PETALING JAYA: Visiting a classical art gallery might not be the most common leisure activity among Malaysians, but there are many reasons why you should check out “Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage?” before it ends next month.
Organised by Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM), the exhibition showcases close to 100 historically significant paintings from its cherished collection. Some of these have been loaned to prestigious galleries all over the world, including the British Museum!
This exhibition also boasts a rather erudite goal: it aims to reverse the misconceptions some have about the concept of “Orientalism”.
For the uninitiated, the word was appropriated and popularised by literary scholar Edward Said to criticise the western world’s ways of exoticising the Orient, or the east, throughout history.
This gallery, however, aims to show otherwise – the paintings here are not by artists who imagined what the Oriental world looked like while sitting in the comfort of their studios.
Instead, they were created by painters who travelled far and wide to the mystical and alluring Middle East and India during the 19th and 20th centuries.
One of the highlights is Henriette Browne’s “A Visit: a Harem Interior”, which serves as a great example that Oriental paintings are not necessarily fabrications.
Two fully clothed women stand in the centre of the painting modestly greeting each other, while the others engage in their conversation, with the exception of an aloof red-gowned woman smoking on the right side of the frame.
The painting here depicts the women fully dressed in local clothing and behaving in a casual manner instead of the nude, erotic scenes so often associated with harems. Arguably, Browne’s painting is the most accurate portrayal of such a setting as only women were permitted in the all-female quarters.
During FMT Lifestyle’s visit, exhibition curator Rekha Verma shared that the legitimacy of paintings can be confirmed by their colour accuracy.
As colour photography had not been available at the time, artists relied on personal observation and painstakingly recorded the colour schemes of buildings, places, and costumes to recreate them later on.
Meanwhile, a cropped painting usually means it was recreated based on a photo as it is unconventional to crop a scene for an outdoor sketch. Fun facts for all the art nerds out there!
Yet, casting aside the scholarly goal of the exhibition, the works highlight the technical virtuosity of these excellent artists. Case in point: one painting guaranteed to catch your attention is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Rider and His Steed in the Desert”.
At first glance, the brilliant composition and simple colours draw your attention to a lonely man gently caressing his horse against a background of mountains and flowing sand, while his belongings are scattered on the sand floor.
Yet the devil is in the details – a lying horse means a dying horse, and this painting goes beyond skilfully rendering a desert scene to poetically narrating the grief and danger of losing one’s steed in a harsh desert.
Verma attributed the painting’s eye-catching effect to the special lighting showcasing it, but one might beg to differ: even without such aesthetic illumination, the Rider would shine brilliantly all on its own.
Another must-see is David Robert’s “The Bazaar of the Coppersmiths, Cairo”. Other than being an exceptional record of Cairene life on a large scale that attracted patrons such as Queen Victoria, the painting inadvertently documents the facade of the Madrasa of Baybars after it was destroyed in 1874.
“Orientalist Paintings” also showcases pictures of artists working in their studios, as well as certain items depicted in the paintings to demonstrate their authenticity. Perhaps a spontaneous game of “find the hidden objects” while you’re here might be in order!
All in all, this exhibition is worth your visit not only because it is the largest IAMM exhibition to date – it is also an opportunity for you to learn about the fascination Orientalist painters had for the East through their passionate brushstrokes.
‘Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage?’ runs until Oct 15. For more information, check out the IAMM website.
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM)
50480 Kuala Lumpur