Orientalism exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is a magic carpet ride

A century ago, before we had photos on Facebook and Instagram to transport us to exotic lands, people relied on paintings like the ones at a new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to take them there.

Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism is a collection of 19th-century works from European painters that depict romanticized visions of the Near East that were partially based reality, but mostly on imagination.

Much of the work on display until May 31, 2015 is by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, a master of the Orientalist genre. The exhibition document’s Benjamin-Constant travels in Moorish Spain, Morocco and the Maghreb and how those voyages informed his work. He would invite aristocrats to his studio which was staged with exotic souvenirs purchased in bazaars and thrill visitors with stories of his travels, especially of the harems that fascinated Europeans.

The Montreal exhibition is beautifully presented and some of the canvases are massive, room-sized paintings that are absolutely stunning. The colours and realism of the art draws you in to examine every detail. The paintings were made at a time when photography was emerging as an art form so care was made to present scenes realistically.

Paintings like these doubtless inspired a generation of Europeans to travel to distant places to see them with their own eyes. It’s not much different from the inspirational photos we see online that make us want to experience those places for ourselves. What’s amusing to realize is that while Benjamin-Constant’s paintings are considered to be idealized visions, how different is that from the Photoshopped and filtered travel photos we see every day?


Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
1380 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec
1-800-899-MUSE (6873)
Admission: $20, 13-30 yrs pay $12, children under 12 are free. $5 discount for Opus card holders.


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