Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Still No News Of La Pérouse

Reflections on the Napoleon Exhibition
What a sight for any Napoleon buff, to come to an Australian city and see banners of David's famous, romantic and stylised painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps!
Napoleon a envahi Melbourne
That's what greats a visitor to Melbourne at present and will do so until 7th October. The exhibition, Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, is showing at the National Gallery of Victoria and commenced on 2nd June.
Approaching the National Gallery of Victoria from Flinders Street

Entrance to the gallery
In the foyer: N in a setting perhaps more reminiscent of Josef S.?!
The exhibition focusses on art and design, and the changes in them from the Ancién Regime to the Revolution, then on to the Directory, the Consulate, the early Empire and finally the end of the Napoleonic period. It features paintings of people and events, articles of fine tableware, furniture and decoration, books, a combined twelve-hour and decimal clock, decorative swords and firearms that were presented to Napoleon and by Napoleon as gifts. Other impressive displays are a beautifully preserved dress worn by one of the lady guests at N's coronation, a series of six scenes showing aspects of the coronation and the presentation of the eagles at the Champ de Mars, a cabinet containing several crosses of the legion of honour from second to fourth class, and two cases of 'necessaires'—travelling cases with all of the needs for the well to do gent or lady.
The changing image of Napoleon himself runs through the exhibition.
Exploration, science and 'discovery' are also a major part of the exhibition, particularly the Australian connections associated with the voyages of La Pérouse, D’Entrecasteaux and Baudin, plus Josephine’s collection of antipodean plants at Malmaison. Prior to visiting the exhibition, I had no idea that Josephine was the first person to successfully breed black swan’s in captivity.
My favourite room of all, unsurprisingly for someone "like us", was the last, focussed as it is largely on Napoleon’s "art of war". The centre-piece is a large display case containing some of the uniformed mannequins as well as several items of uniforms of troops from Napoleon's army from the Musée de l'Emperi in Salon-de-Provence near Marseilles. Unfortunately the entire collection is not there (!), but a good selection is presented nonetheless. There is an officer of the 5e Hussars, a grenadier à pied de la garde, Davout's undress coat, Massena's marshal baton and case (which even has his name on it in gilt lettering), a helmet & cuirass of a post-1810 carabinier, a red lancer’s czapka, a Young Guard officer's shako, an aide de camp's decorative sword, an oriental sabre give to Ney by Napoleon and a highly decorated set of carbine, two pistols and associated powder flasks and ram-rods that were given to Massena by the First Consul in recognition of his victories in the first Italian campaign. The room also contains furniture from Fontainebleau, a dramatic painting by Charles Thevenin (see below), an early eagle and one of 1815, Empress Marie Louise’s imperial jewellery, one of N’s undress coats of a colonel of the chasseurs à cheval de la garde that he wore at St Helena, one of N’s hats, and his throne—with the N cypher removed following the restoration.
I was amazed and pleasantly surprised that I had not previously seen any of the five paintings of battle scenes that are dotted throughout the exhibition. The first of these is of the storming of the Bastille and arrest of Governor Launay (Prise de la Bastille et arrestation du gouverneur M. de Launay, le 14 juillet 1789) by an unknown artist. This is less dramatic and violent than other paintings of the event, but shows a range of groups including the ‘mob’, the Swiss Guards and white-coated infantry, as well as an impressive cannon.
The second was the Battle of the Pyramids by Francois-Louis-Joseph Watteau (La Bataille des Pyramides, 21 juillet 1798). While not the most realistic representation of the battle, it is an interesting piece in which the artist crammed as much as possible including the Great Pyramid, the Nile, a confused battle, and an interesting representation of Napoleon in profile on horseback.
There are two versions of the Battle of Marengo. Firstly, the combined effort of Joseph Boze, Robert Lefevre and Carle Vernet which the notes suggest was completed to win favour with the First Consul. It features Napoleon and Berthier larger than life, with a representation of the battle in the background. The second is a fabulous version by Jacques-François-Joseph Swebach (Swebach-Desfontaines). This does not appear to be a painting of the battle at all with its focus on the French commissariat and artillery in a peaceful setting in the foreground moving towards the distant battle. Again, this is unlike any representation in other works on this battle, but is a wonderful piece of art that shows some really interesting details of the rear lines—and none of the expected aspects of the battle!
My favourite in the entire exhibition is Charles Thevenin’s fabulous painting of the storming of Ratisbon. This work captures the chaos and confusion of battle and the seemingly impossible task of the frontal assault. Marshal Lannes is in the central location encouraging the grenadiers while being held back by his aides. In the background the main attack is making in-roads into the town. The description in the exhibition noted that Thevenin took advantage of the painting to shows as many uniforms as possible.
All in all, I thought it was a fabulous exhibition, albeit quite 'traditional'. It predominantly comprises static displays of the wonderful pieces described above, with a short description to the side. There are videos of the interior and grounds of Malmaison, Fontainebleau and Versailles and a wonderful audio extract of music from the Coronation, which was found in an attic in 1985! I’m not one for meaningless computer glitz, but I think it would have been great to have included some ‘tasteful’ CGI (representing the coronation perhaps?) or a video of a re-enactor loading and firing a musket or rifle. I would also have loved to have seen a 12 pounder as a centre-piece of the Art of War section, but I have to be a bit realistic, I guess!
The first time I went with a few members of my family who had all gathered in Melbourne. I got a multi-entry ticket for my father and me, who are the Napoleon ‘buffs’. This was great value as we had the time to make five visits over three days of a ‘long weekend’, which meant that we could have a good look at everything more than once and linger long at exhibits like Thevenin’s painting. It also meant that I was able to attend a special night-time session that happened to be on while I was still in Melbourne.
Well done and thanks to the organisers at the NGV, to the Foundation Napoleon and the various supporting individuals and companies for bringing the exhibition to Australia. The staff and volunteers at the NGV do a fabulous job of making visitors feel welcome and they seem genuinely excited about the exhibition!
Discussing tactics with the Great Man

