Stop press: Napoleon invades Melbourne! Well, not really. The National Gallery of Victoria’s Winter Masterpiece exhibition this year is an exhibition focussing on all things Napoleonesque, with a bit of an Antipodean twist.
This exhibition differs from recent exhibitions in that it could just as easily be mounted in a museum as in an art gallery, because it encompasses history, artefact, literature, the visual arts, the decorative arts, music and costume. And it’s very, very good.
If you’re not familiar with the French Revolution and its connection to Napoleon, the exhibition has a strong chronological narrative in its explanation panels- and I think they may have used a slightly larger font because they are legible from some way back. The exhibition starts with the Ancien Regime, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and spends quite a bit of time on the cultural milieu and decorative fashions of their era. It then moves on to a brief explanation of the rapid swings of political fortune leading up to the Terror, then focusses on Napoleon himself. When you stand before pictures of Napoleon’s coronation, you are struck by the similarity in excess and symbolism of Napoleonic Imperialism and that of the Royal Family just two tumultuous, exhilarating, blood-soaked decades earlier. I spoke to a woman who was waiting outside the exhibition “Is Napoleon a goodie or a baddie?” she asked. It’s very hard to say.
For there is blood here. The revolutionary pike was chilling in its simplicity, and the towering height of the Revolutionary Army soldier uniforms reminded me that this was politics through blood and warfare. Then you see a small, red-covered printed copy of the French Constitution in a slip cover that reminded me of a little prayer book. Words and blood.
Napoleon, just like the Royal Family before him (and indeed the Royal Family we are witnessing at the Diamond Jubilee today) knew the power of branding. Painters manipulated history in creating the most dramatic images possible, as all painters of historical portraits are wont to do. Napoleon and his revolutionary predecessors reached back into classical history to align themselves with Roman emperors, and bedecked themselves, their furniture, their clothes with classical symbols- the fasces (the bundle of rods with an axe) to denote power,and the bee to indicate immortality and resurrection, and -most significantly for a Corsican army general of rather unprepossessing lineage- royalty.
The exhibition has a particular emphasis on Australia, which may seem surprising at first blush. However, in the earliest pages of white British possession of Australia, there is a strong ‘what-if’ thread that challenges the overwhelmingly British nature of our history. On January 24 1788 the French frigates La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, commanded by the Comte de la Perouse arrived off the coast of Botany Bay, in the same week that Capt Arthur Phillip arrived there. Bruni d’Entrecasteaux explored the coast of Tasmania in 1792 and his presence lingers in the naming of many places along the Tasmanian coast. In the brief period of cessation of hostilities after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, Nicolas Baudin mapped the western and southern coasts of New Holland- and there it is in the exhibition- a clearly depicted and labelled map of our southern coast with familiar landmarks with unfamiliar French names (although I note that Port Phillip was still labelled as such). Instead of being an exclusively British possession, Australia could so easily have included French territories- and how both our internal and international politics and history would have been different as a result. Louis XVI was obsessed by the disappearance of La Perouse when he sailed out of Sydney after that initial, friendly six-week meeting between British and French navies at the extremes of southern exploration, never to be seen again. Empress Josephine encouraged the introduction of Australian plants and animals into the gardens of Malmaison, and Napoleon took with him to his exile at St Helena his copy of James Cooks’ journals of explorations.
I happily spent two hours in this exhibition that is much more than just paintings. Several of the exhibits were already owned by the NGV and I’ve probably swept past them before, not realizing their significance or context. Well worth a visit.