Last week I met the Dutch Artist Jozef Van Der Heijden and spoke with him about his project “ Heroic Failure.” The concept behind was conceived a long time ago in his mother’s library, when he read about historical characters in biographies available on the bookshelf.

Jozef Van Der Heijden found one about Napoleon and immediately felt attracted to his character and his myth. From there, years later came the idea of choosing Napoleon’s story as a theme. Reading more and more about him, he learned there were even more books written about Napoleon’s life than about Jesus. – What is impressive about Napoleon is the propaganda he made for his image! – says Jozef.

Later on, he discovered movies about him, and from these he could dig for more knowledge. One was a particularly inspiring, black and white images, from Abel Gance, a 1927, epic silent story about the rise of Napoleon and France. It was a very interesting movie, he thought, but it was about the rise and magnificence of Napoleon. “In life what I like the most are the mistakes, and the process related to making mistakes. I decided then to title my work “Heroic Failure” and what I focused on, was the failure of the hero.

After you reach the top, and you fall, there is a sort of drama, and this is what I find interesting to analyse. In the end winning is not interesting, because you can learn more from when you fail”. I thought I could have been Napoleon myself, first because as an artist I could have worked with myself, which is really convenient, because I am always available, second because we have things in common: small, thin, like fashion, make mistakes!”




In 2006 Jozef Van Der Heijden was exactly the same age as Napoleon was when he lost the Battle of Waterloo (1815) and was exiled to Saint Helena island. This is when Jozef started his project.

The work is about me being Napoleon. It is a continuous comparison in between me and him… curriculum vitae, zodiac signs…  It is a composite work, where I mix short videos with photography, fashion, and performance, depending on what is needed. I will stop recording the work in 2012, when I reach the same amount of year, 6, from the exile to Napoleon’s death. 

Reading about his life Jozef got many hints for a comparison, for instance he could study small facts that became historically important, so important to be in books.

When he was in a battle in Egypt, he cut his hair shorter because he was warm. I thought,  “I could have also done the same thing and make an heroic act.” I cut my hair; I took a picture of it and turned it into an act. I even got a page in a newspaper. I found it very interesting, I am nothing, the fact that I cut my hair means nothing, but because I did it as Napoleon, I got a page in a newspaper. Isn’t it fun?’ The imitation/emulation becomes a fun project… the goal is not to be accurate, but playful!

My “being Napoleon” is not made with the intent of being accurate, it is more based on improvisation.” When I was in Art school, I was used to perform with this friend of mine. We never rehearsed before performing, because we wanted people to see us improvising, and making mistakes. People laugh about mistakes! You can feel it is mean, but I see it more as hilarious.

In Dutch, there is a particular way of saying “Geen beter vermaak dan leedvermaak” that literally means “there is no entertainment if  no amuse .” It is a really Dutch concept applicable to the situations where by making mistakes you make people laugh. The important thing is that you laugh about it, you laugh about making mistakes!




Things don’t have to be accurate all the time; I have a kind of rejection for accuracy. The fashion part where I build up costumes is also based on a fun approach. I sew them with the help of friends or on my own, I also create merchandise, always imitating Napoleon style… I have an espresso cup with my Napoleon face and mini sculptures. I like all kinds of publicity; I like people to talk about me, because this contributes to build up the image… exactly as Napoleon liked to do…!

And even in the failure, people will always remember you.

Words: Agnese Roda

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