Buddha, jellyfish eyes and psychedelic flowers at Versailles

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After American pop artist Jeff Koons and his big red lobster in 2008, Versailles has thrown open its royal chambers to the equally controversial Japanese manga-inspired artist Takashi Murakami. Kaikai, Kiki Mr Pointy and Miss Ko2 are rubbing shoulders with the royals.


There are strange mushrooms in the Mercury Salon, a buxom plastic waitress named Ko2 in the Salon of War and a cluster of neon-coloured flowers form a flower monster in the Hall of Mirrors.

Over in the Hercules Salon, Mr Pointy strikes a pose: the huge frog-like creature’s many little arms reach out to the visitor while a spike on his big black hat guides the eye up to the angels on the ceiling.

Outside overlooking Le Notre’s landscaped gardens, sits the eight-metre Oval Buddha, one side of his face in deep meditation, the other showing shark’s teeth.

Visiting the 17th and 18th century royal court of Versailles is a surreal experience to say the least at the moment, peopled by sculptured characters and visions from Murakami’s fertile imagination.

Made out of resin, plastic and fibreglass, 11 of the 22 pieces on show were commissioned exclusively for the exhibition, the third Versailles has consecrated to contemporary art.

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The garish-coloured figures, with a naïve look inspired by Japanese cartoons known as manga, seem to be in sharp contrast to the style of the French Sun King’s chateau. But Murakami says he thinks he can share fantasy-world concepts with King Louis XIV.

Just as visitors “dream of melting into a universe of complete fantasy, I’d like to take part in this dream. Push it to the extreme,” he told French daily Le Figaro.

Jean-Jacques Aillagon, President of Versailles, says Murakami is a “magical” artist and believes the chateau’s ongoing policy of placing contemporary oeuvres in a historical setting helps combat the trend to rush through such places without really pausing for thought.

“We know that when we present contemporary oeuvres in a historic décor we invite the visitor to stay a bit longer, to reflect. And I think that Murakami’s presence and before that Jeff Koons invites visitors to look at Versailles more attentively.”

But just as the Koons exhibition prompted a petition by Royalists and conservatives to try and get it cancelled, so has Murakami’s. A petition entitled “Versailles mon amour”, currently circulating on internet, has had more than 4,000 signatures since June.

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Some visitors are equally bemused by such contemporary art in Versailles’ classic décor.

“It would be better off in a lollypop factory” said one man from Australia. “It’s totally in the wrong place.” His partner added she was disappointed not to be able to see Versailles as she had bargained for.

One young French woman believed it was all too much of a commercial exercise. Pointing to the label “private collection” she said: “It shows the world of speculation in all its glory. I think the collector that bought this piece will be very pleased to sell it 150 percent more expensive thanks to its presentation in Versailles”.

The exhibition cost 2.5 million euros and was largely financed by Qatar.

There’s no doubt Murakami is one of the world’s most highly prized contemporary artists. He’s also a businessman, re-looking accessories for Vuitton, designing and manufacturing key rings, scarves and cushions.

Curator Laurent Le Bon, also director of the recently opened Centre Pompidou in Metz, calls Murakami a great artist whose transfiguration of art “takes us into another world”. He cites the example of the oeuvre “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: a naked, fat king with boggled eyes gone mad which sits in the Coronation Room, surrounded by paintings of Napoleon I.

“It’s an allegory of power and takes us into the world of fairy tales because Murakami has been influenced by Hans Christian Andersen, and the famous metaphor of the King’s new clothes. I think we find in that the meaning of this exhibition”.

The artist himself keeps up that playful fantasy world where nothing is quite what it seems.

“I am the Cheshire Cat who greets Alice in Wonderland with his devilish grin, and chatters on as she wanders around the Chateau” he says in the introduction to the exhibition.

Murakami-Versailles runs through to 12 December, 2010. You can see more photos on Chateau de Versailles site

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