The château’s being crowded out
Whatever one may feel about the art of Koons and Murakami, it is hard to imagine a more perfect setting for it than Versailles
By Joan DeJean. Comment, Issue 218, November 2010
Published online: 15 November 2010
Jeff Koons? Takashi Murakami? What will happen next at the Château de Versailles? That, of course, is just what worries many people in France. By now, the first ever appearances of contemporary art at Versailles have provoked a great deal of commentary, much of it heated, and most of it decidedly negative. Members of a group that describes itself as “dedicated to artistic purity” gathered outside the palace gates to protest the decidedly impure mixtures on which these exhibits have been founded. One commentator lamented the fact that a “magical place” had lost its magic because of these “intrusions.”
Of course, contemporary art in general isn’t provoking the outcry. Some artists might well have been greeted with enthusiasm. The choices for Versailles’ initial exhibits seem intended to be as controversial as possible. Koons described, for example, his decision to place a white marble “Self-Portrait” in the same room as portraits of Louis XIV and Louis XVI as inspired by his desire to create a “dialogue” with the setting. He surely realised, however, that Versailles’ traditional public was likely to find the juxtaposition offensive. Indeed, some have argued that this was just the point of staging Koons’ first ever exhibit in France and Murakami’s first major retrospective in France in just this setting. The all-too-predictable uproar will only increase the visibility of these already highly visible artists—and therefore the value of the works on display.
Versailles defend the decision to open its gates to contemporary art by citing the marked spike in attendance that results from the exhibits. One recent week during the Takashi Murakami exhibit, for example, saw 48% more visitors entering the palace gates than during the same week in 2009.
But the question of whether Versailles should open its doors to contemporary art, or at least to the kind of contemporary art guaranteed to generate controversy and therefore big crowds, remains.
On the positive side, it seems to me that, whatever one may feel about the art of Koons and Murakami, it is hard to imagine a more perfect setting for it than Versailles. And by “Versailles,” I have in mind not just any part of the palace, but its historic heart, what remains of the Sun King’s Versailles. The two exhibits have been staged in a number of the palace’s iconic rooms: the rooms of Louis XIV’s apartment and Versailles’ most famous space of all, the Hall of Mirrors. These are among the small number of rooms in which something close to the original décor survives. That décor was the best contemporary art of its day and is easily as over-the-top as anything Koons or Murakami have ever dreamed up.
In those rooms, Versailles’ decorating team—directed by royal painter, Charles Le Brun, with the participation of a cast of characters that included painter Noël Coypel and the brothers Marsy for the stuccos—put together what would be called today a mixed-media installation. Each room’s décor combines a number of techniques: painting, bronzed stucco, plaster panels, gilt bronze, marbling, panels of patterned velvet, panels of different-colored marbles. The overall goal was never to create individual masterpieces that would have attracted attention away from the total effect. Le Brun intended instead to produce an ensemble that literally stopped visitors in their tracks and therefore served as instant proof that the Sun King was the wealthiest and most powerful ruler in Europe.
To hang a giant aluminum lobster from the ceiling in one room in the state apartment, the Salon de Mars, simply added one more element to what was already a statement of design overkill. To position one of Murakami’s wildly colorful creatures in the Hall of Mirrors just puts one more medium into the mix. In other words, at Versailles it’s hard to trump the Sun King.
These exhibits do manage, however, to make it increasingly difficult for visitors who come to see the historic château rather than the special exhibits. In a year without one of these exhibits, over 4.5 million tourists visit Versailles. Once inside, they have to stand around while the hundreds of others ahead of them move through spaces such as the Hall of Mirrors. Add to that the increase in visitors that a high-profile contemporary art exhibit brings, and you get a situation in which it is virtually impossible to appreciate the art and architecture for which the palace is celebrated.
Is there a place for contemporary art at Versailles? Why not? But is Versailles big enough for the Sun King and Jeff Koons, too?
The writer is professor of Romance languages, University of Pennsylvania, and the author of The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began, 2009
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