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Dispatch from Versailles: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 27 DECEMBER 2008 — To the consternation of the inhabitants of Versailles, some 15 works of the American millionaire, Jeff Koons, more famous in Europe for his marriage to ex-porn star and former Italian MP La Cicciolina than for any artistic achievements, are on display at the Chateau of Versailles, one of the most prestigious of the world's heritage sites. It is where King Louis XII's hunting lodge was transformed in the 17th century by Louis XIVth into a magnificent palace which became the centre of his court and government, and which represents the finest achievement of seventeenth century French art.

It was, consequently, a most odd decision to mount an exhibition of Pop Art there, particularly as most of the visitors who paid the 13 euro 50 entrance fee to see the palace showed more animosity than curiosity towards the giant sized creations which detracted from the beauty around them.

"I came to see all the wondrous treasures here", said a Japanese tourist, "why should I have this visit spoiled by having an ugly lobster obstructing my view? I paid to see this exceptional palace and did not expect to have my visit marred by the intrusion of such ridiculous objects. "

Jeff Koons: Lobster, 2003 in the Salon of Mars

"It's enough to put you off lobster for life", muttered a woman next to him, voicing the general view that Koon's work in such a setting was out of place.

It is, in fact, rather surprising that Jean-Jacques Aillagon, ex- French minister of Culture now President of cultural activities in Versailles, a man quick to object to anything inappropriate there, agreed to display an ugly shellfish fashioned in polychrome aluminum and coloured a vicious vermillion augmented with yellow spots, hang down from the ceiling in the splendid Salon de Mars!

Only a few of the works aroused any interest. The first was Balloon Flower, incongruously plonked in the Royal courtyard as one entered the gates, and which visitors were obliged to walk past. Coloured a bilious shade of yellow and resembling swollen testicles rather than any existing flower, it seemed all the more shoddy against the delicately carved, exquisite gold railings but at this point, the reaction was one of amusement.

Jeff Koons: New Hoover Convertibles Green, Green, Red, New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, New Shelton Wet/Dry 5-Gallon, Displaced Tripledecker, 1981 - 1987, in the queen's antechamber.

Inside the palace however, while several people goggled at the second exhibit, Balloon Dog, a monstrous magenta coloured poodle which throned in the centre of a seventeenth century ballroom, tourists chose to have their photos taken in front of a magnificent painting by Veronese which had been given to Louis XIV by the Republic of Venice in 1764 while the majority of visitors gazed in admiration at the ceiling, the largest hand-painted canvas in Europe.

Hanging Heart, too, came in for some notice particularly by honeymooners, who, oblivious to the fact that the creation had been bought last year for 23, 7 million dollars, chose to pose enlaced before it. They obviously thought it was very romantic, illustrating Koon's comment that, "This is art for the masses; I treat things with which everyone can create a link."

But the attitude of the crowds belied these words as they straggled past a coarse effigy of
Michael Jackson in white and gold porcelain, a bear and a policeman, a panther, some vacuum cleaners behind a glass case, and various other offerings. There was no one at all at Split Rocker a solid, lumpy construction of some 1000 geraniums and pansies in clashing colours on display in the gardens, sadly at odds with the elegant beds of flowers and plants created by the permanent staff.

Jeff Koons: Self-Portrait, 1991 in the Salon of Apollo

Of course, few people missed Self-portrait, a bust in white marble of the 53-year-old artist himself, whose career, it should be pointed out, began as a trader on Wall Street. It leered down from a pillar of imitation green marble, style Louis XV, dominating the Salon of Apollo. Where else could Koon's portrait be put save in the apartments of the God of (self) Love?

Jeff Koons Versailles
Until 4 January 2009
Château de Versailles
78008 Versailles

Title photo: Jeff Koons: Balloon Flower (Yellow), 1995-1999, Palais de Versailles

Please click here for Part 2 of this feature review: Marie-Antoinette's Estate Le Petit Trianon Reopened After Makeover.

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