Artists France

Murakami is no competition for the Sun King

The Japanese artist’s works, with their “overdressed” style, are not at home amid the baroque décor

Versailles versus Murakami's "Oval Buddha"

The Takashi Murakami exhibition in the gilded halls of the Château de Versailles is fuelling controversy, but while some criticisms are justified, others are completely unfounded. Let us ignore, for example, the protests of the royalists and other self-styled “heritage lovers” who regard an exhibition of contemporary art in such an iconic building as sacrilege. Their reactionary views have had only one effect—an increase in visitor numbers.

But while it has been fascinating to see the willingness of Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the director of the Château de Versailles and its museum, to bring cutting-edge art to this jewel in France’s crown, doubts were bound to be raised about whether Murakami was an appropriate choice. The invitation issued by Aillagon to Jeff Koons to exhibit in 2008 was marred by suspicions of favouritism towards the collection of wealthy businessman François Pinault, formerly Aillagon’s boss when he was director of the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. And Aillagon’s choice of Murakami, whose works also feature prominently in Pinault’s collection, was unlikely to silence the critics. Their voices now appear to have been heeded. Plans for an exhibition of work by one of Pinault’s other favourites, Maurizio Cattelan, have apparently been ditched in favour of the work of French sculptor Bernar Venet, which will be on show in the gardens of the palace in spring 2011.

Financial considerations also appear to have played a role in the choice of Murakami. The Qatar Museums Authority, which sponsored the exhibition to the tune of an estimated €2.5m and will host an exhibition after Versailles, wanted a highly media-friendly artist.

Certainly, the blockbuster effect was precisely what was intended. The exhibition was not meant to encourage dialogue between different periods and styles. Rather, Jean-Jacques Aillagon stated on his blog that his aim was to show “the confrontation of two kinds of fame, that of the château and that of the artist”. This is an unconvincing argument since, in terms of confrontation, the two sides have little to say to one other.

While one might have imagined that the exuberance of Murakami’s works would harmonise beautifully with the opulence of Versailles, the opposite is the case.

The Japanese artist’s works, with their “overdressed” style, are not at home amid the baroque décor. In the Hercules Salon the large figure of Tongari-Kun, 2003–04, otherwise known as “Mr Pointy”, which drips with colour, is drowned by its surroundings and is powerless against the sheer virtuosity of the painted ceiling. In the Venus Salon, the two figurines Kakai & Kiki, 2000-05, can scowl all they like, but they are no match for the armchairs. And in the Peace Salon, Superflat Flowers, 2010, an arrangement of fibreglass blooms in front of the windows, does nothing to detract from the appeal of the château’s gardens.

Murakami’s art does occasionally find its feet when the artist is at his least assertive. His floral globe, Flower Matango, 2001-06, set against the backdrop of the Hall of Mirrors, creates a subtle interplay with the crystal chandeliers and marble. The artist successfully produces a reverse effect with the floor of the King’s Guard Room, covered wall-to-wall with a carpet of glass uplighters and a vast polyptych composed of floral motifs on a gold ground. Although here, of course, none of the original décor remains.

The obvious conclusion is that it is futile to compete with an environment against which it is impossible to compete. Contrary to what we can see in Versailles, the works in the exhibition need to be approached with an open mind, clear of any quibbles about décor, and allowed to create a genuine contrast with their surroundings. In Jean-Jacques Aillagon’s words, a real “confrontation”.

Ultimately Murakami’s Versailles venture has nothing to do with what he calls “a kind of surreal world of its own”. It is more about spinning out a discourse and an aesthetic that together drive the artist, and presenting them in all their banality. As Murakami has said himself: “Superflat”!

The writer is an art critic, curator and regular contributor to Le Journal des Arts

“Murakami Versailles” is on until 12 December

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