In the palace of Jeff Koons
The exhibition of American artist Jeff Koons at the Château de Versailles was already arousing controversy before it opened: the very idea of an irreverent contemporary artist in the hallowed chambers of France's most prestigious royal palace was clearly a shock to more conservative circles, who have criticised this as an invasion of kitsch and triumph of marketing within the building that epitomises French grand siècle culture. Yet if any artist is made for the sheer excess of Versailles, the ultimate symbol of French absolutist monarchy, associated first with the Sun King, Louis XIV, and then with the frivolity of Queen Marie-Antoinette, it has to be Koons. He knows all about the power of decorativeness and combines images culled from popular culture with a genuine admiration for baroque and rococo art.
With pieces from the 1980s to the present borrowed from collections around the world, Koons spent a month at the château before the show opened, choosing where to place the works: one in each of the rooms that form the route through the Grands Appartements, seen by some five million visitors a year. The tone is set with the Balloon Dog (Magenta), one of his huge polished steel sculptures that imitate the balloon sculptures made for children's parties, posed amid the solemnity of allegorical paintings and marble veneer of the Salle d'Hercule.
Some works make more sense than others here. While some merely pay knowing winks or nods at decoration (such as a vase of painted wooden flowers in the Queen's Bedroom, which recalls a Boucher painting), others are masterstrokes: the juxtaposition of Koons' white and gilt porcelain statue of a reclining Michael Jackson and Bubbles (his pet monkey), complete with rococo gilded flowers, is placed before a full-length marble statue of Louis XIV, gentle reminder that pop stars are today's royalty. The celebrated Rabbit, a fairground balloon, again in stainless steel, stands on a marble plinth amid Baroque portraits, black marble busts and green velvet, like a bunny laughing at the pomp of official portraiture. Koons also knows how to laugh ironically at himself: his white marble Self-Portrait, the artist's head emerging from a mass of marble shards, pops up cheekily in the Apollo Salon. And is the pink balloon heart suspended on the stairwell as you leave simply kitsch or a reminder of all the amorous affairs that went on at court?
In comparison, the piece in the Hall of Mirrors, the most famous room in the palace, seems rather tame. Perhaps even Koons acknowledges that it is difficult to match the sparkle of all its mirrors and chandeliers and sheer scale of its 73-metre length. He has hung a three-metre-wide round balloon at the far end; nonetheless, as you admire your reflections in its convex form, it does feel a little like being in a ball at the court of Louis XIV.
The show is also a reminder of Koons' intriguing play with materials. The red Lobster - a favourite surrealist motif, as well as a familiar element in 17th-century still lifes - hangs from a chain as a pair to a crystal chandelier in the Salon de Mars. As with the balloon pieces made of steel, this looks remarkably like a child's inflatable beach toy but is in fact made of painted aluminium by Koons, who like the huge ateliers of the great baroque painters, employs over 50 people to realise his creations.
In introducing contemporary creation at Versailles, the Château hopes to attract a more Parisian audience, who often come here for the park but generally leave the interior, a place that every French schoolchild knows from history lessons, to coach loads of foreign tourists. As with any juxtaposition between historic and modern, the contrast with Koons' colourful shiny world is also a chance to rediscover the château itself and the more glowering magnificence of its gilded mouldings, coloured marble, crystal and oil paintings.
Finally, Split Rocker (half dinosaur head, half rocking horse), a piece originally made for Avignon as European City of Culture in 2000, has been re-created outside in the gardens of the Orangerie. This time you can see it from close up to admire the tour de force of its vast structure covered in over 100,000 pots of colourful pansies, petunias and geraniums, watered by 10,900 little hoses, a triumphal retake of topiary that Louis XIV, famed for the grand fêtes given in the gardens, would surely have approved.
Jeff Koons is at the Château de Versailles until Dec 14.
Updated: September 21, 2008 04:00 AM