LYON - Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt, the conquest of Algeria during Louis-Philippe's rule, the formation of the British Colonial Empire, were just some of a plethora of European journeys and explorations during the 19th century. During this period, Westerners increasingly traveled to the East, the immense stretch of the world from Morocco to India. They visited, they did business, and they took power.

Such events would inevitably influence the arts. The results are on display in the exhibit called "The Oriental Genius: Modern Europe and Islamic Arts," put together by Rémy Labrusse at the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts.

Nearly 500 objects and works of art, from architectural building plans to paintings and an enameled chalice, the exhibit looks at a century of curious objects and artistic borrowings.

The subject matter is so vast that however rich the exhibit, it remains incomplete. For example, Jean-François Champollion's (an early 19th century French classical scholar), Gustave Flaubert's (mid-19th century French writer) and Maxime Du Camp's (late-19th century French writer and photographer) travels to Egypt are not included. The invasion of Algeria is excluded too, as part of a more general choice to leave out anything with an explicitly political and religious context.

The first part of the exhibit displays the initial discovery of the regions, their cultures, monuments, and styles. The pieces were first part of private collections before becoming part of public ones. One of the major collections belonged to the Duke of Blacas, and was bought in whole by the British Museum in 1866, as the French museums were not interested in them.

In this first section, there are engraving anthologies and descriptive volumes. Travel literature abounds alongside miniatures of the monuments of Istanbul, Cairo, Isfahan, Granada and Cordoba, cities made popular thanks to the sculptors' artwork.

The next section belongs to the works of Orientalist painters who bring together rather life-like documentary elements and staging where the picturesque, the pathetic, and the erotic are supposed to attract attention. This technique, which art historian Christine Peltre has recently studied, created a prosperous and global image industry. 

Among these famous artists is painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, the son-in-law of Léon Goupil, an editor of reproductions [for the leading 19th century art dealership in France, Goupil & Cie], and the brother-in-law of Albert Goupil, a passionate buyer of "oriental" pieces for the same dealership. The brothers-in-law went on an expedition in Egypt in 1868, one in search of inspiration for his future work, and the other looking to expand his collection.

The painting hall created around Henri Regnault's painting called The Execution without Judgment under the Moorish Kings of Grenada, is an inventory of the fantasies and stereotypes carried by Orientalism. In other words, the "Oriental," also known as the Muslim or the Arab, can only be either cruel and fanatical, or spineless and lustful.

The Oriental woman lives in a harem and spends the day bathing. All have black slaves whose skin creates beautiful contrasts of colors with blue and white ceramics and scarlet rugs. Gazing at the canvases, it's difficult to imagine that these racist clichés were spread far and wide and for so long without disturbing many people – at least not the painters or the amateurs.

In the third and final section, the exhibit compares these sad images with the attentive Islamophilia of artists who, staying away from the easy picturesque and mercantile art, studied calligraphy and wall and fabric patterns so as to renew European decorative arts. British artists such as William Morris or John Henry Dearle and French artists such as Edmond Duthoit, Léon Parvillée and Jules Bourgoin all combined elements of a graphical grammar and rhythm with a complexity that defies the eye. The onlooker gets lost in the interlaced design and the orthogonal compositions that are meticulously calculated.

The exhibition dedicates its final hall to approximately 30 works by Paul Klee, his works giving off the same air of diligent attention to detail as those in the final section. The works on display are directly or implicitly related to his trip to Tunisia in April of 1914.

Just when you think you've exhausted the exploration, the last room offers some minor miracles: pieces of fanciful arabesques between pictogram and calligraphy, country scenes absorbed in watercolor clouds, abstractions of a perfect harmony.

" Le Génie de l'Orient. L'Europe moderne et les arts de l'islam ". Musée des beaux-arts, 20, place des Terreaux, Lyon 1er. Tél. : 04-72-10-17-40. Until July 4.

Photo - HarshLight