The stunning Museum of Islamic Art stands proud on the Corniche, but just a stone’s throw away is a hidden little jewel of a museum which will take your breath away. Weave around the road works and get yourself behind the long-under refurbishment (ie closed) National Museum on the Corniche and you’ll find a white building with smart wooden doors and a simple plaque, the Orientalist Museum.
Step inside out of the glare of the sun and prepare to be transported to another world. The richly decorated walls, with sumptuous jewel-coloured wallpapers, are the perfect backdrop for a quite dazzling collection of Orientalist art.
The paintings, drawings and prints mainly date from the 19th century, when Western artists were travelling to the Middle East and North Africa in greater numbers, thanks to the colonial links. France’s Eugène Delacroix, England’s Joseph Turner and Jose Villegas y Cordero, from Spain, were just three of the century’s significant artists to be bewitched by the colour and light of these (to them) new found lands. They all have significant works on display in the Orientalist Museum.
These artists portrayed what they found with a very romantic and exotic air: in Delacroix’s ‘Jewish Girl’ from Algeria, his dark-eyed beauty reclines in flowing robes, looking languid and serene. And Cordero shows a man also reclining in flowing robes, in ‘The Dream’, but his languid pose is largely thanks to the opium he’s just smoked, which has conjured up a rather racy image of his girlfriend. In many of the pictures, it’s the vivid colours which really captivate: take time to linger in front of Ludwig Deutsch’s ‘The Chess Game’, with its turquoise and green broken wall tiles, intricate red and blue rug and minutely detailed wooden door frame.
In this and so many other pictures in the collection, there is much that’s familiar from Qatar today – from the arches in the Waqif Arts Centre to the shapes in the metal sun canopies at the entrance to the Museum of Islamic Art. ‘The Arms Dealer In Cairo’ by Jean-Leon Gerome shows a trader selling shields and armour in a tiny shop not that different to one you’d find selling fishing tackle today down in Souk Waqif.
Biblical themes played a large part too, with many landscapes showing Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Make sure you see both of Gustav Baurenfeind’s pictures of the entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They show the same scene, but in one he’s made the steps look more worn and the door is also different.
But the painting which we could have looked at all day was the beautiful and vivid ‘The Scarf Dance’ by Alphonse-Etienne Dinet, a Parisian-born French painter who felt such a great affinity with North Africa, and Algeria in particular, that he learned Arabic, spent much of his time living there and eventually converted to Islam. His oil painting shows three young girls in the most dazzlingly bright clothes, dancing with red scarves. As well as the rich colours, it’s their expressions which hold you riveted – one looks sorrowful, one is distracted and wistful, but the third gazes so boldly at you that’s it’s hard to look away.
This impressive array of works was acquired over 15 years by Sheikh Hassan Bin Mohammad Al Thani, who donated it to Qatar in 2005. There are nearly 700 pictures in all, with around 350 on show at any one time. The collection’s most notable items, like its works by Turner and Delacroix, are often loaned to prestigious galleries around the world, like the Tate in London, for special exhibitions.
The museum’s curator is Iraqi artist Ismail Azzam, who says that visitors are often taken aback by the quality of the works on show: ‘A lot of people are really surprised when they see the collection. We have
big names from France, so French visitors are amazed.’
He explains how Islam forbids the depiction of people in art; it’s ‘haraam’ – hence the predominance of calligraphy and abstract works. So the Western artists of the Orientalist movement played an important part in recording life in the Middle East and North Africa. ‘So for us it’s very important – talking about our history,’ he adds.
The Orientalist Museum is open Sun-Thu, 7.30am-2.30pm, but you can only visit by appointment. Call 463 7744 and ask for Fathi Hamzaoui.