It did not look like a particularly auspicious week for political cartooning in Britain, what with the publication on Thursday (18 January) of The Sun‘s vile (and, let’s be honest, aesthetically rubbish) ‘Bye-EU Tapestry’. I will not link to it – you can look it up if you wish – but it a) depicts decapitated European leaders and b) once again proves my point about right-wing cartooning almost always being terrible.
Today, though, I was cheered by Steve Bell’s latest for The Guardian:
Like many of Bell’s other cartoons, the image is derived from an older work of art: in this case, the series of paintings by Jacques-Louis David depicting Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps. Completed between 1801 and 1805, the paintings (especially, perhaps, the first in the series, with Napoleon in the golden cloak) are among the most iconic representations of Bonaparte:
It is well known that the vision of the crossing in David’s painting is highly romanticised: for example, instead of the horse with its glorious, flowing mane, Bonaparte rode a (far more practical) mule. While the beautifully-embroidered uniform he wears is accurate, it seems unlikely that Napoleon would have attempted an Alpine crossing at altitude without his overcoat. In this respect, Paul Delaroche’s later work Bonaparte Crossing the Alps – now in the British Royal Collection, purchased by Queen Victoria – is probably more accurate. (Note the position of Napoleon’s right hand in the Delaroche portrait – the ubiquitous pose was almost indispensable by the mid nineteenth century).
David’s portrait captures the young Bonaparte pointing the way into European modernity. The billowing cloak echoes the curtains in David’s sketch of the Tennis Court Oath of 1789, symbolising the wind of revolution sweeping through France. But David was careful, by 1801, to present Napoleon as part of a much longer lineage of European leaders. Carved into the rocks in the bottom left of the painting are the names of those who have gone before him: Hannibal. Karolus Magnus (Charlemagne). And, bigger than them both: BONAPARTE.
In his pastiche (or is it parody?), Bell has replaced the golden cloak with the flag of the European Union. Here, perhaps, he refers to Macron’s apparent desire to be the European leader. He leads the Union towards its destiny, pointing the way forward – to paraphrase Hegel on Napoleon, ‘the Union-spirit on horseback’.
His steed, though, is neither an unnaturally glamorous horse nor a reliable mule, but the put-upon Theresa May, shown here in the caricatured guise Bell has created for her: that of a grotesque clown in kitten heels, harlequin costume, and caked-on makeup. (Truth be told, she actually looks cheerier than she did at yesterday’s Franco-British summit, when her expression was even more downbeat than usual).
How to read Bell’s cartoon representation of the summit? The first, and perhaps most obvious, way is to borrow one of my dad’s pet phrases to use when his team has been on the receiving end of particularly bad refereeing: ‘they’re saddling us’. In this case, the Union – embodied by Macron – has ‘saddled’ a British government that seems permanently on the back foot, chaotic in its approach to negotiations, reliant on painting the Europeans as ‘the enemy’, and – with just over a year to go until the exit mandated once Article 50 was deployed – still with no achievements to speak of. (Unless you count promising blue passports, and maybe getting the Bayeux Tapestry on loan. Maybe.)
On the other hand, the long history of Napoleonic representation in British popular culture – indeed, Napoleon’s persistent place in the British popular imagination – might lead others to read the cartoon in a slightly different way. Napoleon remains both an uber-European bogeyman and an enduring source of fascination in British culture. As I often remind my students, pop into any high street bookshop in the UK and you might well struggle to find a decent survey of the French Revolution – but you’re guaranteed to have your pick of works on Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon remains a kind of lightning rod for a millenium of ire towards ‘the French’, even as the history of pro-Napoleon sentiment and the popularity of collecting Napoleonic souvenirs has been well-documented. (The scholar Simon Bainbridge has pointed out that Arthur Conan Doyle based The Adventure of the Six Napoleons around plaster busts of Bonaparte because they were fairly common items in middle-class British homes)
In this context, some readers might see in Bell’s cartoon a degree of sympathy for the tragic, clownish May – a dead horse being ridden around by a cynical Macron in the guise of one of l’Albion perfide‘s great enemies. It is clear, too, that the depiction of Macron as Napoleon (Macropoleon? Macronaparte?) is a way of sniping at his ego and self-importance. Here, Bell picks up on a common theme in so many British representations of Napoleon: his depiction as a puffed-up, preening, (and of course, even though it’s not historically accurate) little upstart.
Bell’s is not the first cartoon depicting Macron as Napoleon: the comparison has already been made in graphic satire fairly regularly since his election. Nor is this the first image to replace Napoleon with Macron in the context of David’s painting. After Macron’s election to the French presidency in May 2017, the Belgian-Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka reproduced the image rather more faithfully than Bell. Here, though, Macron throws off his Napoleonic bicorne hat, saying ‘I said en marche, now I’m saying “let’s go to work”!’
Macron’s youth and taste for performative, symbolic politics (which I have already discussed in light of his decision to address the Sénat and Assemblée nationale at Versailles), coupled with his stated determination to transcend political divisions and unite France, have made comparisons with Napoleon – whether positively or negatively – rather easy. Bell’s image is certainly not the last time cartoonists will draw on Napoleonic iconography to comment on, or more likely lampoon, the president. Indeed, I was struck by Bell’s careful inclusion of that odd little tuft of Macron’s hair, poking out from underneath the bicorne. It immediately triggers an extra layer of Napoleonic recognition, bringing to mind the kiss-curl or short fringe we mentally associate with later images of Bonaparte. No matter that in David’s original, Napoleon’s hair is still decidedly Romantic: wavy, longer locks frame his face. Macron, at least in terms of his coiffure, appears here even more ‘Napoleonic’ than Napoleon. The only question remains: who, he or May, is facing their Waterloo?