By Meryl Simon
When I first saw this print titled Napoleon and Me in a Terrain Gallery show, I was so surprised by the juxtaposition of the artist and Napoleon! Yet, it seemed right. Studying this etching, I have been seeing that it puts together the opposites of Truth & Imagination, number 15 of Eli Siegel’s broadside of 1955, Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?:
“15. TRUTH AND IMAGINATION. Is every painting a mingling of mind justly receptive of what is before it, and of mind freely and honorably showing what it is through what mind meets?—is every painting, therefore, a oneness of what is seen as item and what is seen as possibility, of fact and appearance, the ordinary and the strange?—and are objective and subjective made one in a painting?”
What was Mr. Koppelman looking at as he prepared to make this etching? It is himself, in apron, thoughtfully selecting a plate on which to work, seated near a large window, with buildings gathered almost like personalities, right up against the pane, and a figure we recognize as that of Napoleon.
This work is, I think, “a mingling of mind justly receptive of what is before it, and of mind freely and honorably showing what it is through what mind meets.”
The Printmaker & His Imagination
There is drama in this juxtaposition of the printmaker and the things in his imagination.
The window is rendered wonderfully light and so are the buildings, and Napoleon, his form looming large, imposing, but rather quiet, is in darkness.
The relation is made subtly and well through, for instance, the light on the artist’s hand, which is about to do the etching, and the light of the window. Also, though most of the artist’s face is clearly delineated, his eyes seem to be veiled by a rather dark and dappled netting of strokes.
We see the artist’s eyes rather faintly, looking to the side, but somewhat hidden. Is he looking both inward and outward? Is he seeing Napoleon and the buildings in his “mind’s eye” as he has us see himself as present before us? I think Mr. Koppelman portrays himself from the inside and also as an object.
We feel that Napoleon and the buildings outside the window may be contemplating each other. He seems to be looking out. Is he guarding, observing? And the buildings seem to be looking in.
Why He Liked Napoleon
One of the benefits of studying Aesthetic Realism is learning why a person likes something so much. When he was 9 years old, Chaim Koppelman has told, he drew a profile of Napoleon in his geography book, the beginning of a lifelong interest in the Emperor. Mr. Koppelman learned from Eli Siegel that Napoleon stood for opposites in the world that he wanted to put together in himself: pride and modesty, high and low, the imperial and the democratic.
“In this lithograph,” Mr. Koppelman explained in a talk, “Napoleon is standing on the windowsill, helping me to relate inside the studio to the outside world.”
Ourselves and the World Outside
Mr. Siegel further asks about Truth and Imagination: “…is every painting, therefore, a oneness of what is seen as item and what is seen as possibility, of fact and appearance, the ordinary and the strange?—and are objective and subjective made one in a painting?”
A major way the artist accomplishes the oneness of item and possibility, fact and appearance is in the technique of cross-hatching, masterfully carried out in this composition, making for the contours and shadows that define every part of “Napoleon and Me.”
The artist must have asked himself about each “fact” he presented—whether a line should be thicker or thinner, and whether the lines should be horizontal, vertical or diagonal. How should each thing appear? How must its possibilities be shown?
Napoleon is given density as is the hair of the artist. The feet of Napoleon begin on the same plane as the artist’s head. The relation of the dark lines of hair and the Napoleon figure strengthens the impression that the objective and subjective are one.
We are asked to suspend belief and we happily do so, in the fact that Napoleon would wish to place himself right there. Of course he would and does. It seems right and ordinary and then on second thought, it is strange, but wonderfully strange.
We believe this is Napoleon, just as we have believed Mr. Koppelman’s depictions of Napoleon entering Hoboken; Napoleons riding alligators; Napoleon at night on the beach of Coney Island; though each time, he is depicted differently.
I think “Napoleon and Me” is an answer to the question Mr. Siegel asks in Self and World: “How can imagination be unhindered and beneficial?” That is what I am hoping my imagination can be.
♦ See more works by Chaim Koppelman
♦Chaim Koppelman Memorial Exhibition (archive)
♦ Napoleon Entering New York: Chaim Koppelman & the Emperor
Exhibition at the Museo Napoleonico, Roma, Oct. 13, 2011 – May 6, 2012