Napoleon at the NGV International

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.

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8 responses to “Napoleon at the NGV International

  1. Apparently the Willow trees here in Oz originated from cuttings taken from the tree at Napoleon’s grave, so it could be said he had some influence on Australia, after all!
    Looking forward to this exhibition 🙂

    • residentjudge

      Yes- they mentioned the willow trees. There was quite a bit about the connection between Napoleon’s time in St Helena and Australia. Apparently ships stopped off there on the way to Australia, and there is a link to the family that lived at The Briars on the Mornington Peninsula and Dame Mabel Brooks who collected quite a bit of St Helena/Napoleon memorabilia.

  2. Fascinating post Janine. I just saw the ads for this exhibition on the weekend. I hope I’ll be able to get to see it. And just to think La Perouse arrived 2 days before the British- I could’ve been French! I had no idea that La Perouse disappeared. Of course his name lives on in a Sydney suburb. I’ll be interested in learning more about him. I hadn’t heard anything about the willow trees either- so fascinating. Perhaps I should think of Napoleon every time I look out the kitchen window! I do have a fridge magnet of Jacques-Louis David’s picture of Napoleon’s coronation- my favourite picture at the Louvre.

    • residentjudge

      And perhaps a glass of wine and dinner might be in order if you come down? They had a cartoon of the Napoleon coronation which depicted him actually crowning himself which was apparently omitted in finished versions of the painting. That surprised me- I thought I’d seen the DYI crowning before, but maybe not. Check out the fridge magnet- is he crowning himself?
      Phillip actually arrived in Botany Bay on 18th of January, and the rest of the fleet arrived there on the 20th (which given how far they’d come is absolutely amazing timing). Phillip and Hunter left on 22nd to check out better harbours, leaving the rest behind at Botany Bay, where they noticed la Perouse’s frigates on the 24th. What were the odds, eh? All that water, all that distance, and they all arrive more or less together!

  3. Thanks for your review. I’m looking forward to visiting this exhibition on my lightening visit to Melbourne after the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide.

    • residentjudge

      You’re going to AHA? I was going to, and intended giving a paper, but I’ve decided to wait until next year instead.

  4. residentjudge

    From Hels- (who doesn’t seem to be able to comment- is anyone else having problems??)

    There are lots of connections between Napoleon and Australia, but
    one connection I had not considered was the French frigates under
    the Comte de la Perouse arrived off the coast of Botany Bay in 1788.
    Thank you.

    I particularly liked your question “Is Napoleon a goodie or a baddie?”.
    I read every British history book on the subject at uni and assumed I
    knew the answer immediately – Napoleon was a despot in his own nation
    and a man who ruined the lives of young men in every other European nation.

    But the comments in
    http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/napoleons-house-in-exile-st-helena.html
    tell a completely different story.

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