The West

Masterpieces in Melbourne
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

Each winter, WA culture vultures fly north seeking warmer climes and the arty hot spots of Europe and North America.

But if days of spirit-sapping travel and nights in expensive hotels to join a long line at the Louvre or lousy seats at Covent Garden do not appeal, then why not consider a weekend in our very own cultural capital, Melbourne?

The Victorian capital embraces both its notoriously lousy weather and its taste for the high-brow, wrapping them in a warm, inviting blanket and labelling it Winter Masterpieces.

And they're not kidding when they use the rubric "masterpieces". In recent years National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre of the Moving Image have dazzled locals and visitors with such smash-hit shows as Picasso: Love and War 1935-45, Dali: Liquid Desire and, my favourite, Pixar: 20 Years of Animation.

The cultural invasion is led this winter by an exhibition at the NGV celebrating a giant of history (metaphorically speaking) who knew a thing or two about stamping his own personality on a place - Napoleon Bonaparte.

This stunning show covers his career from his early victories on the field of battle and his seizing of power amid the chaos of post-revolutionary France to his ignominious exile on St Helena.

While visitors to the NGV will make a beeline for masterpieces such as Jacques-Louis David's dramatic 1803 painting of Bonaparte crossing the Alps, the strand of the show that's causing the biggest stir deals with Australia's brush with a possible French future.

Napoleon had a passion for Australia - the journals of James Cook were among the books he took with him to St Helena - and he and his wife, Josephine, filled his country estate, Malmaison, with antipodean exotica, building a collection of flora and fauna that both amused their guests and had a great scientific value.

Napoleon was so fascinated with the great southern land that scholars believe that if he hadn't been defeated at Waterloo, you may well be reading this article in French.

At the other end of the spectrum, just across the Yarra in Federation Square, is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image's contribution to this year's Winter Masterpieces series, Game Masters.

Traditionalists may flinch at the idea of an exhibition devoted to video games. However, gaming is one of the biggest cultural pursuits of our age and a greater money-spinner than the movie industry.

The centrepiece of Game Masters is 125 playable games tracing the history of the form from the arcade era through to the latest console and mobile game technology.

It's so vast and varied that mums and dads will be able to leave the youngsters at the ACMI and head to the Melbourne Museum for their annual blockbuster, The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia.

There's something awe-inspiring about getting off a Melbourne tram to find yourself a few minutes later gazing upon a 4500-year-old artefact.

The British Museum exhibition covers the three major regions and civilisations of Mesopotamia (Assyria, Sumer and Babylon). It tells the story of how the first great urban centres evolved, with special attention to the cuneiform writing which laid the foundation of our own written expression.

All these shows can be covered in less than a day because of their proximity to each other and, in between, the best and most varied dining the country has to offer.

Indeed, Melbourne is Australia's culture capital as much for its user-friendly layout as the content of exhibitions and live shows, a city design that is a masterpiece in urban planning itself.

Napoleon: Revolution to Empire is at the NVG until October 7. Game Masters is at the ACMI, Federation Square until October 28. Mesopotamia is at the Melbourne Museum until October 7.

The West Australian

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