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Zany modern sculptures hold court at Versailles

Jeff Koons' giant artworks appear side by side with old European masterpieces. Traditionalists don't take a shine to them.

September 21, 2008|From Times Wire Services

VERSAILLES, FRANCE — At the Palace of Versailles, a marble statue of Louis XIV now shares space with some unlikely interlopers: an inflatable lobster, a giant balloon dog, and Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles, sculpted in porcelain.

Officials at Versailles, the most gilded and over the top of French palaces, have let American artist Jeff Koons redecorate, and his eye-popping, zany sculptures are on display alongside masterpieces by Veronese and Bernini.

The show, which runs through Dec. 14, is yet another sign that France's bastions of traditional culture are loosening up. The Louvre has played host to contemporary artists and even welcomed slam poets to perform in its echoing galleries.

"It's the proudest moment of my life," Koons, 53, told reporters as workers finished nailing everything into place.

A giant reflective balloon graces the Hall of Mirrors. A larger-than-life sculpture of a vase of flowers fits well with the cloying flowery wallpapers and tapestries in a bedroom once used by queens.

A huge sculpture of a rocking horse -- crafted partly from live flowers and using an internal irrigation system -- is the latest addition to the pruned shrubs in the geometric garden.

And there's Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, in shimmery white and gold, partially blocking the view of an ornate marble statue of Louis XIV .

But a small yet vocal band of staunch traditionalists is fuming. About 30 protesters rallied outside the chateau at the opening, saying Koons' art would sully Versailles' grandeur and traditions.

Koons' sculpted rabbits and dogs "don't belong at the Palace of Versailles; they belong at Disneyland," journalist Anne Brassie said.

Koons said he had no intention of mocking the palace that Louis XIV transformed from a hunting lodge into a symbol of royal power in the 17th century.

"I'm so grateful for the opportunity to show in Versailles. I have complete respect for Versailles, and I have complete respect for each individual that's coming to Versailles," Koons told reporters.

The show's detractors complain that the display will boost Koons' prices, and thus the pocketbooks of one of his collectors, billionaire businessman Francois Pinault. Koons, whose "Hanging Heart" sculpture fetched $23.6 million in November, needs no publicity, they say.

Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Versailles' president and a former French culture minister, dismissed the criticism as "out of line," saying exhibits inevitably boost artists' prices. He also insisted that although his main role is to preserve and restore Versailles, he has a duty to make sure it doesn't become a dusty relic.

"It's an exceptional place," he said. "But it's not a dead place; it's a living place. It's a place that demands respect, but it's not a place that demands sanctimoniousness."

The first tourists to see the show had mixed reactions.

"My first thought when I walked in was, 'Wow, that's really out of place,' " said Gary Furr, a U.S. tourist, gazing at "Balloon Dog (Magenta)," a huge gleaming poodle, which faces a painting by Italian Renaissance master Veronese.

Australian tourist Vicky Jones disagreed.

"I thought they were beautiful. They really enhanced the setting," she said.

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