Remembering Napoleon with a controversial plastic horse skeleton

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth? Original skeleton of Napoleon's horse Marengo in the National Army Museum, London. Image: Nick-D (Wikimedia), CC BY-SA 3.0

A number of expositions have been planned for the upcoming 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death. One of the proposed art pieces has stirred controversy: a plastic model of the skeleton of Napoleon’s favourite horse.

Expositions and controversies

May 5th, 2021, marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death. To honor the occasion, France has planned many expositions and events. The idea behind one of these expositions is to let contemporary artists create artworks based on the emperor. One of the artists made a plastic model of the skeleton of Napoleon’s favourite horse, which will be installed above his tomb. Several French historians have expressed very negative opinions about the piece, giving it a lot of buzz before it’s even installed.

Since the artist couldn’t use the actual skeleton, the plastic version “was the best alternative.”

Thierry Lentz, head of the Napoleon Foundation, called it ‘shocking’ to bring Napoleon back to life with a plastic horse skeleton. Others have called it ‘crazy’ and ‘grotesque’, all, in essence, calling it inappropriate.

The artist in question, Pascal Convert, wrote that he wanted to bring back the ancient use of burying people with their animals with a kind of ‘memento mori’ installation. He also wrote that the material shouldn’t matter; he couldn’t get the actual skeleton so this was the best alternative.

The wider issue

Napoleon is likely depicted riding Marengo in this famous painting by Jacques-Louis David.

According to Convert, the backlash to his piece comes from people who want Napoleon’s tomb to be a sacred space, so to speak. This certainly appears to be the case; Napoleon is after all one of France’s most popular historical figures. However, many people feel that it’s wrong to celebrate him. Napoleon re-established slavery and limited women’s rights, among other things.

While some people think a plastic horse is inappropriate because it doesn’t honour the emperor enough, others will probably think it’s inappropriate because it honours him too much. The way we remember historical figures, ‘heroes’, ‘villains’ and everything in between will likely stay a hot topic for quite some time.

The horse’s tale

For those wondering where the skeleton of Napoleon’s favourite horse comes from, here’s the tale. Although there are some inconsistencies within the story, Napoleon’s favourite horse was called Marengo. He carried the emperor through many battles, including the one at Waterloo. After Napoleon’s defeat, the duke of Wellington brought Marengo with him to England, where he died in 1830.

His skeleton was exhibited afterwards and can still be seen in the National Army Museum in London. The museum allowed Pascal Convert to make a 3D scan, but the skeleton is too fragile to be moved. Convert also had to promise to only use the plastic model for this exposition and to never make another copy. Check out the video below on how Marengo was conserved in 2017.

Source: The Art Newspaper, WA Today and Pascal Convert’s website

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