Versailles, Home of the Sun King, Hosts Contemporary Art of Murakami

Edward Rubin
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Takashi MURAKAMI, Oval Buddha Silver (2008) Salon De L’Abondance, Château de Versailles, 18.6 x 10.5 x 10.2’, photo:Cedric Delsaux, ©2007-2010 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Once again the battle between preserving classical French culture from the ugly claws of globalization has been making headlines in France. This time around it is provocateur-artist Takashi Murakami’s, Japan’s answer to Andy Warhol, recent exhibition of comic-based manga and anime-inspired paintings, sculptures, one rug and a film, at the Château Versailles and its gardens (September 14–December 12, 2010), that raised the hackles of Prince Sixte-Henri de Bourbon-Parme, a descendent of the Louis XIV, as well as the Coordination de la Défense de Versailles, an organization specifically formed to prevent artist, Jeff Koons from exhibiting at the palace in 2008. Aimed at giving Koons and his giant metal dog the boot, a lawsuit initiated by the prince’s nephew, was dismissed by the court.

Condemning Murakami’s “veritable ‘murder’ of our heritage, our artistic identity, and our most sacred culture”, de Bourbon-Parme claims that the artist’s work disrespects the glory of Versailles. “There are puppets in that exhibition that are frankly grotesque. These works undermine the unity-of-style of the museum.” According to the CDV it also, “violates the harmony of the palace itself which is a symbol of French history and culture.” fine arts magazine

Takashi Murakami at Versailles (2010), photo:Kleinefenn

Various Murakami’s quotes!…“When someone scores a goal, someone is going to be unhappy.” “I am the Cheshire Cat who greets Alice in Wonderland with his devilish grin, and chatters on as she wanders around the chateau.” “This is a face-off between the baroque and postwar Japan,”and, “I hope it will create in visitors a sort of shock, an aesthetic feeling.”

On Murakami’s side, as well as hordes of Euro-spending tourists visiting Versailles each year – as the third most popular tourist spot in France – are the so-called powers behind the throne. According to Jean-Jacques Aillagon—former culture minister and the current palace museum director— who stated it is his duty to open the palace to contemporary artistic creations of our times, “the coexistence of Murakami and Versailles makes perfect sense.” The Hall of Mirrors is a kind of manga, a comic strip for glory of the king’s reign, he told one interviewer.

As for Laurent Brunner, who chooses the artists to exhibit at Versailles – and who toured me through the exhibition – his “nine year old son is not interested in Veronese, but he does relate to Murakami’s work.” And, says Laurent Le Bon, director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz and curator of the exhibition, “All I really want to do is make a dialogue between Murakami and Versailles.”

T. Murakami, Miss KO² (1997) oil, acrylic, fiberglass and iron, 6.16’ x 2.08’ x 2.9’, Photo: Edward Rubin ©Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Though Murakami’s exhibition was not derailed, the ‘powers that be’ did capitulate ever so slightly. Not on view, as they were deemed too ‘explosive’ to show, were Murakami’s more titillating – some say pornographic – larger than life “body fluid” sculptures. Missing in action was My Lonesome Cowboy (1998), featuring a masturbating young man whose ejaculation, exploding from a large penis, floats lasso-style overhead. Also missing was Hiropon (1997), in which a young woman in bikini top and nothing below is squeezing her oversized breasts and nipples, while a frothy stream of milk swirls around her like a jump rope.

The nearest we get to the subject of sex at Versailles is six-foot tall Miss Ko² (1997), a young, short-skirted, stiletto-heeled, perky-breasted Barbie doll blond. Awkwardly situated in a corner of the Salon De La Guerre, Miss Ko² is dressed as a waitress, a la Hooters—like servers at Anna Miller’s, a popular restaurant chain in Tokyo.

T. Murakami, Flower Matango (2001-06), fiberglass, iron, oil paint and acrylic, 10.3 x 6.7 x 8.6’, Hall of Mirrors, Versailles. photo:Cedric Delsaux ©2001-2006 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Whether Murakami succeeded in creating a vibrant, meaningful dialogue is a matter of opinion and all of France seems to have has weighed in! For me, who is of the mind that Marie Antoinette got a bum deal, Murakami’s invasion of the king and queen’s royal chambers, is little more than sideshow entertainment – read, diversion – for youngsters, as well as culture-vulture tourists who know little more than its former occupants lost their heads. It does offer a respite, as well distraction, from mere historical consideration, or for that matter, from any serious thinking. Of course, those who stand to gain the most from the caché of Murakami’s Versailles outing, are the galleries representing him, museums showing him, those collecting his work, and of course the artist, whose larger works – his Cowboy’was auctioned in 2008, at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction, for $15,161,000 – have been known to bring in millions.

