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Dispatch from Versailles: Takashi Murakami in the palace of the Sun King

September 10, 2010 |  2:51 pm

Murakami3Reporting from Versailles, France –- Massive frog-like creatures with many arms and pot-bellied Buddhas in polished silver and gold are haunting the Palace of Versailles.

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami created the slick, brightly colored sculptures on exhibit at France’s gilded former seat of power beginning Tuesday.

At first glance Murakami’s figures, which share varying degrees of a manga cartoon aesthetic, contrast sharply with the French Sun King’s 17th and 18th century chateau, which has defined classic French style for centuries.

But, he says, “I think I can share fantasy-world concepts,” with King Louis XIV.

With their touch of fantasy, many of the pieces take on a life of their own.  The “Oval Buddha Silver” sits in the Salon de l’Abondance, meditating in statuesque grandeur, with one eye barely peaking through closing lids.

Visitors to Versailles “dream of melting into a universe of complete fantasy.  I’d like to participate in this dream.  To push it to the extreme,” said Murakami to the French daily, Le Figaro.

At a press preview of the exhibition Thursday, Murakami repeatedly wondered out loud what it would have been like to complete the 22 works as a commission for King Louis XIV. It was “hard to know” if he would have treated the subject  of his art “with irony or affection” for his powerful patron, he said.

What he has done appears to be a mix of the two. Thousands of bright, cartoon flowers, each with identical orange slice smiles complement the decor in the Hall of Mirrors, itself drowned in detail from another era.

Yet several other pieces don’t shy from criticizing the French monarchy.

A naked, fat and enormous-headed king stands with swirling, goggled eyes gone mad, in the Coronation Room.  Around him the walls are covered in paintings of Napolean I, put there in honor of the diminutive former emperor.  The title of Murakami’s piece is “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Murakami2 As was the case with the 2008 Versailles exhibit of works by Jeff Koons, many people here are put off by the Murakami show, with one journalist calling it better suited for Disneyland or a major department store. Petitions have been circulated to try to cancel the exhibit, and a protest is planned for opening day.

To Jean-Jacques Aillagon, president of the Versailles museum, such calls for censorship were an occasion to blast with a self-assured smile the “obscurantism” of right-wing critics, at a packed press conference.  “Long live intelligence, and no to obscurantism!”

The protest is expected to gather only a small group of conservatives, presenting little risk to the creators of the show, which include Murakami’s Paris gallery, Emmanuel Perrotin.

However, some visitors to the chateau who got a peek at the press preview Thursday  expressed frustration at seeing the contemporary exhibition juxtaposed with classic décor.

“I was surprised when I came in.  It makes it harder to submerge into the environment,” said Pierre Vareille, 24, who just finished studying electrical engineering in France.

“It shocks me a bit, because it’s not the same period, and it’s not part of our heritage,” said Andrée Denis, 68, visiting from northern France. “Asians come here to see the Versailles Chateau, not to see their works.”

Tourists from abroad appeared just as troubled by the show, which refrained from showing some of Murakami’s well-known erotic manga sculptures. “Miss ko2” is probably the closest exception to that: a sculpture of a voluptuous blond waitress represented in manga style, whose long legs reach up to her short, flaring skirt and visible underwear.

Murakami1 “It somehow doesn’t seem sophisticated, it’s almost insulting,” said Randy Lewis, 57, from Minnesota. “It detracts from the experience of the palace, because when I’m trying to focus on what I came to see, I can’t help noticing it,” he said, standing in front of Miss ko2.

Steve Holland, 61, from North Dakota, enjoyed seeing the contemporary work.  “Old art was new once,” he said.  “I’d like to explore what the artist is trying to say.”

Murakami said he understands he can’t win everyone’s approval, and says a certain degree of surprise was intended.  The show is "a confrontation between the Baroque period and postwar Japan, and it could create a sort of shock, an aesthetic feeling,” he said through an interpreter.

The show will be up until Dec. 12.

-- Devorah Lauter

Photos: At top, visitors to the Palace at Versailles Thursday get a glimpse of the Murakami exhibition before it opens Tuesday. Middle, Murakami's "Kakai & Kiki" on display. Bottom, the artist's sculpture  "Miss Ko2". Credit: Benoit Tessier / Reuters

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