The National Gallery of Victoria has a blockbuster Napoleon exhibition on until October 7 2012. An extraordinary collection of artworks and artifacts about Napoleon, his first wife Josephine, their lives and their enthusiasm for Australia!
The publicity for this exhibition has been huge. Ads in the weekend supplements each and every week. My Melbourne friends all seemed to have been, some multiple times. Resident Judge went. The Intrepid Reader went. Everyone loves it. So, I was expecting to like the Napoleon exhibition, and I was excited to find time today to go. Naturally, I wasn't disappointed. It's an astonishing exhibition. Well worth going, and the audio tour adds much to the experience for the patient and inclined.
Napoleon (the exhibition) gives us a chronological walk through the tumultuous times of late 18th and early 19th century France, and Australia. We start off in the court of Louis XVI, famously married to Austrian princess Marie Antoinette. We see a lock of Louis's hair, gorgeous paintings of the couple. Then terrible paintings of the revolution, the horrific prisons, the execution platforms. Particularly moving is Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat, an extraordinary painting I hadn't seen before, and a simple revolutionary pike used to parade guillotined heads about the streets of Paris, next to a portrait of a friend of Marie Antoinette who met such a ghastly fate. Her head was paraded in front of Marie Antoinette to show her what had happened and as a prelude to her own gruesome death.
La Perouse is not a famous name to most Australians perhaps, although he is still marked by a suburb in Sydney, but it's absolutely fascinating to learn about his journey to Australia at the very founding of British settlement in 1788. La Perouse arrived the same week as the First Fleet in January 1788. He spent six weeks in Botany Bay, before sailing off to the Solomon Islands, where he and his crews all perished in a shipwreck. Louis XVI didn't know of his fate of course, and all the while when he was incarcerated after the French Revolution of July 1789, it is said that he asked each morning if there was any news of Monsieur de la Perouse. Even on the morning of his execution, having been visited by his family for the last time the night before he asked about Monsieur de la Perouse. I found that particularly moving.
We then come across a bright young military student from Corsica. Napoleon and Josephine were both not French by birth, and apparently spoke French that was quite heavily accented. Napoleon rose up through the ranks of the army, fighting famous battles in Egypt, and in Europe, crossing the Alps into Italy to fight the Austrian army, which gives us Jacques-Louis David's heroic portrait of Napoleon, used to promote the exhibition. Apparently Napoleon in reality crossed the Alps on a more sure-footed mule rather than the robust white stallion pawing the air, but it makes a much better picture doesn't it?
Extraordinary to see a dress worn at Napoleon's coronation on December 2 1804 at Notre Dame in Paris, normally held in a private collection. Jacques-Louis David's massive painting to mark the occasion is my favourite painting in the Louvre. It dominates a room in the Large French Paintings section. I love standing before it, dwarfed, in awe of the opulence and majesty of the scene. I have the fridge magnet version on my fridge door at home and gaze at it every day. How wonderful then to hear the astonishing music played at the coronation? Sadly not available on CD, I asked. Two massed choirs, it was sumptuous and gorgeous. Almost worth going back, just to hear it again. I wasn't aware that Napoleon was said to have crowned himself, upsetting the pontiff awaiting the task. Indeed there is a sketch by David of just such a scene, although it is not the version portrayed in the official portrait. And fascinating to learn of the use of bees, on Napoleon's robes and throughout the cathedral, symbolising immortality and resurrection. The whole coronation and beyond was of course more typical of the monarchy that had been abolished with so much bloodshed and violence in 1789.
And the Australian connection? Absolutely fascinating to see maps displayed with Southern Australia labelled as Terre Napoleon. We could have been French! Napoleon and Josephine were both quite fascinated with Australia. Josephine pursued specimens of Australian flora and fauna for her private residence at Malmaison (naturally a new destination has been added to the French wishlist). Kangaroos, emus and black swans graced these most French of gardens, amongst other exotic species. Black swans were said to be her favourite. Indeed Empress Josephine is reported to be the first person to breed black swans in captivity! Sadly she also aided the extinction of two species of emus.
Even after his death Napoleon may have contributed to Australia. Napoleon was initially buried in St Helena, buried in a field under willow trees. It is thought that visitors to his grave may have taken willow cuttings enroute to Australia and so perhaps the willows I see out of my kitchen window have their origins at Napoleon's burial place in St Helena? I hope so. I shall choose to believe that they do.