Takashi Murakami – The Fun King meets the Sun King

Chateau de Versailles September 14 – December 12 2010

Reviewed byVictoria Hobday.

Takashi Murakami, Tongari-kun 2003- 2004. 700 x 350 cm, fibreglass, acrylic and urethane paint. Photo Florian Kleinefenn.

Following the autumn throngs through the royal apartments at the Palace of Versailles one is struck by the diversity of nationalities, the amount of photographic equipment and the irritating background drone of audio-guides tuned to a multitude of languages with the volume cranked up. The self consciously regal decoration of the rooms still impresses with their grand scale and wonderful ceiling paintings, the parquetry in its distinctive squared pattern polished by the tread of a steady army of nike running shoes.

In September 2008 Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the director of the Palace of Versailles, organised the first contemporary exhibition within the royal apartments of works by the American artist Jeff Koons [Slide show figure 1] The works created just the right amount of controversy when they were shown within these hallowed rooms, loud works with shiny surfaces, Disneyland sentiments and American volume…quel horreur! The New York Times reported the event as ‘an American Invasion’ and there was a small demonstration outside the palace gates by a dozen or so people from the National Union of Writers of France, a small right-wing group dedicated to ‘the artistic purity in France’. The ingredients were perfect; it was a huge success.

This September it is the turn of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, known for his manga-like artworks that reflect the deep-rooted fascination with perpetual childhood that is found in Japanese contemporary culture. Murakami like Koons before him has found much in the detailed and layered baroque interiors to ‘riff’ with his own oeuvre. The unabashed use of colour, shine, gold and repetitive motif invites your eye to search for similar devices used by the Baroque artists and artisans that created the host spaces. Of course the advantage of working with the architecture and having a few hundred years to knock some of the more risky juxtapositions back a touch does make the Baroque art look more considered. However, it is transformative to see the works of artists from different times, different cultures and created for different audiences, performing a little pas de deux. Walking through the apartments the first Murakami that is seen answers the scale and opulence of the Hercules Salon with equal scale and absurdity. An eight metre high fibreglass Buddha stands defiantly large and proportionally comfortable in the surrounding grandeur, the work is titled Tongari-kun, or in English Mister Pointy [Slide show figure 2]. On the website there are references cited in this work to Tibetan Buddhism and Maya culture but the over-riding effect is of a large rather playful creature sitting comfortably on a frog balanced on a lotus. When one considers the scenes surrounding this artwork, it all seems a bit tame in truth.

Francois Lemoyne (1688 -1737) painted the large scene on the ceiling, which depicts the apotheosis of Hercules, in 1737 [Slide show figure 3]. The edges surge with muscular figures and seated draped women look down from their apparently vertiginous corners. In the inner circle swirls of important dwellers of Mount Olympus ready themselves for the grand occasion in ever heightening clouds around a central view of heavenly brilliant sky. Lofty stuff indeed. Couple this with the two massive Veronese paintings, one a diplomatic gift from the Republic of Venice to Louis XIV in 1664 – Feast in the House of Simon and the other above a fireplace (that is the size of a family car), Rebecca at the Well. Mister Pointy has a lot to compete with – and this work rises well to the challenge, there is a pleasant synergy when you enter the space. It is the most austere of Murakami’s works in this exhibition, centred and huge it converses with the golden Oval Buddha [Slide show figure 4] that sits outside overlooking the main axis of the gardens.

Murakami’s sculpture Flower Matango [Slide show figures 5 and 6] stands at the end of the Hall of Mirrors and is like a mad flower arrangement brought in from the formal gardens – a riot of colour standing on a pedestal the work has branches of flowers with happy smiley faces spinning off from the central orb. The joyousness of Murakami’s work is evident in this piece, and in the accompanying Superflat Flowers [Slide show figure 7], both of which are positioned so that one looks across them to the autumn garden outside. The director Aillagon and the curator Laurent Le Bon have chosen carefully, avoiding Murakami’s more controversial works such as My Lonesome Cowboy and Hiropon which are only vaguely alluded to in the figure Miss K02 [Slide show figure 8] as she pertly welcomes visitors to the Hall of Mirrors. There have been unspoken concessions made in this first retrospective of Murakami’s work in France. The more risqué works are obviously missing in consideration of the broader audience that the Palace of Versailles attracts.

