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Genius and genocide: Biggest show ever dedicated to Napoleon opens in Liège

11:57 15/04/2021

Growing up in the United States, I – like every other kid – knew exactly who Napoleon was. I knew what he looked like, the shape of the hat he wore, where he placed his hand, that he was short, that his wife’s name was Josephine. He was depicted in cartoons on TV as being childish, throwing tantrums when he didn’t get his way.

I might not have been able to tell you where Waterloo was, but I could have told you it was the place he went down. The term “Waterloo” was synonymous with “defeat”.

American kids are not alone. The world over, everyone knows who this man is, regardless of their knowledge of European military conquests or the French monarchy. “It seems like an easy question – why is Napoleon a legend – but the answer is complex,” says Alain Mager, the director of Europa Expo.

The expo centre in the Liège Guillemins train station is currently hosting Napoleon: Beyond the Myth, the largest exhibition ever devoted to Napoleon Bonaparte. “Since his death 200 years ago, more than 70,000 books have been written about Napoleon,” says Mager. “He leaves no one indifferent. To some people, he’s a great strategist who fought over 45 battles in Europe. He had to face seven wars between 1792 and 1815, which ended with the Battle of Waterloo.”

Pieces from the Napoleon exhibition in Liège

But, he continues, successful military campaigns did not alone shoot him into international historical stardom. “He especially left his mark on the daily life of the French people. The best known is the civil code, the Napoleonic Code, which still applies today. Not only in France but also in other countries that adopted it.”

The Napoleonic Code was France’s first set of laws, governing both commercial and private affairs such as property ownership and individual rights. It was indeed Europe’s first legal framework and the basis upon which other countries created their own set of regulations – not just in Europe but around the world. It is considered one of the most influential documents in human history.

“Napoleon also created secondary school because he wanted young people to receive quality education and training,” says Mager. “He is also responsible for clean drinking water. The examples go on and on.”

‘An architect of modern genocide’

Napoleon: Beyond the Myth promises, however, to look at the iconic figure critically. “He has many critics,” says Mager. “We wanted to approach him objectively, with no taboos. The exhibition looks at all facets of his character.”

While Napoleon was building roads and ending feudalism, “he was also establishing slavery and censoring the press,” says Mager.

That’s putting it mildly. As one scholar of French colonialism wrote in the New York Times last month, Napoleon is “an architect of modern genocide, whose troops created gas chambers to kill my ancestors”. She points out that France became the only country in history to reinstate slavery after having abolished it – a decision made by Napoleon.

Other historians have described him as a warmonger, tyrant and megalomaniac, whose thirst for power and battle eventually bankrupted France and set back European economic progress. He was a ruthless colonialist, and his plundering of defeated European regions is infamous, with destruction of religious monuments and theft of art and artefacts the norm. More than one scholar have called him a precursor to Adolf Hitler, having set the stage for the future Nazi regime.

Napoleon's hat

Beyond the Myth touches on these subjects, but is largely focused on the battles, the political and military functions and – as the title suggests – on the myths associated with its subject. The enigma of Napoleon is abandoned in favour of the ceremonial – in keeping with the impressive objects loaned from both public and private collections.

These are worth seeing – the bathtub he used, his hats, his boots, one of his sabres, a lock of his hair, a dress that Josephine wore. And the exhibition’s dioramas are lifelike and dramatic. A pool of blood gathers at the foot of the guillotine that ended the life of Louis XVI, villages depicting soldiers sleeping under carts, Napoleon studying maps with his officers.

It’s a fully immersive and memorable experience, but it tends to, as local critics have noted, reinforce the myth rather than go beyond it.

Napoleon: Beyond the Myth runs until 9 January 2022 at the Liège-Guillemins train station

Another exhibition is being staged in recognition of the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon at the Waterloo Memorial. Napoleon: From Waterloo to Saint Helena opens on 5 May

Photos, from top: ©Europa Expo, ©Bruno Ledoux Collection, ©Europa Expo


Written by Lisa Bradshaw