as before and after, spanning ten thousand years of global luxury trade in-between.
Curated by Olivier Gabet, Director of Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the exhibition draws primarily from the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and 20 other French, international and local partner institutions.
What isn’t luxury? According to Gabet: “Anything that is made fast isn’t luxury!” However, given that luxury has become a burgeoning global industry in the constant state of reinvention, advances in technology and materials have shortened the time it takes to create a luxury handbag, for example. Will ‘fast luxury’ remain as an oxymoron forever? Most likely, as the exhibition underlines how the Industrial Revolution led to the emergence of the nouveaux riches, an elite with a more democratic access to luxury that gave birth to haute couture - the highest form of fashion art.
In fact, luxury fashion loaned from major couture houses including Christian Dior, Givenchy, Chloé, Azzedine Alaïa, Maison Schiaparelli, Lanvin and more, dominated a good portion of the exhibition, and included many garments, i.e. Gabrielle Chanel’s Little Black Dress, that have radically impacted global fashion style.
Not surprising, for a museum of such caliber, fine art was present as a strong complimentary element and featured a variety of mediums from medieval gravure to Renaissance paintings to modern sculptures. As one pours over Louvre Abu Dhabi galleries, it becomes clear that our ancestors were obsessed with everything precious - rare materials, fine craftsmanship, original design. How little has changed over ten thousand years?!
At the same time, Eastern and Asian cultures idealized a different type of pinnacle of good taste. Take for example ancient Japanese ancient ceramics also on display alongside other understated Middle Eastern and Chinese porcelain works. Housewares, at first might appear basic to an untrained eye, however, they are highly prized for their original, brushwork, unique colors, and shapes. Each fragile item is carefully cherished and, if needed, repaired using Kintsugi philosophy, only to be passed down from generations to generations, thus strengthening its value.
As one explores various halls of the exhibition another theme emerges: if something is highly valued by the collectively-agreed upon definition it can also be considered as a luxury item. In other words, rising trends beget new luxury products. Think of luxury car manufacturers as they design new models only to match owner’s shifting lifestyle. Hello, Alexa! While no luxury cars were on display at this exhibition, there was more than enough objects to cover the history of luxury across ten millennia.
In the last room of the exhibit, there is only one final object on display, and it invites visitors to reflect inward: it is a tall case featuring a large clear hourglass, with its bottom filled with sand made of gold. The visual evokes a sense of urgency that precious time is running out: a friendly reminder from Louvre Abu Dhabi that the time we are given on this planet - with all its limited natural resources - is the ultimate luxury we all must cherish and protect with great care.