DIARY: Unveiling the secrets of the harem at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts.
A few weeks ago, at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, I saw beautiful examples of Islamic art, some of it more than 1,000 years old, part of a culture that expanded across North Africa into southern Spain on the heels of the Muslim conquest. Heeding the traditions of their religion, most of the art is graphic representations of their holy texts, or fanciful animals with a few paintings of important rulers thrown in for good measure.
It’s quite a different story in Montreal, where The Favourite of the Emir gazes languidly across Sherbrooke Street from her position above the entrance to the Museum of Fine Arts. A special exhibition of the works of the long-forgotten artist Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902) is open until the end of May, 2015. Although he later became a portraitist of note to the cream of society in New York and London, and a specialist in giant murals, this exhibition delves into his fanciful works of life in the imagined courts and courtyards of Morocco and southern Spain.
Benjamin-Constant travelled to Morocco in 1872 and for the rest of his life collected Islamic art and objects, which he used as props in his studio canvases. This early visit put him under the spell of the Orientalism movement and a style which the English called Pre-Raphaelite. The lush backdrops, fabulously rich detail and seductively posed women were all fantasies dreamed up in his salon where wealthy patrons came to view his huge canvases during their creation and perhaps oogle the semi-nude models.
This salon became a gallery for his work and a place where the cognoscenti could meet and greet each other in a bourgeois environment and where Benjamin-Constant sold his works right off the walls. Just like the Pre-Raphaelites, his titillating nudes posing in historical backgrounds allowed a coy jolt of pleasure in a prudish age.
One is lured into the Museum of Fine Arts by the bold poster hanging above the entrance in the most modern of the four buildings which make up the complex. Cleverly, there’s a brightly lit and entertainingly decorated tunnel under the road to the original museum building, where the Marvel and Mirages of Orientalism show is displayed in a series of upstairs galleries.
At the top of a daunting flight of stairs the first giant canvas is hung. Simply put, it’s stunning. Interior of a Harem in Morocco shows semi-nude white concubines lazing around being entertained by semi-nude black male and female slaves. It’s a genuine all-male Victorian fantasy, or I suppose the French would call it un fantasme de la Belle Époque, from an undetermined period of history when emirs, sultans and their ilk ruled the Ottaman Empire and beyond.
Benjamin-Constant and his contemporaries in Orientalism decorated their pieces with accurate details, using, for a start, the pieces of bric-a-brac he collected in his salon. It is more than that which makes his works notable. He had a remarkable eye for the architecture of the period, which he would have noted during contemporary journeys to southern Spain, as well as costume and colour.
He captures the atmosphere magically with keenly observed images of roof-top life, when women were allowed to gather during the cool of the evening, without male company. He must have been a bit of a peeping Tom to observe these moments, or perhaps the women knew he was there and enjoyed parading before a forbidden male eye.
Mostly the works speak for themselves and it is enough to walk around the galleries, alternately dimly and brightly lit, and enjoy the collection. His later works are also represented, with one huge portrait dominating the first salon and intimate pictures of his sons revealing his skill at this particular form of expression. In England he painted aristocrats and royalty. In New York he painted the wealthy.
After his death in 1902 he was quickly forgotten. Before this presentation I had never heard of Benjamin-Constant, but having enjoyed this exhibition I will never forget him.
The featured image shows The Dance of the Shawl, by Benjamin-Constant, Vassar College collection.