A plastic skeleton replica of Napoleon’s favorite horse flying over his sarcophagus under the gilded dome of the chapel of the Palais des Invalides in Paris. Although this artistic installation will not see the light until next May 7, two days after France commemorates the bicentennial of the death of the emperor, the controversial work is already provoking heated debates and setting the networks on fire with the leaks of some images. For its detractors, it is not only a misuse of art that shows a “desecration”, but also a “sacrilege”, as it is also a material as not very noble as plastic.
The work, engineered by the prestigious artist Pascal Convert, only adds to the list of controversies that feed this bicentennial about the fit that Napoleon has in the country’s historical memory. “My work causes scandal because it enters the sacred circle of Napoleon’s sarcophagus,” says Convert himself on a rostrum in the weekly “L’Obs”, where he justifies his artistic commitment to this bicentennial.
The ignoble plastic
Convent raises the plastic skeleton of Marengo, Napoleon’s steed at the Battle of Waterloo, which marked the end of his empire, over Napoleon’s tomb, some 50 centimeters away. The horse was captured by the English troops and transferred to the National Museum of the British Army as spoils of war where it was exhibited. Marengo became a kind of symbol of English victory. But Brexit and the health crisis have not made things easier and as London has not wanted to lend the relic claiming its deteriorated condition, the artist has decided to manufacture a three-dimensional replica using a sophisticated synthetic material. Marengo, adds the artist on his rostrum, represents both the glory and the fall of the emperor and the interest in showing it in this way is to connect it with the funerary rituals of antiquity. “The horse was not buried next to the knight, but rather suspended above his grave, as a kind of vehicle to go to the afterlife.” A kind of dialogue between the past and contemporary art that, however, is raising blisters. Convent downplays the controversy and ruling that everything is explained “by the dispute that always surrounds everything that affects Bonaparte,” a hero and villain like few others in history.
For the historian Thierry Lentz, director of the Napoleon Foundation, the installation is a lack of respect for the character and the place itself, as it is a national necropolis. He is not the only one to think about it since several deputies of the National Assembly have already begun to raise the controversy to the office of Macron’s Defense Minister, Florence Parly, responsible for a museum of military affiliation. For the detractors of the installation, there is a clue that would confirm their thesis that the installation pretends an easy irreverence and lacking in respect. On the 5th, President Macron will go to the place for the official commemoration ceremony of the bicentennial and the installation will still not be visible until two days later, a fact that would show in the eyes of its detractors, that it does not comply with the solemnity that it should characterize at the time.
The “emperor of the French” continues to stir up conflicting passions and heated debates between those who continue to see Bonaparte as a great statesman and creator of the modern state and those who favor his authoritarian, warmongering or misogynistic facet. Now, his horse Marengo in plastic version also joins the bonfire of controversies with which France usually celebrates many of its historical episodes.