What are you looking at? | David R. Marshall, The Napoleon Exhibition at the NGV International

The Napoleon Exhibition by David R. Marshall

Charles PERCIER (after) (designer) Gondola armchair from Madame Bonaparte’s boudoir at Saint-Cloud Palace, 1802, Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison & Bois-Préau, Rueil-Malmaison

The Napoleon: Revolution to Empire exhibition is now on at the National Gallery of Victoria. Here I want to muse a little on a few works that caught my eye at the opening. That this exhibition is about Napoleon is hard to miss, with his name in giant illuminated letters near the entrance and a huge banner of David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps on the side of the NGV. In this respect the exhibition represents a departure for the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series which lately has taken its cue from the series of exhibition on period styles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, such as Art Deco (which originated at the V&A) and Vienna: Art and Design. According to what I have been told the idea for this exhibition began as Marie Antoinette. No doubt it was realised early on, as Sofia Coppola failed to do, that Marie Antoinette is in fact a rather boring subject artistically speaking: a few portraits by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and some shoes and that is about it. Madame de Pompadour, on the other hand, as the makers of Dr Who did realise, is much more interesting, and even has a style named after her, admittedly perjoratively: the Pompadour style, which is about a lot more than fireplaces. In this exhibition, it is not so much that Napoleon gets the credit for the objects, than that the exhibition presents itself as a history exhibition centred on Napoleon (there are no art terms in the title). This was almost a necessity given that the principal lender is the Musée Napoléon. In addition, it has been given the enlivening twist of Napoleon-Australia connection which causes it to modulate in places into an ‘European discovery of Australia and the Pacific’ exhibition.

From a strictly artistic point of view the history-exhibition concept that predominates is not necessarily an advantage. Art historians often complain, with some justification, that historians use images to merely to illustrate an historical account, a method that privileges subject and association over quality. As with many a national portrait gallery, Napoleon has many not-so-important portraits of very important people. There are a few stunning portraits here, but they are not the official ones. The catalogue, moreover, works unusually well as a book because it forms a kind of popular history in images of the period from the Ancien Régime to Napoleon’s exile grouped into mostly chronological categories, such as ‘The French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, 1780–94’, which are then broken down into two-page spreads centred on objects, such as ‘Imprisonment during the Reign of Terror’.

Yet within all this there is a period-style exhibition trying to get out: it is almost, but not quite, an exhibition on the ‘Empire Style’. If it were such an exhibition Percier and Fontaine, rather than Napoleon, would have had star billing, as William Morris has star billing in any self-respecting Arts-and-Crafts exhibition. (Percier’s portrait, though, is there.) Looking around the exhibition one realises what a strange beast the Empire Style really is. If we were still permitted to attribute to styles an internal dynamic, one might call this a hyper-aristocratic style, a style that is not so much overripe (that metaphor is too fleshy), as over-refined. This is in spite of, or because, the aristocracy had all but been wiped out by the Revolution and Napoleon was a parvenu. Perhaps that is why it is a ‘hyper’ style: it is trying to restore something that had been lost, and does so in an extreme way, no longer centred on a broad-based aristocracy, but on ‘royalty’ alone: in this case, Napoleon and Josephine. The prevailing tenor is one of extreme preciousness and the glitter of diamonds and gold leaf. Beside it the Rococo looks hearty, the Baroque positively rustic.

There is something about this that I cannot quite like. Take the crockery (Fig. 1). The Sèvres porcelain cups with silver-gilt interiors almost demand to be smashed in a fit of working-class rage at the privilege they embody, like that country house museum in Poland where all the porcelain was smashed during the Second World War by peasant soldiers from one side or the other, so that the only way they can be displayed is as installations of sherds scattered in heaps around empty rooms. Or else they induce middle-class anxiety, as you wonder whether you could possibly use this cup without either breaking it, scratching it, or leaving a dirty mark on the rim.

