Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Claire Constans, curator

Back in May 2006, I interviewed Claire Constans, the chief curator of Chateau de Versailles, for an article I was writing. The interview was a set of questions sent by email.

Liddell: What is Napoleon's significance for French identity and society today?

Constans: After the Revolution, which was such a severe civil-war, Napoleon reassembled the French people, allowing the noble Emigres to come back to France, pacifying the religious problem with the Pope etc... Inside the country, he organized the administration for a new beginning, for the society had changed a lot from the monarchy of Louis XIV.

Liddell: Napoleon is seen as a symbol of French identity. But, wasn't he really an immigrant, like the millions of immigrants in France today?

Constans: Napoleon was born in 1769, and the island Corsica was acquired from Genova (Italy) in 1768, so, formally, he was an inhabitant of the French kingdom.

Liddell: The exhibition seems to glorify and glamorize Napoleon, but some people will say that he was just a ruthless warmonger whose actions caused the deaths of perhaps millions of people through war, famine, and pestilence.

Constans: Yes, he was, as an Emperor, and before, as a young general, a war ruler. But war was the daily manner of life for many centuries in Europe, the kings and princes considering it as a way to prepare peace; and, generally, diplomacy took place at the same time as the battles, with ambassadors going throughout Europe. For Napoleon himself, he used the same manner, but, for the battle of Eylau, for example, he stayed two days on the battlefield to manage the wounded soldiers and bury the dead ones.

Liddell: Why is David's "Bonaparte franchissant les Alpes au Grand-Saint-Bernard" the most iconic image of Napoleon? What does it capture in the great man?

Constans: This is iconic, because the artist painted an image ordered by the model, as a fair horseman etc... but not in such a realistic way (soldiers under the legs of the horse, names of Charlemagne and Hannibal prestigious predecessors in going across the Alps to Italy...) where the model is presented in a definitive attitude in the air.

Liddell: Neoclassicism is associated with Napoleon and the French Revolution, but there is also a strong element of Romanticism in this period. Why did such a Romanticist period choose to express itself visually in the cold rational style of Neoclassicism.

Constans: You are right. It is the same time for neo-classicism and pre-romanticism. But we can consider that the lesson of Antiquity was double: one way was the admiration for the heroes, virtue, courage, especially through history and texts (Homer, Caesar, Pliny, Livy...), and the other was inspiration from the antique art, well designed, rediscovered in excavations in Greece and Italy. The enthusiasm of youth, military courage, happiness after the victory were painted in a more coloured  manner, with more emotion: generally speaking, that was the case of the younger artists. David, in fact the premier painter, kept a more classical painting.

Liddell: The "Vase of Austerlitz" is a wonderful piece. But at the same time it is odd because it is too classical in that it actually seems like an original Greek piece rather than a 19th century interpretation of Classicism. How can such an odd item be explained?

Constans: This vase is a perfect example of this style where artists copied, in a strict way, some antique models, or invented some in the same way.

Liddell: Versailles is most strongly associated with Louis XIV, not Napoleon. I believe Napoleon stayed in other palaces as well. How much time did he stay in Versailles and how important was it to him? Also, why did you choose the name 'Napoleon and Versailles" for the exhibition? Was it connected to the popularity of the Japanese comic series Rose of Versailles that focused on the same period?

Constans: Napoleon did not stay in the proper chateau of Versailles, but in Trianon. We associated his name with Versailles, because the collections of his furniture in Trianon are yet in the apartments of Trianon, and because the paintings, ordered or bought by the Emperor at the Salon, are displayed in a very important number inside the museum. It was also a manner to signify that Versailles had a new life after the Revolution, as a museum. But nothing to do with the fashionable comics!!

Liddell: Many of the items on display suggest that Napoleon had a strong sense of family. How important was his family to him? How did he think of his relatives?

Constans: As a Mediterranean person, Napoleon had a true sense of family. And, if his mother was always reluctant about the "adventure" of her son, and if the relations between all the brotherhood were, sometimes, not so calm (sisters jealous about Josephine, the king of Holland Louis anxious of the prosperity of his kingdom during the " continental blocade"... ), Napoleon installed his brothers and brothers-in-law on several European thrones: his desire was to create a dynasty for the French Empire, and a sort of large European state outside the frontiers.

Liddell:  I was interested to see Napoleon's bidet at the exhibition. Why was such an item included in the exhibition and what can it tell us about the great man?

Constans: The bidet was included in the exhibition because it is, as all the objects of the same vitrine, a good example of the objects daily used by the Emperor, and it shows the elegant quality of the alliance of mahogany and gilded bronze. More, it shows that Napoleon was anxious of toilet and body neatness (I am not sure that he had the same comfort on the battlefields...), though he had, for himself, very simple tastes in his daily life.

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