Last evening I watched a piece on France24 about the annual summer contemporary art show at the Palace of Versailles. In the gardens and inside of the château itself, various pieces of contemporary art are juxtaposed with the splendid rooms and vistas created for the Bourbons, who of course were turned out of their home during the French Revolution. The reporter went through the palace and stopped to ask several visitors what they thought of the contemporary art installations. Several visitors – all French – said they enjoyed the pieces, which were displayed in and around the grand residence of Louis XIV and his descendants.
However one visitor – clearly an American, and one possessing more than a little common sense – said she was appalled. “I haven’t liked any of it,” the lady commented, as we were shown a shot of a glass cabinet containing an installation piece of what appeared to be bandages and crutches. She noted that while some of the art on display might not be bad in the proper setting, what annoyed her most was that it was blocking many of the interior views of the magnificent, historic rooms of the palace which she and others had come to see.
This regrettable practice of placing the detritus of diseased minds in the home of the Sun King began in 2008 under the director of the palace museum, Jean-Jacques Aillagon: a man of many words and little taste. When interviewed by the France24 reporter, M. Aillagon repeatedly stated, in a parrot-like justification of the exhibition: “Art is always art,” presumably because sometimes the viewer may mistake art for being his breakfast, or a rubbish tip. M. Aillagon went on to explain that in displaying art, “we ask questions about form, material, and the artist’s perspective and intelligence.”
This is all nonsense, of course.
Rather than questioning the artist’s intelligence in such displays, I question that of M. Aillagon. You can read more about his poor taste and clichéd, art-speak blatherings in this interview. [WARNING: Some of the art described in the interview is a bit graphic.] He is clearly a figure who should be held up for public ridicule and dismissed from his post.
That being said, let not the rabidly conservative or monarchist among my readers think that my rejection of M. Aillagon’s efforts stems from a belief that Versailles itself is such a wonderful thing: it is not. It is, in fact, a monstrosity, and one of the tackiest, megalomaniacal, and overwrought buildings ever constructed. It has become the model for nouveaux-riches the world over, and for good reason, because it is simply too much.
Indeed, when we consider much of the self-promotional and titillating art commissioned for Versailles, I have to disagree with Prince Sixte-Henri de Bourbon-Parme, one of a number of French aristocrats who have tried to stop these shows at the château through the court system over the years. Most contemporary art which is displayed in shows such as this is rubbish. Yet ironically, most of it is also self-promotional and titillating,
in keeping with the attitudes of those who built and decorated Versailles in the first place.
As a matter of fact, I found myself surprised to be agreeing with American artist Jeff Koons – whose work I cannot abide – during the course of last night’s program. In an interview with the France24 reporter, Koons mentioned his inspiration for the pieces he showed there, when the first Versailles contemporary art exhibition opened in 2008. He thought about Louis XIV waking up in the morning, commanding his staff to build him some sort of giant, kitschy folly, and when he would come home from hunting that evening, there it would be. Those of you who have read books like Nancy Mitford’s classic, superbly researched and illustrated “The Sun King”, or seen films such as “Vatel”, will recognize that as much as one may not like Koons’ art, he certainly got into the spirit of the thing.
The real failure here is that of treating Versailles as if it is some sort of blank canvas, which it is not. It is a place crammed with history, and one which has nothing to do with Japanese manga or clunky malformations of scrap steel. One would have thought that the French would have better taste and a better appreciation of their own history, but of course when you place the dog in charge of the birdcage, this is what happens.
Therefore, please: let us leave the rubbish art to the rubbish art venues, like the Pompidou, and to those who want to see such things, and leave the Bourbons to the Bourbons, and to those who want to get some sense of the world they lived in.
Is it contemporary art, or is it curbside collection day at Versailles?