200 years of European art by the Nile: A visit to Cairo's Aisha Fahmy Palace

Lamiaa Al-Sadaty, Thursday 24 Sep 2020

Creating a strong relationship between painting, sculpture and architecture, the 5th exhibition in the 'Treasures of Our Museums' series provides a unique experience to Aisha Fahmy Palace visitors

Aisha Fahmy Palace

The 5th exhibition in the “Treasures of Our Museums” series offers 118 works, between paintings and sculptures, by great European artists of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The works are exhibited at the Aisha Fahmy Palace until the end of October with entry free of charge.

In the intimate atmosphere of the palace, located in Zamalek and whose architectural beauty is a delight on its own, one can admire masterpieces of artists such as Delacroix, Gauguin, Rodin and Renoir. They rub shoulders with those less known to the general public in Egypt, such as Fernand Pelez, Henri Rondel, Guillaume Seignac, Charles-Emile Jacques and others.

Commenting on the selection criteria, Ihab Al-Labban, director of arts at Aisha Fahmy Palace, clarifies: “It is all about harmony between the different works and the adaptation of the chosen works to the space."

Indeed, the visitor feels that the works become part of the palace's rooms as they also benefit from an ideal setting in which we can admire these works, and their particular beauty.

Aisha Fahmy Palace

A focus on arrangement

The way the works are arranged plays an important role in the aesthetics of the whole exhibition. We find partitions having the same colors as the walls of the rooms with works being showcased in a distinct order with each section presenting a new theme (portraits, landscapes, etc).

Amidst the paintings, sculptures catch the eye as well. “Sculpture is a three-dimensional work and that is why it is not displayed in the same way as a canvas. For a sculpture to be well presented, you must be able to walk around it. The artwork should be visible from any point inside the room,” Al-Labban adds.

In addition to the arrangement of the works, lighting also plays an important role, as it highlights the paintings and establishes a museographic language in the space. In the Aisha Fahmy Palace display, it is treated with care, so that the visitor perceives all subtleties.

The play of light and shadow can create striking effects in the exhibition spaces. A dramatic tension emerges from a darkened space, thanks to fine beams of light, crossing the darkness, enough to attract the visitors' attention to the works on display and sometimes even to other rooms.

This is the case, for example, with the palace's second floor where the visitor follows the light leading us to the anteroom devoid of paintings, but which is adorned by wall drawings: two huge golden statues of Buddha, Chinese drawings hanging on the walls and Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The place suddenly transports the visitor to another world, while conveying and transmitting different emotions.

Aisha Fahmy Palace

However, the lack of signage deprives the visitor of information related to the anteroom. The curious visitor might be disappointed.

Al-Labban explains that "the lack of signage around the anteroom is intended. Its presence could confuse the viewer whose attention we draw to the works of art. In addition, this place was originally owned by an aristocratic family whose history is not well known to us," Al-Labban explains.

It is worth noting that being a unique location with its own history, the experience of the exhibition moves beyond the works on display, as visitors can also discover the palace. Unlike other art exhibitions, where people always focus on the works of art on display, here visitors are also mesmerised by the building itself.

"Our goal is to transform this palace into an attractive place not only for specialists and art lovers, but also for a wide audience, especially young people," Al-Labban comments.

A place of unique charm

Indeed, the site carries a paramount importance for Egyptian architectural history. The palace is a masterpiece that was designed by famous Italian architect Antonio Lasciac in 1917 on 2,700 m2 and comprises 30 bedrooms, two large halls, a 1,000 m2 basement and a roof, all richly decorated with frescoes and walls covered with red and green silk.

Since the restoration of the palace and its reopening, the management tries to give it a special identity, by organising exhibitions, showing the treasures of Egypt, through works from its own and private collections. The exhibitions span sometimes over several months.

This time, it is about bringing together under one roof European works, belonging to the Mahmoud Khalil, Gezira and the Alexandria Art Museum.

“This exhibition is therefore a real opportunity to rediscover the artistic wealth that Egypt possesses and to explore the different artistic currents reigning in the 18th and 19th centuries," Al-Labban says, adding that since the palace had become the property of the Egyptian administration in charge of the arts since 1976, it has been often referred to as a Complex of the Arts.

"We always carry out elaborate research on the rare collections that are presented to the public and we offer a well-documented explanatory catalogue," says Al-Labban.

Last year, the palace held the 4th exhibition in the “Treasures of Our Museums” series, entitled Mémoire de l'Orient (Memory of the Orient), bringing together a fine selection of Orientalist works.

"This year, the exhibition brings together a collection of masterpieces, highlighting Egypt's place as a centre of influence in the region," said Al-Labbane.

The charm and elegance of Rococo and neoclassicism, which characterise 18th century works, especially in France, and the 19th century's impressionism and realism, all come together in this mythical palace on the banks of the Nile, creating an abundant relationship between painting, sculpture and architecture.

Aisha Fahmy Palace

The exhibition continues at until 31 October. Aisha Fahmy Palace, Zamalek

*This article was originally published in Al Ahram Hebdo, in French, 23 September edition

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