French Collection

Canberra Museum and Gallery: 12 April - 10 August 2019

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This exhibition is inspired by the Empress Joséphine, Napoleon Bonaparte's first wife and the extraordinary collection she amassed by at the Château de Malmaison from 1800 to 1814.  This collection of plants, birds and animals was renowned throughout Europe at the time. Rare plants from Egypt, Europe and Russia seized by the botanists that accompanied Napoleon's armies flourished in the gardens and greenhouses. They grew alongside the flora and fauna transported back to France by the Baudin expedition of 1800-3 to Australia. This display of exotic creatures, and indeed Joséphine herself in her glittering but restrictive robes, was intended to convey the glory of the newly formed French Republic. Of all the creatures introduced to Malmaison, the breeding pairs of Australian black swans were most precious to the Empress who considered them her personal symbols.


Malmaison, on the outskirts of Paris, is now a French national museum. Although its grounds are considerably smaller, its interior has been faithfully restored to reflect its heyday. The Château's rooms, filled with paintings, furniture and objects that belonged to Joséphine and Napoleon evoke the people and creatures that once lived there. When I wandered Malmaison, it was easy to imagine the myriad of footsteps that once filled the Château and its grounds. I have tried to represent this slippery sense of past stories by using white porcelain clay to model the feet of the famous swans and the caged birds that filled the Château's vestibule. They surround 'Joséphine', who is encased in a ceremonial gown. The blankness of the porcelain invites viewers to conjure their own imaginings about this past.  The strong contrast between the dark walls and floor and the porcelain, is an allusion to the drama and wealth that underpinned the collection's growth.

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