Saturday, August 11, 2018

Exile with a Perch

Birdcage aside, I may as well have gone to see the documentary "Generation Wealth."

Looking at my Friday night options, I considered the film about our current wealth culture and the human cost of narcissism, capitalism and greed. But why watch bad decisions play out in modern times when the same lessons could be gleaned from art history?

Besides, after a day spent writing, the appeal of walking through 11 galleries was far greater than sitting in a darkened theater for two hours. I lucked out, too, because for a Friday night, the VMFA was surprisingly uncrowded, at least in the galleries, if not in the atrium where the wine tasting was happening. It was me and fewer than a dozen other art lovers making our way through "Napoleon: Power and Splendor."

Essentially a history lesson told through paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, furniture and household items (Napoleon took scrupulously good care of his teeth, including dipping his toothbrush in opium before brushing), the exhibition laid out how Napoleon rose to power using his extensive propaganda department and how it all came crashing down on him.

I was fascinated to learn that Napoleon had looked to the young U.S. for presidential portraiture (especially of George Washington) as a source of inspiration for how he wanted to be portrayed.

His court was huge and by huge, I mean 3600 people directed by 6 grand officers making sure everything was done according to directive. One painting showed a woman fluffing the pillow of the Empress, while the signage said that she was the only one allowed to fluff when the Emperor was present in the bed chamber.

Helluva thing to have on your headstone: Royal fluffer.

One of the most unexpected pleasures of the exhibition was Napoleon's architectural vision for Paris, which was laid out in a series of drawings, including one expansive panoramic drawing that was nothing short of breathtaking. So much planning.

But like the hedonistic set I would have seen portrayed in "Generation Wealth," Napoleon's court was a study in excesses, like the gold-plated dinner service - plates and flatware - elaborately laid out on a massive dining room table in the exhibition. To further convey the sense of luxury, there were fabric scrims surrounding the table showing an etching of a banquet scene of the era.

The throne room is red and as opulent as you'd expect, while the gallery devoted to hunting (Napoleon wasn't much of a hunter but did it because it was prime networking time for the upper crust) has the unexpected allure of video projections showing leaves in the Fonainebleau forest where they hunted swaying in the breeze.

As a female, it was especially tough to get behind Napoleon's view of women - apparently we're good for childbearing and nothing else - as he cast aside his beloved Josephine (her fatal flaw being she was 7 years older and unable to bear him a son) and wasted no time in marrying the fertile Archduchess Marie Louise. Taller than me, the elaborate candlesticks and altar decorations made for that second wedding also show up in the exhibition.

But without a doubt, the highlight is the ceiling-scraping birdcage Napoleon commissioned after he was exiled to St. Helena. About the size of my bathroom, the elaborate structure was created by Chinese artisans for Napoleon's garden at Longwood House, his final address.

For me, it resembled nothing so much as the cage I'd had for my finches Claude and Camille (Monet, of course) back when I was in college. Shaped like a pagoda, with various levels and perches throughout, Napoleon's was more of an aviary than a birdcage given its size, but the idea was the same. He used it for maimed birds and chickens which eventually escaped, which is probably what he was hoping for himself.

Looking at the final image in the galleries - a painting of Napoleon just after he died - all I could see was a broken man who'd milked his delusions for as long as he could before saner heads prevailed. Which meant instead of comparisons to greedy wealth-seekers, I was thinking of the last two and a half years and the delusional man currently being built up by the White House propaganda machine and wondering how all that will end.

Besides not soon enough, I haven't a clue.

"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon," observed Napoleon.

For that brilliant analysis alone, I gave the man credit...and my Friday evening.

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