Artists France

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

Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog (Magenta)" in Versailles

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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10 Dec 10
16:26 CET


I'm with Paul. A chacun sa place.

1 Dec 10
12:55 CET


I was a tour guide in Versailles for 7 years, and I would estimate 98 percent of the tourists hated the modern art. That being said, part of me wants to praise Versailles for doing such a thing. From a business perspective it brings loads of attention not just to the artists, but to Versailles. My guess is when this is all said and done, it will bring more visitors than it will scare away. But I don't think Versailles does it for the extra business. Call me naive, but I think they do it for the artistic expression. Throughout Paris you will find countless examples of the old mixing with the new, most notably the Louvre's pyramid. I find this to be cutting edge, and well, artistic. If Paris stopped adding new art and architecture, it wouldn't be Paris, it would just turn into a caricature of itself. When this happens you end up with a city like Venice. Versailles is no different, in my opinion modern art keeps the halls alive.

29 Nov 10
23:0 CET


I, like Carrie H., visited Versailles recently during the Murakami exhibit without knowing that it was there. My first response was to be irritated that they would place such striking, postmodern art in a prime example of the baroque period. After a spell I found that I could successfully ignore the Murakami pieces in most rooms (with the exception of the gold monster in the garden). Finally, it hit me like a slap in the face that this could all be a practical joke. Were the caretakers of Versailles making fun of Murakami (or postmodernism in general)? These pieces might survive quite well on their own in a gallery with white walls, but at Versailles they looked like graffiti. Or more like a child screaming for attention. Maybe that was the point, saying something about the modern world? I don't know. But don't worry folks, Versailles ate Murakami for lunch and asked for seconds.

29 Nov 10
23:0 CET


I visited Versailles with my 13 year old daughter for the first time recently and did not know about the contemporary art works beforehand. We both thought they were wonderful. It was fantastic to see how lightly the French wore their significant cultural heritage. Versailles is rich in so many ways - despite the crowds you shudder when you see the white door Marie Antoinette escaped through. It stands out amongst the opulance. The palace is a living, breathing history lessson about the foundations of a great democracy. And yet they welcomed these very contemporary art works. We could have done without the extra people though - very long queues!

27 Nov 10
18:9 CET


The author's assertion that these works fit in the context of Versailles because the programme of decoration in the palace is "mixed media" - gilt, mirrors, stucco, and paint - is disingenuous, and misses the fundamental basis that all the decorators employed by Louis XIV shared: the Classical tradition. The strand of Postmodernism that both Koons and Murakami espouse simply don't belong. As far as I'm concerned, this dislocation is precisely what makes the exhibits work, but don't try to pretend that they're somehow continuing in the same vein as the artists of the French baroque.

27 Nov 10
18:8 CET


This contemporary "art" placed in Versailles is a travesty. My daughter and I visited in September and found the pieces intrusive and their cartoonish quality mocked the history and spirit of Versailles. Display them elsewhere (if you must display them at all), but please don't support or rationalize polluting this national monument.

26 Nov 10
15:25 CET


The original decorations may have been cutting edge art, but they were an integrated whole. Koons' and Murakami's work clashes totally with the original, or restored, decor of the palace. Their work can been seen elsewhere - and where it does not have to "fight" with extravagant French decoration. While Carrie H. found Murakami "definitely enhanced" her visit, there is a sense in which it must have "definitely detracted" from seeing Versailles as an ensemble - by definition, such clashes cannot not enhance the original. Would you exhibit Giotto or Veronese at MOMA ? If so, to what end except sensationalism, controversy ?

25 Nov 10
15:34 CET


I visited Versailles last week for the history, a priori unaware of the Murakami exhibit. His work is fantastic and in strong contrast to the palace decor,or what has been rescued of it after the Revolution. I especially enjoyed the squat little king sculpture placed in the Napoleon room, because he seemed both to react to and comment on his surroundings. (The anime waitress in the war room was a bit more jarring). Murakami's art definitely enhanced my Versailles experience.

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