Napoleon: Revolution to Empire is the latest cultural mega-blockbuster to hit Melbourne, focusing on the life and times of everybody’s favourite conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte.
The exhibition is audacious in its scope, stretching from Napoleon’s rise during the French Revolution, all the way through to the emperor’s exile in St Helena after his fall at Waterloo. As such, it covers the shifts in France’s visual culture during the period across all artistic disciplines, from paintings, drawings and sculpture to furniture, fashion and opulent jewellery.
The highlights of the exhibition include Jacques-Louis David’s famous equestrian portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps, which is possibly the most effective piece of artistic propaganda ever produced; the only surviving court dress and train worn by a noblewoman at the coronation of Napoleon and Empress Josephine in 1804; and the cocked bicorn officer’s hat that has become indelibly linked with the image of Napoleon.
The most intriguing part of the exhibition details the relationship between Napoleon and Australia. The coastline of New Holland had still not been entirely mapped by 1800 and Napoleon supported several French explorers in their geographical expeditions to the newly discovered continent. Nicolas Baudin was one of these explorers and was the first to map the coasts of Victoria and South Australia, giving the land the name Terre Napoleon. Imagine, we could all have been living in Napoleon Land!
The imperial couple were also fascinated by Australia’s fauna and flora. Josephine herself was a keen gardener and cultivated over 200 Australian plants in her gardens at Malmaison from the samples brought back by explorers. Australian animals and birds also joined the menagerie at Malmaison and Josephine’s personal favourites were a pair of black swans. There are several prints and books detailing the plants and animals of Malmaison on display, many drawn from the collection of the State Library of Victoria.
Napoleon is an astounding exhibition that isn’t just for your inner art nerd. It’s a comprehensive representation of one of the most turbulent periods in Western history, and illustrates just how much influence this one man had over the arts, sciences and the world map. Let Napoleon conquer you this winter.
Napoleon: Revolution to Empire opens at NGV International this Saturday June 2 and runs until 7 October.
NGV International, with the City of Melbourne, are hosting a free-all night party to celebrate the end of Napoleon's reign of Melbourne, from midnight Saturday 6 October to 8am Sunday 7 October. Guests will get a special opportunity to tour the Napoleon exhibit for just $10 before it leaves town for good. Listen to the sounds of Henry Wagons, Jen Cloher and many others as you walk the halls of the NGV. Book tickets at Ticket Master from 21 September.