In the Empire the display of dinnerware reached an extreme of exclusivity that exceded even that if the Ancien Régime. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods dinnerware, which was then mostly of gold or silver, was displayed on stands in at festivals or grand dinners, which were semi-public affairs. When porcelain was introduced in the 1720s it was again primarily used for display: in porcelain cabinets, which formed a part of the sequence of representational rooms. The reaction against Versailles, often seen as a welcome return to more natural and human values that included the domestication of aristocratic and royal life, meant that precious ceramics went back to the table, confined to the domestic dinner party, where they have remained. The place of the most precious dinnerware lay on the vast dining tables of the very powerful, such as the Duke of Wellington (who does not feature in this exhibition) at Apsley house, where the table for his Waterloo (ouch!) dinners, with its elaborate centrepieces and place settings, can still be seen.

The exhibition does not attempt to replicate this historical mode of display, nor yet the taxonomic kind that leaves one wondering quite why one is supposed to be interested in all these racks of porcelain, but more effectively brings it close up to our gaze an an object of interest as a work of creative design, in the best V&A tradition. Yet even on that level something is not quite right. From the point of view of almost every art-theoretical idea that is alive today this plate with a picture of a Canalettoesque view of Venice is all wrong (Fig. 2). From the perspective of genre, pictures belong in an art gallery, not on a plate. From a Ruskinian perspective it fails to display the hand of the artisan and his pleasure in his craft. From a socialist perspective it is a sheer waste of labour to produce so intricate a piece of pictorial art merely to be stared at by a few privileged people through the remnants of their meat and vegetables while making polite conversation. From an ahistorical technical perspective it is doubly a waste of effort, since photographic ceramic printing could do the job so much more easily. And from a creative artist’s perspective it offers little in the way of forms to borrow. Still, it would be fun to have a dinner party with all this on the table. Perhaps the problem for us is not just that Sèvres porcelain is luxury goods, but that it is only luxury goods, and lacks the conceptual hit that we expect from works of art. Such a hit is, for example, delivered by the breast cup that we are told, disappointingly, is not modelled on Marie Antoinette’s (Fig. 3). Its preciousness is neither here nor there: conceptually it is wholly intelligible; there is an idea to engage with.

In a period-style exhibition it is often the furniture that is most accessible: the scale is right to be presented and viewed as sculpture; and it can give a gallery-centred insight to the design principles of a hero-architect. In the case of the Gondola armchair from Josephine’s Saint-Cloud palace, the hero-architect is Charles Percier (Fig. 4). It is, of course, the fact that the arms take the form of swans in a literal way, rather than merely being decorated with swan motifs, that make this this tub-chair interesting; otherwise we might just pass over it as yet one more piece of gilt and red velvet (Fig. 5). Percier’s swans may be literal, but the way he integrates them into the piece is highly sophisticated. Like Borromini, Percier seems to have been intrigued by the problem of integrating sculptural imagery with architectonic abstraction. Here his interest focuses on the tips of the swans’ wings, which are made (unnaturalistically) to roll up, before unrolling as classical volutes that fuse with the moulding that forms the top rim of the chair. The two type of volutes, organic and architectural, are pinned together by a rosette (Fig. 6). The swan imagery also sets up interestingly tactile responses that the Rococo concern with comfort would never have permitted. I am sure these swan-arms would make this chair uncomfortable to sit in. They are too high to rest one’s arms on: they frame the body rather than support it. At the same time, I am sure that if I were permitted to sit on this chair I would find myself grasping the swans’ pipe-like necks while indulging in cygnocidal fantasies.

