Cabinets of Curiosity, Salons and the Era of Annual Exhibitions at Montréal Museum of Fine Arts

I’ve recently got back from a two-week whirlwind trip to Canada so I think my November and December posts are going to be full of some of my favourite places we visited: starting with my first, which was the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. We’d been in Montréal approximately half an hour when we arrived at the museum and it was the perfect start to our 48 hours in the city. I loved the museum: it had lots of quirky spaces, rooms laid out in different ways to reflect different periods, movements and objects which made it really exciting and interesting. Here are some of my favourite places in the gallery to explore:

Romantic room

So my first three spaces are part of the journey through International Art the museum presents with little introductions to each period and movement, which I absolutely loved. Starting with the Middle Ages and ending with Modern Art, it also showed the breadth of the museum collection in this area.

The Romantic room was really beautiful: my photos don’t capture it quite so well, with forest green walls decorated with tree silhouettes and great lighting that made it look as if leaves were fluttering. It was a great setting for the dramatic art in the room. In particular, I loved this colourful painting by Arnold Böcklin of a castle ruin, from 1886. The reds and oranges of the trees made me think of the lovely autumnal trees we saw everywhere on our road trip! Plus, this was the first room I wandered into, so that was a nice start to our visit!

Salon-style room

Next door to the gorgeous Romantic forest room was a room that reminded me a bit of a salon, piano in the centre, paintings on the walls and sculptures surrounding the piano that gave the room an intimate and warm feel. Plus, how gorgeous is this sculpture by Salvatore Alabano? Called Nymph Resting, the softness, simplicity and naturalism of the Nymph contrasts with the elaborate and heavily fringed chair she is sat on.

Enlightenment and Cabinet of Curiosities

Welcome to the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment! In the centre of this room is a beautiful space filled with paintings and small objects evoking a cabinet of curiosity.

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The Cabinet of Curiosity was an early modern phenomenon in which collectors of exotic and interesting items attempted to categorise and display the things they had collected: they are so interesting, often being a forerunner to and the basis for several museum collections, and showing the development of human understanding of the wider world. They are part of my PhD research focus and this space was a really cool way of evoking the eighteenth century search for knowledge and the display of it for all to see.

Museum Cabinet of Curiosities

Following on from a representation of an Enlightenment cabinet, the museum has dug around in its own collections to showcase a variety of objects, fifty in total, which had been forgotten about. Small and each interesting in its own right, I loved this display because it demonstrated both how each object, no matter now tiny and seemingly inconsequential, can tell a story, and how little of a museum’s collection is on display at once. For instance, the British Museum may display 80,000 objects at any one time, which seems a lot, but this is only 1% of their overall collection – crazy, right? (Read more about it here) They aren’t alone: the Louvre shows about 8% and the Guggenheim 3% – read more about this in a BBC article by Kimberley Bradley here. I loved browsing the diverse items shown in the Museum’s “cabinet” – I particularly loved this nineteenth century figurine with the lovely moulding on the sides!

Era of Annual Exhibitions

Another of my favourite spaces was this room, set up like the Great Exhibitions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before it became the museum, the Art Association of Montréal presented the first annual exhibition of Canadian Art, which helped to encourage local professional artists and a Canadian art scene to emerge. I really liked the paintings on display from James Wilson Morrice, who travelled widely and represented this in his work, and showed a crossover between Canadian and European art.

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There are more spaces than just these that were fantastic – I really recommend the museum, it’s a great place to spend hours getting lost amongst the art from around the world! (Also, it’s worth mentioning, visitors under the age of 31 can get in free! Visit the website here to find out more about going to the museum!)

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