Again this year there is protest from the ‘Friends of Versailles’ regarding the display of contemporary art in these historic surrounds. The nub of the debate concerns whether visitors that come to see one spectacle are imposed upon to view something else. It is not an argument that is entirely without validity. The fact that Versailles has been retouched, so to speak, to accommodate the numbers of visitors, the paintings have been retained where possible but the furniture is for the most part either later than the building due to redecoration or absent altogether is neatly skipped over. The fantasy of ‘stepping back in time’ is fully supported as a complete construct for the public. Therefore the ‘clash’ approach that juxtaposes the very clearly modern with the Baroque surroundings shatters illusions and understandably irritates historical fantasists; but it could not be accused of being confusing.

The idea that historical sites should be kept pristine from the tastes and displays of the modern era is one that is at odds with current museum practice, something that is being seen more often around the world and is still a continuing topic for debate. Furthermore, this debate is one that is eagerly watched by other heritage houses and museums around the world as the viability of historical sites that are less central or well funded than Versailles must find ways to increasingly self-fund maintenance through attracting wider audiences. Taking the lead from these excursions outside of the white cube could increase the ‘revisitability’ of many historic houses, monuments and so forth. Equally the opportunity for audiences to witness something beyond their own comfort zone can work for both dedicated contemporary and historic site audiences.

On the official website Laurent Le Bon writes eloquently of the need to keep historic sites such as Versailles living and relevant by including the works of artists of our time to reflect our own era. In recent days there has been some discussion about the statement that the next such exhibition will probably be held in the Orangerie. Jean-Jacques Aillagon has stated that this is due to a desire to keep the concept fresh by changing the location of the works, the ‘Save the Chateau of Versailles collective’ have claimed victory. It seems a shame to me that an invasion of the Grand Apartments every two years for a few months can produce such friction.

Finally, on leaving Versailles my eleven-year-old son reflected that he thought the Murakami’s were ‘cool’, and some of the big old paintings that he saw were pretty good too. Sometimes what we see out of the corner of our eye can bring us back for a second closer look. The combination of these two elements is very much like the Hall of Mirrors, bouncing the reflections backwards and forwards, bathed in filtered light.

Official website – http://en.chateauversailles.fr/news-/events/expositions/murakami-versailles-en

© Victoria Hobday 2010

[NB Click on the thumbnails to view the full slide show. If you are reading this in an email you will need to follow the ‘View the latest post at’ link to the MAN website to view the show properly]

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Photo Credits.

1. Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles,1988. Photo  Ed Alcocks. (New York Times).

2. Francois Lemoygne, The Apotheosis of Hercules ,1737. Palace of Versailles, France.

3. Takashi Murakami, Tongari-kun 2003- 2004. 700 x 350 cm, fibreglass, acrylic and urethane paint. Photo Florian Kleinefenn.

4. Takashi Murakami, Superflat Flowers, 2010. (Detail) Fibreglass, carbon-fibre, oil and acrylic paint. Photo Victoria Hobday.

5. Takashi Murakami, Flower Matango, 2001-2006. Fibreglass, iron, oil paint and acrylic paint ; 315cm (height) x 204.7cm (width) x 263cm (depth) Photo Victoria Hobday.

6. Takashi Murakami, Oval  Buddha, work presented to the public for the first time ; Water Parterre ; 2007 – 2010 ; Bronze, steel and gold leaf 568cm (height) x 318.9cm (width) x 311.5cm (depth) Versailles. Photo Florian Kleinefenn.

7. Takashi Murakami, Miss K02, 2006. Fibreglass, acrylic and urethane paint.