To state the obvious, it’s been forever since I’ve posted to this blog. Adding a few more bytes of binary code to the bloated digital world we call the Internet seemed futile and I moved on to other things. It didn’t help I stopped travelling the ancient streets and monuments of inspiring Europe, settling into a steady Canadian journalism job.
I’ve since come to realize a few eyes and changed perspectives is all it takes to make a web post worthwhile. Some things are too meaningful not to share. It also helps that I now live in Montreal, a city bursting with culture and history.
The other day I visited Montreal’s Museé des Beaux Arts, hosting a collection of sculpture, painting, photography and artifacts going back to the Middle Ages. Having recently read War and Peace, I naturally gravitated to the Napoleon exhibit, a collection of items from his era and the person himself. You can see the Emperor’s famous bicorne hat, complete with the tricolour cockade emblematic of the French Revolution. Napoleon wore his hat in this distinctive fashion to distinguish himself from his generals; it was certainly a success, as nothing else in the exhibit was as symbolic of Napoleon as this piece of felt.
At the end of the long hallway was a small room with circular windows on three sides looking out over Sherbrooke Street. Inside this room was a bust of Napoleon staring blankly as you approached, held up by an eagle of state. The sculpture was lit from above by warm light, a striking contrast to the dark grey sky and buildings outside.
What got me was the reflection of Napoleon in the windows. It was as if he was floating ghost-like over the street.
The ghost of Napoleon in many ways still haunts the western world. Long after his lonely life ended on the little African island of St. Helena in 1821, the earth shattering changes he and his wars imposed on Europe continue to be seen in national borders, law and government.
This is perhaps more true in Montreal and Quebec than the rest of Canada. The emperor-general’s Code became the basis for the Quebec Civil Code, manifestly different from civil law in other provinces where they are based more on British Common Law.
As a living man Napoleon already had his mind on what legacy his name would leave behind. I am sure this tyrant-saint would approve of his grave face leering over a city still under the influence of his ethos, two centuries after the Battle of Waterloo.
Going through my old travel photos I noticed a similarity between memorials to tragedies on opposite sides of Europe, made by different people. In the summer of 2011 I was in Dublin where I photographed the Irish Famine Memorial, a collection of statues of immigrants walking to the ships carrying passengers to North America.
Last year when I was in Prague I came upon the Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the bottom of Petřín Hill. Again, the statues were thin, dark metallic figures, commemorating a tragic event in a nation’s past.
Rowan Gillespie, who made the Irish Famine memorial, had no connection to Olbram Zoubek, the sculptor of the communism memorial, as far as I can tell. I like to think they imagined similar concepts because the historic events they were memorializing were similar. There’s something chilling about the figures in Dublin and Prague. Their thinness, like walking ghosts, hopeless, desperate, among us but at the same time drawn in their own miserable worlds, as if they’re a time capsule in a transparent case, so we can all look inside.
Both are very democratic tributes to the nameless people who became victims of circumstances beyond their control. Their anonymity makes them more powerful, as if they could be anyone’s ancestor. Their metallic composition makes them strong but they’re thin and frail at the same time, like individuals who, despite the toughness of their spirit, can only overcome so much before breaking.