This said, Murakami, like Jeff Koons, another ‘fast food’ mega-millionaire, art manufacturing-entrepreneur who rarely applies his hand to his own work – a large staff in New York and Japan does his bidding – does have a gift for supplying the curious masses with kitschy, cartoon based, entertainment pieces. Two, or maybe three tops, of the 22 works on view at Versailles, manage to register high on my Richter scale of visual enjoyment, craft and placement; the latter, due to the already-spectacular Baroque nature of Versailles itself, being of utmost importance. The remaining works are occasionally ironic, mildly impertinent, and cutesy-poo in their insistence, coming across as more, “Toys ‘R’ Us” display, than an actual work of art. Here the peerless neutering powers of the Sun King’s palace all but remove Murakami’s vitals.

T. Murakami,The Emperor’s New Clothes (2005), fiberglass, resin, iron, wood, fabrics, oil paint, acrylic and lacquer, 6.2 x 3.1 x 1.5’, © Coronation Room, Versailles. photo:Cedric Delsaux

A good example of such neutering is Flower Mantango (2001-2006), the artist’s oversized, tendril-sprouting, double-globed sculpture covered with grinning flowers in a thousand eye-popping colors. Placed at the entrance of the spectacular Hall of Mirrors—all seventeen huge mirrored arches reflecting seventeen equally-impressive arcade windows overlooking the palace gardens— Mantango is reduced to an annoying accessory to the fact; the fact being that you are standing in the jewel of one of the world’s most awe-inspiring palaces and nothing else really matters. The artist’s display of Superflat Flowers (2010) in the Salon de la Paix fares no better.

The Emperor’s New Clothes (2005), a nod to Hans Christian Anderson’s story, adds the ultimate ironic touch—perhaps serving as a statement about the entire exhibition. Murakami places a diminutive, large-headed, wide-eyed, comedic-looking king in the Coronation Room, a room filled with paintings celebrating the glories of Napoleon Bonaparte. This juxtaposition raises myriad thoughts, from humorous, to insulting, to calculatingly subversive, no doubt reflecting the artist’s intention.

When Murakami’s efforts hit the bull’s eye, it’s as if Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV, the palace’s most notorious occupants, specifically commissioned the work of art, for not only does it fit perfectly within its respective space—be it in the palace or gardens—but, it appears inseparable from its surroundings.

T. Murakami, Tongari-Kun (2003-04) fiberglass, steel, and oil, acrylic, urethane paint, 22.96 x11.48’ ©. Salon D'Hercule, Versailles. Photo: Edward Rubin

Tongari-Kun (2003-2004), the crowning glory if the exhibition, is Murakami at his most inventive and luxurious best. The 23- foot Baroque-style sculpture is a colorful fusion of surrealism, Art Nouveau and a hint of Japanese manga, featuring a giant-headed, fiberglass and steel Buddha, with numerous arms gracing its sides. Buddha sits on a frog, which in turn, is resting on a lotus flower. Smack-dab in the center of the ornate Salon D’Hercule, beneath a ceiling painting, Apotheosis of Hercules, by François Le Moyne, and surrounded by a pair of Veroneses, this imposing Buddha is the exhibition’s indoor show-stopper. Equally impressive is Murakami’s large, stately, richly-detailed sterling silver Oval Buddha Silver (2008), situated in the Salon De L’Abondance, beneath the portrait of Louis XV, great-grandson of Louis XIV. As dramatic, is his bronze and gold-leafed Oval Buddha (2007-2010), overlooking the palace’s extensive gardens. It is here, among the ‘big three’ that Murakami, if only during the run of his exhibition, gets to rule.

By Edward Rubin, Contributing Writrer

Edward Rubin is a critic who writes about art, culture and entertainment. Although based in New York City, he travels frequently to cover international events.

Editor’s notes: Here is a link to Jerry Sals, from New York Magazine, discussing the Murakami exhibition when it showed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY.  In it, he discusses some of the pieces that were excluded from the Versailles event, but discussed by Ed Rubin in the article above.

One Comment

  1. Alethea January 22, 2011 12:10 pm

    Great article. Glad the curatorial directors did NOT give in to those wanting to maintain the false ideology that French art and culture is solely dignified and unadulterated. Versailles for me is the epitome of the commingling of many times periods – 150 years of styles that came before and after. I got lost in the grotto and took a while to find my way out of some of its gardens. It is a grandiose and bombastic visual feast – Murakami fits right in.

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