Friday, 17 August 2012

Bienvenue à Terre Napoléon (Australia)

Jean-Baptiste Isabey:
Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul,
in the gardens of Malmaison 1804

Bonjour, er, mate, as I review the National Gallery of Victoria's current exhibition on Napoleon Bonaparte, part of Melbourne's annual Winter Masterpieces series.

This major event features a vast spread of art objects, maps, costumes, books and historic artefacts over several large rooms in the NGV's international branch south of the Yarra River.

What makes Napoleon: Revolution to Empire particularly fascinating is its Australian component.

Though I'd never heard of this before (history being written by the victors), it happens that the southern part of Australia from South Australia to Victoria was named "Terre Napoléon" by the French explorer Nicolas Baudin in 1802.

That's interesting enough; but on top of this fun factoid, it seems both Napoleon and Empress Josephine were fascinated by Australian flora and fauna, and had examples of each throughout their home Malmaison and its gardens.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée-le Brun:
Queen Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793)
in a hoop skirt dress after 1778
And if that isn't connection enough, the Balcombe family who helped care for Napoleon in exile on St Helena later migrated to Victoria.

They brought with them various items of Napoleonic memorabilia, some of which are included in the exhibition.

The Age newspaper had a lot of fun with this forgotten French connection to Victoria when the event opened in June, imagining Melbourne as the might-have-been capital of Terre Napoléon - you can read its preview here.

But what's the actual exhibition like?

I turned up with Narrelle at NGV International at 10am last Sunday, cunningly thinking that this would be the ideal time to see the exhibition before the gallery became too crowded.

But so did hordes of other art-lovers, and we were soon shuffling very slowly around the exhibits.

It was worth braving the (very polite) scrum. The exhibition is an interesting cross between an art display and a history lesson. It includes details of historic events from the French Revolution to the Napoleonic Wars, while also drawing the eye to the decorative arts which emerged from those turbulent times.

Empress Josephine's Bedchamber at Malmaison,
designed by Louis-Martin Berthault 1812

The latter is an eye-opener. We think of our age as being obsessed with spin, but the late 18th century was no stranger to creative propaganda. Among the exhibits are revolutionary-era posters, ceramics bearing revolutionary scenes, symbolically decorated furniture and various other examples of the arts intersecting with politics.

There are also some intriguing curios, such as the decorative clock with both a traditional 12-hour face and an unusual 10-hour face for the new day decreed by the revolutionary authorities.

Beautifully bound volumes contain artists' renderings of the strange new wildlife of Terre Napoléon, and there are larger objects such as weaponry of the era and an extravagant dress worn by a courtier to the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor.

Jean Piron:
Black swan of Cape Diemen
(Cigne noir du Cap de Diemen) 1800

It's an excellent exhibition; and though it's not cheap at an adult ticket of $26, it's good value for the amount of material and detailed notation you get for the price. In fact it'd make sense to take a break halfway through, get a pass out and visit the cafe, then go back for the second half with a clearer mind and rested feet.

The only negative I noticed involved the perennial problem area of explanatory text on the walls. Though well written, the notes at this exhibition are only about a metre off the floor and often placed in dim half-light, so they can be difficult to read.

I can understand making the text accessible for children and people in wheelchairs, but 1.5m above the floor would have been a better compromise for both short and tall visitors. An even better approach would have been to dump the text from walls and issue an exhibition guide on an iPod Touch, as the excellent MONA does in Tasmania.

Court dress and train of Mme Bérenger,
worn on the day of Napoleon’s coronation 1804

Despite these quibbles, the exhibition is a fine experience. At the end of the displays, the focus narrows to the Emperor's last years in exile on St Helena in the Atlantic. Small, domestic items he handled - such as a book about Captain Cook's Pacific voyages -  sit within the last few cases.

I wonder if he thought about the "might have beens" of Terre Napoléon as he read?

Napoleon: Revolution to Empire continues to 7 October 2012 at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne. Entry: $26 adult, $22.50 concession, $10 child. For more, see the NGV website.