Kitsch Trumps Baroque Koons' Versailles Show Ruffles Feathers in France

The pomp and splendor of Versailles is about to be invaded by pop art as a major retrospective on US artist Jeff Koons opens Wednesday. The decision to display the 17 works of kitsch in the former royal palace has upset quite a few French conservatives.


Jeff Koons, the art world's king of kitsch, is ruffling feathers in Paris with his major retrospective in the baroque splendor of the Chateau de Versailles that opens on Wednesday.

Works of art spanning a 30-year career are being shown amid the sumptuous apartments and gardens of the palace to the west of the French capital. From the bright red inflatable "Lobster" to the silver "Rabbit," 17 pieces of pop art will go on show by the 53-year-old New Yorker, now one of the world's biggest-selling living artists.

The three-month exhibition is Koons' first in France despite the fact that his fame dates back to the 1980s, when he gained a reputation for his huge kitsch objects and statues. His brief marriage to Italian porn star "La Cicciolina" in the early 1990s gave him a notoriety that extended far beyond the art world.

While the Koons retrospective may draw new visitors to Versailles, already one of France's major tourist attractions, not everyone in Paris is looking forward to the kitsch invasion.

Eduoard de Royere of the French Heritage Foundation has described it as an "intrusion" into such a "magical place." While art critic Dider Rykner wrote derisively on his Web site, La Tribune de l'Art, "I can just picture the Cicciolina in the bed of Louis XIV."

A small royalist group of writers, disconcertingly named the National Union of French Writers, has even called for a demonstration at the gate of Versailles when the show opens this Wednesday.

Speaking recently to SPIEGEL in New York, Koons said he wanted to bring "new energy" to France with the show and said he was "no agent provocateur." He added, "Modern art is so imprisoned in the present that the confrontation of new works with old ones will allow us to rediscover a connection between history and art history."

He also said the baroque setting of Versailles was the ideal context for him "to highlight the philosophical origin of my work."

There have, however, been some questions raised about who will benefit from such a high-profile show. The Versailles director Jean-Jacques Aillagon used to work for French business tycoon Francois Pinault who owns five of the Koons works in the exhibition. Pinault, whose empire includes Gucci and Christie's, has covered almost half the €1.9 million ($2.7 million) costs of staging the show.

Critics point out that an exhibit at such a major tourist site, visited by more than seven million people a year, is certain to boost the value of the works. Aillagon has rejected the suggestions of any conflict of interest as "extremely offensive" and "hurtful," and points out that the value of Jeff Koon's work on the art market had already "gone through the roof" long before the show at Versailles.

While Koons' sexually explicit works of the 1990s showing himself and his then wife, whose real name is Ilona Staller, shocked the art scene, his best-selling pieces have the giant statues of mundane objects such as ballon dogs and rabbits.

Last November his "Hanging Heart", which will be on show in Versailles, became the most expensive work by a living artist when it sold for a staggering $23.4 million at Sotheby's in New York. However he swiftly lost the title to Lucien Freud in May, whose "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping," was snapped up for more than $34 million.

"Jeff Koons Versailles" opens Sept. 10 continues until Dec. 14. The exhibition is free to visitors to the Chateau de Versailles.

smd -- with wire reports

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