Undulating forms are beautiful, sensuous, and seductive. They appeal to an aesthetic sense in all of us. Artists have known this for a long time: that sinuous S-curve worms its way assertively into decorative motifs and, more subtly, in other genres of painting (figurative, for instance).
More recent is the curve’s invasion into modern architecture, whose function-as-form principles are embodied in straight lines and unembellished structures. But this no-frills approach cannot last. Maybe, humans just need change or something new every once in a while. Or, maybe, the quest for beauty is an instinct: Flowing appeals to that instinct more than straight. So, when Frank Gehry unveiled the Bilbao Guggenheim in an industrial town in Spain, we paid more attention to it than to Richard Meier’s modern version of the Getty Center atop a hill along the 405 freeway in Los Angeles.
Gehry’s floral forms of titanium sparked a creative flame that has lived on and produced some spectacular architecture. Two of the newest are in the heart of Paris—one smack in the middle of one of the courtyards of the former royal residence that now houses the Louvre museum and the other next to the Institut du Monde Arabe on the Paris rive gauche.
Done in metal, glass, and plastic, both these structures evoke the graceful lines of fabric tents of nomadic existence or the haunting lines of desert sand dunes that melt into infinity. Fittingly, both structures house museums of Arabic art, culture, and history.
The Louvre Islamic Art Wing, designed by Italian architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, opened in September, 2012 as a venue for the 18,000 pieces of Islamic art from the 7th to the 19th century in the Louvre collection. The museum structure at the Institut du Monde Arabe is the work of Zaha Hadid, a British architect who has the distinction of being the only woman who has won the most coveted award in architecture, the Pritzker (2004), a prize awarded to both Richard Meier (1984) and Frank Gehry (1989). The only other woman awarded the Pritzker did so as part of a duo. This museum is meant to be dismantled at the end of the show it was specially built for—the last 25 years of contemporary Arab art..
France has a long association with North Africa and is residence to sizable groups of Maghrebians from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and other Africans from places like Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Congo, countries France has invaded or colonized in the past. Tensions between them and the mainstream French population run across many issues—political, religious, cultural, economic, etc.,—and have fuelled demonstrations, riots, and anecdotal violence.
With this recent focus on Arabic art and culture, the French government may be trying a gentler rapprochement with its minority groups. But we are all beneficiaries of this effort because the artifacts on display at these museums whittle away at their foreignness and challenge the detachment or even fear that some of us may have for the unknown or unfamiliar. Who, after all, can fail to respond to those undulating lines that speak a universal aesthetic language? In the process of looking, perhaps the accompanying texts describing these art objects and cultural artifacts may convince us that those who have created them are more like us than we’ve allowed ourselves to discover.