Although resolutely white, these swans are associated in the exhibition with the Australian black swans that Josephine had at Malmaison. But is that really what attracts our attention? Surely it is the fact that over-familiar objects like the arms of a chair are transformed into art by being made a likeness of something else. While Baroque artists like Johann Paul Schor loved mixing sculpture with furniture, during the eighteenth century only console tables regularly use sculptural imagery: chairs and sofas practically never do, apart from the occasional lyre back, which is more abstract than literal. These would-be-Australian-if-they-were-not-white swans bring to mind the late-colonial and Federation interest in introducing Antipodean imagery into furniture, such as Lucien Henry’s wonderful lyrebird chair in the 1880s. It is an interesting question as to why this is happening in 1802. Perhaps it is a consequence of the pre-Revolutionary interest in architecture parlante—speaking architecture—exemplified by the drawings of mis-scaled imaginary buildings (including prisons) by Charles Delafosse (Fig. 7) (not in the exhibition). The idea was that the formal elements do not operate through the refined but abstract language of the classical orders, but directly and viscerally. This opened up exciting new ways of making objects expressive. There is some of this present in the model for an armchair with revolutionary symbols, including a lyre, Phrygian cap and fasces (Fig. 8), but apart from the Phrygian cap (Fig. 9) this lacks the literalness of Percier’s swans, which are exceptional in this regard. Generally the Empire style, in its parvenu pursuit of the hyper-refined, seems to have turned its back on the artistic possibilities of furniture as representation. (The exception that proves the rule is, perhaps, Napoleon’s throne from the Chamber of Deputies (Fig. 10), which is not so much a piece of furniture that incorporates representations of winged lions, as a piece of furniture that is itself a representation of another  piece of furniture, an antique (or psuedo-antique) throne.)

The gilded ropes of pearls around the swans’ necks (Fig. 11) prevent Percier’s piece of ‘speaking furniture’ from becoming too eloquent, and chain it to the idea of Imperial luxury. Jewellery figures prominently in this exhibition, most of it real, but, strangely enough, the most tangible jewels are in fact painted: the Imperial regalia on the head of Josephine in the Portrait by Regnault (Fig. 12). This is painted in big blocks of white that make it seem to come forward in relief, and it seems to be of the same order of things as the carved leaves of the frame. Together these push Josephine’s face back into the two-dimensional realm, affirming the subordination of her person to her Imperial status. This is a curious example of the survival of Baroque and Rococo illusionism. Another example is alluded to in the psyché mirror nearby (Fig. 13). This is a tall hinged mirror is designed for viewing oneself at full length. The mirroring has deterioriated a little, though one wouldn’t know this from the illustration in the catalogue, where the defects have been photoshopped out. In a now well-known story, Jacques-Louis David set up his life-size Intervention of the Sabine Women at a paying exhibition in front of just such a psyché, and commentators noted that when viewed in the mirror the painted figures seemed to interact with the real figures in the room. A certain frisson resulted from watching oneself and one’s friends interacting with the heroically naked Romulus. I tried this with the mirror in the exhibition but, alas, there was no grand picture by David in the background.

Near the psyché mirror is an ornamental  clock, the quintessential Neoclassical object de luxe. Approached from the side a familiar sight emerges: that retreating body and twist of drapery is surely the Apollo of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (Fig. 14). Moving to the front one discovers that, rather than pursuing Daphne, this Apollo, who has been transformed into Love by the addition of wings, is daintily holding the reins of two cute little dogs (Fig. 15). These personify Fidelity and draw his chariot, the wheel of which forms the clock face. This out-Rococo’s the Rococo, and its almost ridiculously optical preciousness makes one cry out for sculpture that engages with one physically: not necessarily a lifesize statue, but something with the tactility of a Renaissance figurine, or an early modernist gallery sculpture, something scaled to the viewer’s body. Going in search of something more monumental, one finds oneself at the opposite extreme with Lorenzo Bartolini’s monstrous bust of Napoleon in the foyer (Fig. 16). Attempting to outdo those gigantic, and grotesque, Constantinian heads in the Capitoline Museums, this sculpture, like David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, brings out the imperial aspirations of Napoleon that underpin all the fine workmanship, the blue, the gold, and the glitter of the smaller pieces. Ridley Scott got it right in Gladiator when, by means of the set-dressing and costumes, he equated Joaquin Phoenix’s sleek, fleshy and megolomaniac Emperor Commodus with Napoleon and the Empire style.

© David R. Marshall 2012

The Exhibition Napoleon: Revolution to Empire is on at the National Gallery of Victoria from June 2nd until 7th October 2012.

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