The modern technology did not seem to impress him! 


  1. Sounds like a very worthwhile exhibition, James - about a s fine as you're likely to get outside of France itself!

    The Storming of Ratsibon painting reminded me of a story (oh dear...) I've only been to Europe once (so far), and that was way back in the spring of 1978, at the end of my Freshman year of college (Unversity to you). Nope, I wasn't hiking around and staying in hostels, I was on tour for 3 weeks with the Unversity's Marching Band (itself a uniquely American institution). Our uniforms were very pleasantly Napoleonic in flavor, BTW - Royal Blue coats with white collars, cuffs, and lapels, silver buttons, black pants with a royal blue stripe piped white down the outer seam, and topped off by short bearskins of dark blue fur with a scarlet plume. Quite snazzy, although the plume had to be kept dry as it would definitely "run" if it got wet. Oh, and in definite Napoleonic style, the bearskin was tall enough to accommodate a bottle of brandy, which it did for Football games in November, although not quite tall enough for a bottle of wine, LOL)

    Anyway, one day when we were in Bavaria and weren't performing, we had a choice of several side trips for sightseeing. None were of any particular historical interest to me, so I chose one that toured a famous monastery with impressive murals painted on the walls, ceiling, etc. From there, it proceeded on to Regensburg.... which I had forgotten is the German name for Ratisbon! As we aopproaced the city, I saw the famous bridge and recognized it immediately. It was more enlightening than any picture could possibly be as to why destroying this bridge was almost impossible... it is massive, and the "ice shield" footings that the arches of the bridge rests upon are huge as well, so even if the bridge were blown up, it would take almost no time to construct a temporary one from footing to footing. I acquired a ceramic plate depicting the bridge and city which I still have. The saddest thing about the trip was that at this stage, we were based in Ingolstadt... and it wasn't until about 2 hours before we left that I learned that the Bavarian Army Museum was located there! I hurried 1 hour whirlwind tour in no way did the exhibits there justice, I'm afraid!


  2. Love the picture with Boney himself, BTW!

  3. You beat me to it! I'm hoping to get there next week.

    I've heard great things about the exhibition from those who've been, including your review

  4. I was truly astounded to see the exhibition given such prominence. It was like being in another world to see huge banners of Napoleon crossing the Alps all over central Melbourne. What was really pleasing was the good number of fellow visitors at each session that I went to and the range of ages of them.