Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Wednesday 20 November 2019

What Lies Beneath: Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps

By Kehinde Wiley Oil on canvas; Brooklyn Museum of Art

Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps by Kehinde Wiley
Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps by Kehinde Wiley

Niall MacMonagle

It's election day in Germany. Will Angela Merkel, Chancellor since 2005, win a fourth term? Europe's longest- serving leader has seen off Ahern, Cowen, Kenny.

She's met Leo Varadkar and she did not wear funny socks: keeping Germany together is what Mutti Merkel focuses on. Allowing 900,000 migrants into Germany earned her TIME Person of the Year but the very alternative AfD posters show two blonde women in bikinis with the slogan "Burkas? We'll stick with Bikinis"; another shows a pregnant woman, also blonde, that says "New Germans? We make our own".

But the ballot box can denounce racism. Just as US artist Kehinde Wiley does when he challenges and changes how black and brown people are viewed.

LA-born and a Yale MFA graduate, Wiley's Yoruba father and African-American mother made Wiley the man he is: interested in portraying black people in heroic poses. Using "street-casting", Wiley approaches strangers and asks them to become part of his art.

Most say no but those who don't are invited to look at art history books and choose a portrait from the great European Western tradition, which they themselves could inhabit. Wiley wants "to say yes to people who looked like me". Jacques-Louis David's well-known painting of Napoleon, from 1803, was portrait as propaganda.

Napoleon, 5ft 5in, on his high horse at the Saint-Bernard Pass points the way and leads his army over the Alps. Kehinde Wiley painted his version of Napoleon in 2005. The tattooed, unnamed rider in army fatigues, Timberland boots, bandanna, red wristbands, alters how we see race.

The rich, ornately-patterned backdrop with sperm swimming in every direction adds a charged masculinity.

Signed Wiley on the band on the horse's chest, in the foreground, to the names of other Alpine crossers, Napoleon, Hannibal, Karolus Magnus [Charlemagne], Wiley has added Williams, a white-supremacist imposed, common African-American surname.

Napoleon had actually crossed the Alps on a mule but had asked that he be portrayed "calm upon a fiery steed". Here, Wiley positions a street-cred, confident black man within a powerful, historical context and he is very calm, very cool, collected.

Sunday Independent

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