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Eastern, Islamic designs on full display at Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Cartier exhibition

Eastern, Islamic designs on full display at Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Cartier exhibition
12 Feb 2024 10:52


In the early 20th century, Jacques Cartier, the youngest brother of the famous jeweller Louis-Francois Cartier, travelled to the Coronation of the then imperial King of India, George V, in search of inspiration. This was only one journey of many that would take him all over the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, where he would gather photographs of monuments, collect trinkets, and sketch intricate Eastern designs that would join a growing portfolio of Eastern artistic expressions which when brought back to France, would revolutionise the family jewellery business.

Everything, from the bindings of old Qurans to tessellating patterns on buildings and matchboxes offered stimuli for the evolution of the French jewellery giant. 

This is the design history that senior curatorial assistant at Louvre Abu Dhabi, Fakhera Al Kindi, says the current exhibition “Cartier, Islamic Inspiration and Modern Design” inspires to tell. 

“People always look beyond for inspiration, but they don’t truly realise that they have a lot of inspiration wherever they are, without even moving” she told Aletihad on a tour of the exhibition. 

“Through this exhibit, we understand this reverse cultural influence, and diverse interests and wide impact of this extensive vocabulary repertoire that is open through the Islamic arts.”

Adorned on the heads of kings, the arms of nobles and dangled around the necks of Hollywood starlets, Cartier embodies the pinnacle of high design. Characterised by intricate designs and priceless jewels; Cartier pieces are some of the most sought out pieces of jewellery in the world. 

However, the tessellating geometric patterns often seen laying on the collar bones of socialites like the late Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana had not always looked this way, but rather, had evolved over time to embody a wide array Eastern influence. 

As Fakhera noted, Cartier had originally produced largely organic vegetal designs that were common throughout Europe in the 1800’s, however, over time would come to be inspired by the geometrics and ornamentalism of the East as an influx of Persian and Islamic art made its way into Europe around the turn of the century. 

This is where the exhibition begins, introducing viewers to French designers that had grown obsessed with the “orient” at the time. Fekhera explained that it was the work of these researchers, in replicating, documenting, and reproducing the artistic motifs seen in the Islamic world that would lay the foundation for the Cartier brothers’ later inspiration. 

“There was a lot of influx of artworks at this time into Europe; Paris became a centre of selling in the market of the Islamic arts. There was a lot of influx of Ottoman pieces, a lot of influx of Iranian pieces due to the political situations over there. And hence, there was not just a pure contact through illustrations or lithographs, but there was also direct contact with the pieces themselves,” Fakhera told Aletihad. 

Gesturing to two designs, created centuries apart in the East and recreated by a French designer in the West, she said:  “They were interested and really researched the Islamic arts in depth. This is a mineral basin, and this is purely Islamic origin piece, you can see the difference and the similarities between both objects.” 

“All of these designs were extremely strange at the time; you see that they were looking for several types of modernity and this was one of them. The Cartier house found new types of modern design by looking eastwards.” 

Researching the Exhibits The exhibition endeavours to put the viewer in the mind of the designer by showing you the process of design. In many of the exhibits, original sketches from the Cartier design house can be seen next to the piece of Islamic or Eastern art that they were inspired by, followed by the final piece of Cartier jewellery. 

The idea is to allow viewers to understand how these designs, native to the region, had become embedded in the very fabric of one of those most coveted brands in the world, inviting viewers to be inspired by the rich history of the region’s contribution to that philosophy. 

“Through a lot of research, the curators were able to create links between these prints and the primary resources and the design workshops. So, what we try to do in these exhibitions is enter the mind of the creative designer, which is rarely seen in exhibitions,” Fakhera said. “I think we succeeded in creating a very easy digestible pattern and process.” 

Louis-Francois Cartier never kept written records of his design inspiration, so the entire exhibition was painstakingly researched over three years by teams from around the world. Remarkably, in many instances, they were able to link the designs seen within jewels to their original inspiration with acute accuracy. 

“There aren’t any textual sources about this process. So, it was a challenge finding the sketches materialising the research process to give us the assurance that yes, it was Islamic, and this is the link,” explained Fakhera. 

A Locally Relevant ExperienceFakhera highlighted how as one moves through the exhibition, they can see the slow and steady evolution of the designs, becoming increasingly more geometric and ornamental as well as incorporating more colours and Eastern gemstones, as the Cartiers became further enamoured by Eastern design. 

Fakhera was heavily involved in creating and contextualising the exhibition, which had featured abroad previously, for an Abu Dhabi audience. She said this included the addition of locally sourced historical pieces and the introduction of further context in the curation of the gallery to help viewers further understand the intimate links between the exhibition and the region they were in. 

“Adding these pieces from our local collection wasn’t done before, which inspires you to be part of a bigger community or network of museums, which at the Louvre we try to do in every exhibition,” she said. 

“You should also remember that many of the pearls seen on Cartier objects were from the region. Many would have been harvested in the waters near Abu Dhabi.” 

The exhibition’s journey is portrayed through artifact displays and immersive digital spaces that emphasise the delicate Eastern motifs and colours that appear throughout the Cartier pieces on display. By the end of the exhibition, in a room full of Cartier pieces from the 21st century, Fakhera explained that it is possible to see how the Islamic designs had now subtly become part of the very essence of the fashion brand’s design philosophy. 

“There is something in the Islamic Arts called infinity correspondence, which means compositions that go infinitely in all directions. Such compositions were used to represent the infinite creation, and can be seen throughout the pieces” she said. “You can still see that same geometric motif here, in a piece made in the 2000s.” 

“Fashion, in general, is a result of society’s reception to certain stimulus. Also, it shows the wide application of any stimulus as well. So here through fashion, we show that society was really implicated through this interest in Islamic designs by designers, by fashion designers, by decorative art designers, by artists.” 

The exhibition is on at the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island until March 24.

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