Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, the latest in the National Gallery of Victoria’s popular series, ‘Melbourne Winter Masterpieces’, presents an exceptionally positive view of a problematic figure. Visitors with no prior knowledge of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) might be forgiven for thinking that he and his first wife, Josephine, were two nouveau riche social climbers who went shopping in all the best streets in Europe.
Another peculiarity is that the Bonapartes seem to have had such an overwhelming fascination with Australian natural history it’s surprising they found time to undertake the occasional military campaign.
In the search for a local angle this show puts an excessive emphasis on Nicolas Baudin’s voyage of 1800, which briefly bestowed the name, Terre Napoleon, on southern Australia; and returned to France with a cargo of exotic plants and animals. This episode of early Australian history has been exhaustively covered in earlier exhibitions and publications. Here it feels like a distraction from the central story of Napoleon’s rise and fall.
Allowing for the curators’ best efforts to bulk up this event one comes away wondering if Napoleon had a twin brother who handled all the rough stuff on the battlefield. There is such an abundance of gold-plated knick-knacks; glittering tea sets; jewel-encrusted tiaras; opulent, uncomfortable-looking furniture; heavily decorated guns and swords; and rather dull paintings, that we get the impression the Napoleonic era was all surface and no substance.
It’s necessary to view these items in the context of their times, in which they were meant to convey a sense of the boundless power and majesty of the self-proclaimed Emperor. To see this collection through contemporary eyes is to see a treasure trove of bad taste and kitsch.
It’s a portrait of Napoleon as celebrity, closer to Elton John than Julius Caesar. One imagines a photo spread in a glossy magazine, as Bony and Jo allow us behind the walls of Malmaison for an exclusive glimpse of their luxurious lifestyle.
With Napoleon, the art and objects tell a series of convenient lies. To get a sense of the era and the man, one has to read a book or two. There are thousands to choose from, but perhaps Felix Markham’s small biography of 1963 is a good place to start.
Visitors will also benefit from a perusal of the catalogue, which contains a set of brief, well-written essays that provide a backdrop for this spectacular but flawed display. The problem is that Napoleon’s chief claim to fame lies in his political achievements, and these play a secondary role in the exhibition.
Few historical figures have been more comprehensively studied than Napoleon, with some historians treating him as a hero, while others see only a murderous dictator. The respective cases were analysed by the Dutch historian, Pieter Geyl, in his 1949 book, Napoleon: For and Against.
Having been imprisoned by the Nazis for more than three years Geyl did not consider himself an objective judge. Everywhere he looked he kept finding parallels between Napoleon and Hitler, showing how the pursuit of absolute power leads every tyrant down horribly similar paths. Nevertheless he was also aware of the positive aspects of Napoleon’s reign, of the lasting contributions made to the arts and sciences, to the law, and the efficient administration of the state.
Napoleon’s rise to power was extraordinary. Born into the minor nobility of Corsica, French was not even his first language. He was educated at a first-rate military college under the old regime, but had to get through two years’ studies in a single year because his family could not afford to pay another set of fees.
Rising quickly though the ranks Napoleon was quick to adopt the Revolutionary cause, and would make his reputation defending the new government from its powerful European enemies. This part of the exhibition is filled with revolutionary memorabilia, including a fascinating juxtaposition of one version of Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793) with a small portrait of the real-life Marat, who could hardly look less heroic.
In 1799 Napoleon would stage a coup d’etat and become First Consul of France. In December 1804, he declared himself Emperor, restoring much of the elaborate state apparatus that the Revolution had dismantled.
The Emperor’s downfall was his expansionism. His urge for conquest had led the French army to a wave of famous victories, but came to an end with a disastrous campaign against the Russians. Forced to abdicate on 11 April 1814, Napoleon went into exile on the island of Elba. The following February he would make a dramatic comeback, escaping from the island, linking up with his armies and resuming control of France. This period, known as the Hundred Days, ended with the Battle of Waterloo.
From his second exile, to the remote island of Saint Helena, there would be no return, but Napoleon’s legend would dominate the 19th century. In death, the defeats and despotism were forgotten, and the one-time dictator reconstituted as a defender of liberty and the glory of France. In the late 20th century something similar would happen with Mao Zedong, who became the subject of a popular cult. Ten years after his death, Mao, the great anti-capitalist, became a new ‘God of Wealth’.
Revolution to Empire contains James Gillray’s famous cartoon, The Plum Pudding in Danger (1805), which shows Napoleon and the British prime Minister, William Pitt, engaged in carving up the world at the dinner table. This is almost the only image that portrays Napoleon in anything but a flattering light.
Napoleon would have appreciated the NGV’s approach as he understood the value of propaganda like no previous ruler. In a sense, all of his artistic or cultural interests may be linked to the pursuit and maintenance of power.
Even though his personal tastes were said to be simple, Napoleon turned his coronation into a grandiose display of pomp and ceremony. He presided over the systematic looting of the art treasures of Europe, which were brought to Paris and gathered together in the Louvre, renamed the Musée Napoleon. His keenest pleasure did not come from the contemplation of individual masterpieces, but from the accumulation of so many works in one place, and the awesome impression it conveyed.
Like all dictators Napoleon had a marked preference for images that made him seem heroic and enlightened. Among many portraits we get David’s small head of the Emperor wearing a crown of golden laurel leaves, and dutiful likenesses of numerous Bonaparte relations. The most striking is probably Francois Gérard’s full-length 1801 portrait of Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, which exudes vanity and self-importance.
The most significant portrait of Napoleon himself is David’s large painting, Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 (1803). This is one of five versions produced by David’s workshop. The image drew a mythical parallel with Hannibal, who had also undertaken a famous crossing of the Alps. But compared to works such as Velasquez’s great portrait of Philip IV on horseback (1634-35), David’s picture is a piece of glorified calendar art. Napoleon looks coyly back over his left shoulder, pointing the way forward and inviting us to follow. In the midst of the tempest he appears as cool and unruffled as if he had just left the make-up tent.
Most of the famous images of Napoleon were unwavering in their sycophancy. David, a political chameleon who attached himself opportunistically to whoever happened to be in power, was possibly the worst offender. His mammoth canvas of The Coronation of Napoleon (1807), at almost 10 by 6 metres, is one of the consummate propaganda paintings of all time.
This work is not to be seen at the NGV, as it is far too big and valuable to travel. Another significant omission is a painting by that other supreme flatterer, Baron Gros, who was entrusted with the task of helping to select the foreign works that should be looted for France.
Gros’s Bonaparte visiting the Plague House in Jaffa (1804) is a truly shameless piece. It shows Napoleon visiting his plague-stricken troops in the Middle Eastern city, reaching out his hand to touch one victim, as if he had miraculous healing powers. In reality Napoleon had ordered the sick troops poisoned, and may have even burnt down the hospital.
Unfortunately, Gros’s messianic figure is the one we meet in this exhibition. We get little sense of the ruthless political opportunist from the anodyne paintings, the ornaments and trinkets. There is no denying the cultural achievements of that era, but they also acted as camouflage for a brutal Realpolitik. In seeking create an alluring spectacle the NGV has made it seem as if Napoleon did not rule over a mighty empire, but a decorative arts emporium.
Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2 June 02 – October 07, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 18, 2012