The Apotheosis of Napoleon (1830) by Bertel Thorvaldsen. The marble piece sits in the final room of the Ben Weider Collection in Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Thorvaldsen was also responsible for the monument to Eugène de Beauharnais in Munich, erected in the same year, 1830. (Why not return to my post here, a mere 35 clicks away.)
The Egyptian Campaign is one of the most mythologized periods in Napoleon’s career: The Alexandrian ambitions, the visit to the plague-ridden soldiers in Jaffa, the siege of Acre, Monge and the accompanying scientific expedition. But most of all it is the Battle of Pyramids with its famous tagline, ”From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us” (as quoted by Eugène de Beauharnais). In Jean-Léon Gérôme‘s painting Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (1868) we see Napoleon as myth-maker, juxtaposed with the Sphinx itself. Napoleon is, as Peer Gynt after him, wondering where he has seen this face before.
Above is a photo of the Sphinx taken not long after Gérôme’s painting was finished. Presumably the soldiers are English.
I had to do some rather inelegant sneaking around to take illicit photos of the Canova statue in Number One, London, or Apsley House. Perhaps precisely because of my efforts to dodge security, my photos came out terribly. So the one above I’ve stolen online.
Actually there isn’t much security at Apsley House. Or much of anyone. I was practically alone in the building for a good hour, except for an old couple whose taste was Portugese silverware, not Napoleon artefacts. The upstairs has a number of well known Napoleonic themed paintings, including some of his brothers and Josephine. But it is really the downstairs exhibition that has the most interesting items. Among the many gifts the Duke received from monarchs across Europe is a collection of marshal batons.
The Duke was a Field Marshal of the Austrian Army, the Hanoverian Army, the Army of Netherlands, the Prussian Army, the Russian Army, Marshal-General of the Portugese Army, and Captain-General of the Spanish Army. Oh yes, and Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces.
All these trinkets come to feel pretty insignificant, however, if you have time to study the exhibition room ceiling. Hidden above in the dark are countless standards captured during Wellington’s campaigns. The Aigle de drapeau is everywhere staring back at you. French soldiers swore to defend the Imperial Eagle with their lives, and battle accounts are littered with anecdotes about those who died attempting to avoid the disgrace of returning without their regimental standard.
I don’t know if Wellington also had a rank in Louis XVIII’s army. What he did have, at least, was another token of their appreciation—the enormous marble statue by Italian scultpurer Canova. After Waterloo, the French convinced the British government to buy the statue as a gift to Wellington. It was then brought to Apsley House where the floor had to be reinforced to carry the weight. It seems that Napoleon never took to Canova’s design, finding it too athletic for the dignity of an aging emperor.
Of course, it might just be that Canova’s controversial nude of his sister, Pauline Bonaparte, as Venus clouded his artistic judgement.
Jesse and I went to Jenny Saville’s solo exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. I didn’t know her work, but I was instantly taken in by it. Huge canvasses, expressionism, Bacon references, and flesh—lots of it. There was also a phenomenal video interview with Saville in the basement. I thought it was an insightful commentary on her own work, and also educational for people like me, who know little about painting as technique. The video, Jenny Saville in conversation with Michael Stanley (Director of Modern Art Oxford), is available on Vimeo.
I’m giving this one an ‘of course’.
PS The exhibition is unfortunately now closed.
The Glyptothek in Munich was opened in 1830. The musuem contains a number of masterpieces collected by Ludwig I. Chief among them is the Medusa Rondanini and the Barberini Faun (seen above). In fact, the exhibition is to a large extent unchanged since visited by the likes of Goethe, Thorvaldsen, and Mann.
Yet, something has changed after all. The austere white interior of the Glyptothek used to be decorated with elaborate frescoes. As seen here. I can only imagine what a marvellous sight that must have been. Unfortunately, the fragile decor didn’t survive the war.
I visited the Glyptothek on my 30th birthday. I thought seeing someone even older might help. Why, they weren’t bothered at all.
During my visit to Groningen in the summer, I was staying at Huys Schimmelpenninck, a wonderful hotel in the center of Groningen. The name rang a distant bell, and no wonder since Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck figures frequently in a book I’m reading: Michael Broer‘s Europe Under Napoleon, 1799-1815. The book is a recent account of political change in the Napoleonic era, clearly inspired by the scope of Georges Lefebvre’s Napoléon. Broer brings out the gradual shift in political institution not via the policy-makers as much as the policy-implementers. And it is especially the non-French officials in the inner and outer Empire that receives attention.
Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck (1761-1825) is an important example. Schimmelpenninck was Grand Pensionary of the Batavian Republic. He had been present at the Amiens Treaty negotiations, where his abilities as a legislator came to Napoleon’s attention. He helped draft the constitution of the Batavian Republic on Napoleon’s orders, and became Napoleon’s political extension in the new republic. According to Broer, Schimmelpenninck’s political profile was typical for Napoleon’s reformist ambitions. He had been in a moderate in the Dutch republic prior to the French invasion. He was skeptical towards radical Jacobine elements in the government, but an advocate of substantial political reform.
Unfortunately it’s not at all clear to me what the exact connection between Schimmelpenninck and the hotel is. Here I can only hope that I’ll be helped by some of my Dutch friends. There is a plack on the outside of the building, but expect for making a connection with French occupation forces (and apparently mentioning a statue of Schimmelpenninck), it wasn’t very informative.
That said, I’d stay there again, of course.
I’ve been back to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, this time for the Gegenwarskunst (contemporary collection). The entry, which subsequently leads down to the brand new basement gallery, announces what’s to come with a copy of Warhol’s Goethe. The huge downstairs area is wonderfully disorienting, with a maze of alcoves and hallways curated after themes. Highlights include a neat collection of Gerhard Richter’s work, Bacon’s Study for the Nurse in the Film “Battleship Potemkin”, Dirk Skrebel’s Ohne Titel (Überschwemmung), and Rainer Fetting’s First Painting of the Wall.
My favourite was the gigantic Horde by Daniel Richter (as seen above), but this is a fantastic collection overall. I can only add: why not dig out another basement level?
Igor, Seb, and I had ourselves a little excursion to the DOX (Centre for contemporary art) in Prague last week. My pictures didn’t come out great, but here is one of a statue by Czech artist Karel Nepraš. The title is Rodina (Family). The centre is located in a fabulous industrial building about a twenty minute walk from the Vltava river. You can see it from a distance. Because, well, it has a gigantic spinning skull in bright red on the ceiling. And a crucifix made of shoes. Of course.
After hunting for Richter works in Munich and Frankfurt for some time, I finally found my way to a major exhibition in Berlin. The Gerhard Richter Panorama in Neue Nationalgalerie (slideshow here) has already visited the Tate Modern in London where it was a big success. The 140 painting strong exhibition includes some of Richter’s iconic work such as the photo-painting Betty (1988), the grey monochromatics (Grau), and Ema (Nude on a staircase) (1966). The latter, I was told, is Richter’s reply to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending a staircase (1912).
I had the pleasure of attending the performance Fürchte dich nicht by Orpheus Chor München. I know nothing about choir music, but I much enjoyed it. My favourite part of the concert was not the choir music, however, but the interjected organ work Joie et Clarté des Corps Glorieux by Olivier Messiaen. It was, to the best of my knowledge, my first encounter with Messiaen’s music. This strangely haunting music seemed out of place in the pastoral setting. The fact that the organ player — hidden above — failed to appear when called down to receive the applause, added an air of insolence.
Here at Hidden Abacus, we like hidden things, of course.