On a cold December day in 1840, Napoleon Bonaparte’s body made its final journey through the streets of Paris for reburial at the Dôme church at Les Invalides. Nineteen years after his death on Saint Helena, on 5 May 1821, the former emperor’s remains had been repatriated to France. The procession to Les Invalides included a lone, riderless white horse. In the emotionally charged atmosphere of that day, some witnesses even believed for a moment that this was the emperor’s most famous mount: Marengo.
Now, 200 years after Napoleon’s death, Bonaparte and Marengo are to be reunited, albeit temporarily. As part of ‘Napoleon? Encore!’, an exhibition of contemporary art responding to Napoleon’s image and complex legacies, the French multimedia artist Pascal Convert has created Memento Marengo: a life-sized, 3D-printed copy of the skeleton of the Arab horse said to have been Napoleon’s favourite – or one of his favourites, at least. Convert had originally hoped to use the real skeleton, which is usually on display at London’s National Army Museum, but its fragility made this impossible. Memento Marengo will hang from the ceiling of the Dôme church, the equine skeleton suspended a few metres above the enormous red quartzite tomb of its ex-master. On 5 May, President Emmanuel Macron placed a wreath of red, white, and blue flowers at the foot of the tomb, as part of the official commemorations – not celebrations, as the Élysée Palace has carefully insisted – of Napoleon’s death. Memento Marengo was not in place during the solemn ceremonies at Les Invalides, but with these now completed, the artwork can be installed ahead of the planned reopening of the museum later this month.
The artwork has generated controversy in some quarters. French Napoleonic historians have criticised Convert’s work as disrespectful both to Napoleon himself and to the setting in which it is to be displayed. On Twitter, Thierry Lentz, the director of the Fondation Napoléon, pointed out that the Dôme church is a ‘national necropolis’ – in addition to Napoleon, it is the resting place of other French military leaders. Yet there is also a sense that it is the style, and even the materials believed to be used in the work, that make it ‘vulgar’: references to a ‘plastic skeleton’ recur in the criticisms and in a petition calling for its removal (the model is made of a composite substance, painted and varnished to resemble the original skeleton). The historian Pierre Branda responded to the work by stating that ‘contemporary art is not an excuse for everything’. Meanwhile, a caricature circulating on French social media shows Memento Marengo dangling like a marionette above the tomb, with the dead Napoleon inside musing, ‘It’s hard, sometimes, to be loved by idiots.’
Convert has rejected accusations of defiling a necropolis, arguing that his symbolic reuniting of the bones of Marengo with those of Napoleon deliberately recalls the ancient practice of burying warrior and horse together. As the work’s title suggests, the artist intends it to serve as a modern memento mori, encapsulating Napoleon’s rise and fall.
There is a certain power in Convert’s use of Napoleon’s horse as a reminder of his mortality and the darkest aspects of his regime – though it is not clear how, as Convert claims, the work comments on Napoleon’s reinstatement of slavery in 1802. In life, Napoleon was keenly aware of the visual impact and symbolic power embodied in a white (in reality, grey) horse. Nothing encapsulates this better than Jacques-Louis David’s endlessly reproduced paintings of the crossing of the Saint Bernard pass. Napoleon, cloak billowing and mounted in three of the five versions on a white horse rather than the mule that actually got him over the Alps, appears as the embodiment of Hegel’s ‘world-spirit on horseback’. Now, in death, the remains of this equine signifier of leadership and authority serve to humanise Napoleon, in Convert’s view. By introducing Marengo’s small skeleton into the vast grandeur of the Dôme church and Napoleon’s tomb, the artist aims to restore a more human scale to this epic history – or even, one might suggest, to cut Bonaparte down to size somewhat.
It is impossible to ignore the surreal quality of Memento Marengo. It strikes a very different tone to Convert’s other work: for example, his 2003 memorial to executed Resistance fighters, a bell cast in dark bronze, or his 2017 panoramic palladiotype of the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan. In contrast, the artist’s response to Napoleon’s bicentenary is – whether intentionally or not – playful in its approach. Those earlier works, of course, deal with very different historical subjects. It is clear, however, that the sense of absurdity in Convert’s work for Les Invalides is what drives much of the criticism.
In this respect, Memento Marengo might also be read as a reflection of the enduring public desire for Napoleonic spectacle and display and, indeed, of a long tradition of Napoleonic kitsch. Public display is nothing new for poor Marengo. After his capture at Waterloo the horse was taken to Britain, a living war trophy among a host of other Napoleonic spoils and souvenirs taken from the battlefield. In the early 1820s he became a star attraction at the Waterloo Rooms on Pall Mall, an exhibition of military relics and objects that had been taken from Napoleon’s camp. Marengo’s presence sated the desire of a British public keen to get close to their defeated foe. Having absorbed the celebrity of his master, he became an equine celebrity in his own right.
The public interest in this legendary white horse, and in consuming Napoleonic history through its image, continues into the present. When it reopens, visitors to the Musée de l’Armée will be able to view Memento Marengo while visiting Napoleon’s tomb, and purchase any number of souvenir items depicting the emperor’s steed at the museum gift shop: Christmas decorations, small plastic figurines, or even a cuddly toy of Vizir, another favoured white horse, complete with imperial monogram embroidered on his hind quarters.
In December 2020, Convert expressed his hope that Memento Marengo would become ‘a dialectical object allowing us to reflect upon our past and the symbols we use to explain it’. It remains to be seen whether, when French museums and galleries reopen and the dust settles, this undoubtedly incongruous installation will have the desired effect. In the meantime, the controversy surrounding the work reinforces the continuing power of the idea of Napoleon – whether as hero, villain or other – in the French cultural imagination.