Travel Blog

7 Feb

The shadows and light of Orientalism at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Discover the gorgeous palette of Benjamin-Constant till May 31 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts during the exhibition Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism, from Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in his time .


This rediscovery of Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902), a major figure in Orientalist painting, deftly retraces a part of his works but also the ties between friends, styles and themes within his artistic circle in Toulouse (Laurens, Rixens, Debat-Ponsan), Spain (Fortuny, Tapiro, Cordero), Morocco (Regnault, Clairin) and with Eugène Delacroix. The exhibition also includes close to 250 works, including paintings by Orientalist painters such as Gérôme, Rochegrosse, Vernet-Lecomte or Dehodencq, contemporary Moroccan artists, Oriental objects, drawings, watercolours, prints, photographs, books, archives and other documents.

A brilliant colourist, Benjamin-Constant treats viewers to a Byantine- or biblical-influenced slice of history. Some of the artist’s masterpieces, once considered too large to be transported, are here for the very first time, including the Sharifas, The Moroccan Caid Tahamy, The Harem, Judith, The Evening on the Terrace (Morocco) or The Favourite of the Emir.


The visit is divided into six time frames, six emblematic Oriental places that straddle fictional account and documented reality. The first room, cozy and crimson, is a reconstruction of the Orientalist salon of the painter, a showroom and meeting place where Benjamin-Constant hosted the crème de la crème of European aristocracy. Inside this cabinet of curiosities, brimming with multicoloured Persian and Turkish rugs, busts, pottery and stuffed animals, the artist welcomed visitors into a setting that was both extravagant and inspiring.

The studio became a symbolic of a rite of passage to attract attention and showcase an artist’s work. “For many of us, it is our livelihood,” wrote Benjamin-Constant who would diplay monumental paintings there, some of which would be bought by the French state.

“Three months of a dream-like life in this Arab palace, a hundred or more walks in the shadows of the rooms whose vaulted cedar ceilings are inlaid with gold and ivory,” is how Benjamin-Constant described the Alhambra, antechamber to the Orient which, with the rediscovery of Andalusia and its rich Hispano-Moorish heritage, regains its prestige once again. A wealth of paintings depicting both dazzlingly beautiful and macabre scenes sit side by side.


Next, visitors enter an immaculate room in the hues of Tangier, “the White City”. A cosmopolitan centre, it attracted a circle of prestigious international artists. Benjamin-Constant would be enthralled with its white terraces, its souks, the traditional Kasbah, the architecture of the Great Mosque and the ambiance of the medina. “It is not a city; it is a museum,” he wrote. His stay here would inspire his most beautiful paintings, more flamboyant and expressive than realistic and ethnographic. This part of the exhibition also reveals colonial diplomacy in Morocco, seen through the eyes of Delacroix in 1832 and Benjamin-Constant from 1871 to 1873, though forty years apart.

The last room, hushed and intimate with opaque black walls, depicts the universe of the harem, brimming with a sensuality evoked through fantasy. Enormous paintings reveal exotic and lascivious odalisques, with milky-white skin and flamboyant red hair like the submissive and “consenting” slaves.


This imagined paradise was met with huge success; however, it is put into its real context by contemporary Moroccan artists Yasmina Bouziane, Lalla Essaydi and Majida Khattari. By subverting stereotypes, they turn the gaze to slavery, still allowed in Morocco at the time.

A compelling and colourful exhibition that reflects the incredible contrasts of the Orient.



Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism, from Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in his time, at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, organized in partnership with the Musée des Augustins, till May 31, 2015.


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