King Of Kitsch Takes Over Versailles
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Pop artist, Jeff Koons has fans of his own and more than a few detractors as well. Now a retrospective of his often controversial art is featured inside the Palace of Versailles in France. Eleanor Beardsley sends us this report on how visitors are responding.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Thanks to the Baroque music piped into loudspeakers discreetly hidden in the hedges, visitors to the gardens of the Chateau of Versailles are plunged into the atmosphere of Louis XIV's France. But inside the Sun King's gilded palace, there's an invasion of modernity that's not pleasing to everyone.
Mr. PAVAL KASHLAROV: Scandalous. We just came here to see the palace. But it's blasphemous - the red plastic lobster in the king's chamber, so this is terrible.
BEARDSLEY: That's Russian tourist Paval Kashkarov(ph) staring with disdain at a large lobster that looks like a swimming pool float hanging from the ceiling in the Mercury Salon. Kashkarov's eyes grow wider as he spots Koons' porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and his chimp, Bubbles, displayed next door in the Venus Salon. Seventeen works by Koons, the world's biggest selling living artist, are being exhibited in the royal apartments until December 14th. The exhibit was the idea of palace director Jean-Jacques Aillagon.
Mr. JEAN-JACQUES AILLAGON (Director, Palace of Versailles): (Through Translator) I thought the absolute notoriety of an artist like Jeff Koons could hold its own against the absolute notoriety of Versailles. And I also wanted to see if there was an emotional affinity between this contemporary artist and the palace that Louis XIV left us.
BEARDSLEY: Standing in Versailles' Orangerie shortly after the exhibit opened in September, Koons said he was inspired by the Sun King when he created an 11-ton stainless steel statue, half-donkey, half-dinosaur, covered in 90,000 live plants and flowers. It's called Split-Rocker.
Mr. JEFF KOONS (Artist): I thought this is the type of work that Louis Quatorze would wake up and have a fantasy that he'd want to see and he would tell his staff, and voila! He would come home and in the evening, there would be Split-Rocker.
BEARDSLEY: On the walls of the queen's antechamber hang portraits of Marie Antoinette surrounded by her children. In the middle of the room is Koons' exhibit, Hoover Convertibles, a collection of 1960-style vacuum cleaners. Twenty-one-year-old Solagne Jolie(ph) says the contrast is delightful.
Ms. SOLAGNE JOLIE: (Through Translator) I think it's super. It's a great idea and people don't seem to be too shocked. Anyway, in every era, modern art is controversial.
BEARDSLEY: Whether loved or hated, the exhibit is provoking debate and not just only on the editorial pages.
Mr. MARTIN CHALEI: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: When 25-year-old Frenchman Martin Chalei(ph) tells me he loves Jeff Koons and feels that Louis XIV would have loved him, too, a woman standing nearby shoots back.
Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Well, my daughter is studying French history and that's what we came here to see, she tells Chalei. I've got plenty of awful plastic junk like this in my attic.
Mr. CHALEI: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: That's old France, Chalei assures me, before turning around to tell his neighbor she needs to be more open-minded. Art, he says, is all about exchange. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley at the Palace of Versailles.
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