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Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism.

This past winter the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has been hanging the Oriental sun on its walls with Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism: From Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in His Time. This rediscovery of a major figure of Orientalism, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902), was an opportunity for the Museum's first venture into Orientalism.

Balancing a mirage of seduction with the masked reality of a colonial republic, the exhibition examines, from Moorish Spain to the Morocco of the Sharifians, the iconographic strategies of a studio painter who produced a major body of Orientalist work hitherto almost forgotten.

NATHALIE BONDIL, MM FA Director and Chief Curator

From Toulouse to Montreal

This exhibition sheds light on the oeuvre of a major Orientalist painter of the Third Republic, sometimes confused with his namesake, the writer and politician Benjamin Constant. This account of a son of Toulouse who became a star in North America was organized in partnership with the Musee des Augustins, which in addition to possessing the most complete group of works by the artist (thirteen of them, including the colossal Entry of the Sultan Mehmed II into Constantinople, which remains in Toulouse) also owns other icons of Orientalist painting, including Saint John Chrysostom and the Empress Eudoxia, by Jean-Paul Laurens, and The Massage, Hammam Scene, by Edouard Debat-Ponsan.

Benjamin-Constant's presence in Montreal is not surprising, given that early in his career he had become well known in North America, where his work could be found in private collections, in a monumental mural in Boston, and in portraits. The M M FA possesses four of his paintings, including the iconic canvases Evening on the Terrace, Morocco, and Day after a Victory at the Alhambra, both coming into Montreal collections during the painter's lifetime when he often came to visit his patrons in the United States and Canada.

A Master Colourist

Following in the footsteps of artists like Delacroix, whom he greatly admired, this brilliant colourist's Orientalism is similar to that of Henri Regnault, Mariano Fortuny, Georges Clairin, and Jean-Paul Laurens. Appropriating the stereotypes of a colonial Orient, Benjamin-Constant alternated indolent odalisques and fierce Moors in his huge, meticulously constructed compositions. His history painting, inspired by Byzantium and the Bible, is also Orientalist in style. His striking canvases bring out the chromatic values that he expressed with his dazzling palette.

The Iconic Sites of Orientalism

In Montreal, the exhibition reveals six iconic aspects of Orientalism, offering a dual reading of its fictional subjects, juxtaposing staged pictorial settings with documented realities.

Drawings and photographs round out this exploration of Moorish Spain and Sharifian Morocco, from the studio to fantasies of the harem.

The Strategies of the Orientalist Studio

As an inescapable subject for literature and painting in the nineteenth century, the studio became a venue for fashionable receptions and a sales gallery for the painter. Visits were made by appointment. Benjamin-Constant, the dandy and celebrated artist, hosted the cream of the European aristocracy to transact business amid an impressive clutter of mysterious and magically shimmering Oriental objects: multicoloured rugs, stuffed animals, inlaid suits of armour.

In the course of the century, the painter's studio, an alternative to the official exhibitions at the Salon and widely reproduced in prints and photographs, became a fixed image in the public imagination. Its theatrical staging, the exoticism of the bazaar combined with the reality of the souvenirs, constituted for the artist a showcase as much as a locus for inspiration, a studio designed to be toured. From Delacroix to Gerome, the studio became the decor. Benjamin-Constant's studio was made up of souvenirs and collections of Islamic art, documentation of the painter's official career, and private and society portraits, a stage set for all the stratagems of success.

The Salon, the Near East in History

"The Salon is our only means of dissemination. Through it we achieve honour, glory and money. For many of us, it is our livelihood," wrote Benjamin-Constant. For a young history painter, a rite of passage in getting oneself noticed was to present at the Salon a grande machine, a tour de force piece that would attract attention in an exhibition crammed with thousands of canvases. As a result, confusion reigned between history painting in the grand style and large sensationalist canvases. Benjamin-Constant was soon able to earn his living by selling works to the state. The exhibition displays several of these monumental canvases, restored and lent especially for this occasion.

The leading light of the circle of Toulousian painters in Paris was Jean-Paul Laurens. A prime mover behind the original revival of history painting under the Third Republic, Laurens specialized in exotic, even barbarous, at times macabre episodes from the Byzantine and medieval periods. His erudition, idealized by monumental settings, favoured scenes before or after the main action took place, suspended moments of tension or meditation. Benjamin-Constant admired his personal vision of the tragedies of history, depicting a picturesque brutality yet possessing great substance. Like Laurens and Jean-Andre Rixens, he multiplied his portrayals of biblical temptresses, favouring laconic heroines and a "rhetoric of elision" resembling the speechless moments of pantomime enacted by Sarah Bernhardt, the celebrated actress who played Fedora and Theodora.

The Alhambra: Antechamber to the Near-East

Until the Romantic era, Spain counted for little in the European imagination. However, this antechamber to the Orient became an indispensable destination with the rediscovery of Andalusia and its rich Hispano-Moorish heritage. The Alhambra, the astonishing medieval palace of the Nasrid dynasty in Granada, gave its name to the movement known as Alhambrismo, which popularized the decorative motifs of the Moorish building. The Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny, an enthusiastic collector of Islamic art, set up his studio there, and was joined by other artists who were passing through, including his friends Regnault, Clairin, and Benjamin-Constant. Fascinated by the decorative abundance of polychrome stucco and also by the Romantic stories of Washington Irving and Chateaubriand, they executed dazzling and sanguinary paintings.

The Harem: Fantasies and Lies

The harem is a recurrent trope of Orientalist painting. In Arabic the word haram, meaning what is forbidden or sacred (as opposed to what is halal, permitted or profane), defines the place reserved for women in each household. The object of endless curiosity and an incomparable source for fantasies, it was actually inaccessible to men, although Benjamin-Constant reported having crossed the threshold of some mysterious rooms in his Leaves from a Painter's Note-book. For lack of suitable models in Paris, the artist executed in his studio numerous paintings, often monumental, of these exotic and sensual odalisques, acquiescent sex slaves subject to the pleasure of a decadent Oriental despotism-the Circassian whiteness of bewitching redheads, the servitude of black domestic slaves. The formula was successful! The beautiful effects of the light slanting into these secret interiors, shaded from the burning sun, dramatized the paintings.

Although the iconography of these works is riddled with cliches, later to be copied in postcards, it should be interpreted in a much wider context, as here with Gerome. In France, as elsewhere, the salons were full of languid nudes. This universal and reassuring acquiescence went beyond its depiction by Orientalist painters for, when females asserted their rights, the status of women was seen as a threat in these patriarchal societies.

Colonial Diplomacy in Morocco: Delacroix versus Benjamin-Constant

Morocco, the "land of the farthest setting sun," unlike the other countries of the Maghreb, had preserved its political independence from the Ottoman influence. This self-governing kingdom resisted the struggles for power of the European nations, maintaining an ever more asymmetrical relationship with them. Ever since Bonaparte's Egyptian campaign in 1798, France had pursued its expansionist dreams in the Near East, seizing Algeria, its first African colony, in 1830.

Forty years had passed between the trips to Morocco of Delacroix (1832) and Benjamin-Constant (1871-1873), both in the context of diplomatic missions: France wished to be sure of Morocco's neutrality in regard to Algeria. Leaving Tangier, they found themselves in a land that was still dangerous for foreigners. Both were fascinated by its barbaric customs, its theatre of cruelty, and its wild beauty, a savagery that was positively medieval to their Eurocentric eyes--their sunlit canvases express, with more empathy in Delacroix's work and more sensationalism in that of Benjamin-Constant, their fascination with this still little-known land and the deceptive charm of the unchanging Orient.
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Title Annotation:Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism: From Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in His Time
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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