“So, what you’re telling me, essentially, is that Napoleon was some short, dead dude?” Anyone who’s gone on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure knows how awesomely important Napoleon was. Soon to open at NGV is Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, a huge exhibition charting the rise and fall of the great leader from the French Revolution until his death in exile. We caught up with curator Laurie Benson about this epic show.
Tell us about the period of time the exhibition explores.
It is probably the most turbulent time in French history and that of Europe before the 20th century. There is practically some Europe-wide upheaval, either socially, politically or militarily every year from the Revolution onwards. These were violent but vibrant times, and all through it art and style was changing too, so this is what we wanted to show our audience.
How is the exhibition structured?
It is roughly chronological, so visitors will get a sense of the changes in art and style in the turbulent 20 or so years of Napoleon’s time in France. While the show does chart Napoleon’s life, its focus is absolutely on the evolution of taste in the period. We are very much looking at the global impact of two massive personalities, Napoleon and Josephine.
What’s your favourite piece of work on display?
Tough, tough question as it changes with each day and there’s such an array of spectacular goodies. But my favourite today is the only dress still in existence that was worn at Napoleon’s coronation in 1804.
The most challenging part in the curatorial process?
The toughest part was choosing what to leave out more than what to put in. A case could easily be made for about 200 more things than we have in the exhibition. Mind you, there are still about 300 pieces in it, so no one will be bored.
Napoleon and his wife Josephine had a fascination with Australia – can you tell us about this?
This is a great story that’s well explained in the show. Napoleon first became interested in Australia as a teenager at military school. At that time the French were hot on the trail of their great rivals, the English who had just sent Captain Cook to explore the south, so the French quickly followed suit. It is rumoured that he wanted very much to go on one of the French expeditions. And once he rose to power he sent many ships here. One of these expeditions arrived at Botany Bay only three days after Arthur Phillip and First Fleet got there. What’s really interesting is that one of Napoleon’s explorers was the first to chart Australia from South Australia to where Victoria ends now. And the French claimed naming rights, so Melbourne is actually in Terre Napoleon – ‘Napoleon Land’. We have maps and charts showing this.
And Josephine had an extremely sharp intellect and collected, studied and cultivated exotic flora and fauna. She claimed hundreds of specimens from these French trips and grew Australian plants at her home in Paris. She also had living Australian animals running about her property and was the first to breed black swans in captivity. They were so well looked after that they outlived her. And Napoleon became obsessed with the platypus. We have lots of beautiful scientific drawings made by the French explorers of plants and animals. Also, the French scientists were really the first Europeans to have meaningful contact with the indigenous population, so these accounts and their drawings are also included in the show.