Certainly the most controversial exhibition shaping the Parisian cultural landscape this autumn is Murakami Versailles, probably one of the most unexpected juxtapositions of contemporary art and a historical site seen during the last years: the playful, manga – inspired and so decidedly Far East looking art works of the Japanese artist and otaku king Takashi Murakami are hosted by the vast, cold, overwhelming and hardly welcoming rooms of the Versailles Palace.
As it was to be expected, the idea of such a show stirred controversy, since many considered it inappropriate for the rather solemn and historically charged venue of the former royal residence turned into prestigious museum. Petitioners who opposed the event were more than 11000 and some tens of people even protested in front on the palace’s gates trying to stop the exhibition from being opened. Charles – Emmanuel de Bourbon – Parma, a descendant of the French dynastic family of the Bourbons filed a lawsuit with the same intent (lawsuit which he unsurprisingly lost, as was the case also, two years before, when he attempted to prevent the Jeff Koons exhibition from being installed at Versailles). Accuses of pornography (not stopped by the clear announcement by the organizers that no sexually explicit art works by Murakami would feature in the exhibition), of degrading cultural heritage, of mocking one of France’s most cherished and famous symbols for the sake of media attention, of betraying the museum’s true mission etc. were quite vigorously launched in the weeks preceding the opening. None of these deterred either the 48 years Japanese art star or Jean – Jacques Aillagon, president of the Établissement public du musée et du domaine national de Versailles and so the exhibition opened as scheduled on the 14th of September. It comprises twenty two works, displayed in no less than fifteen of the palace’s salons and in its garden (namely, a monumental piece of sculpture placed on the Water Parterre). According to the artist, half of the art works were created especially for the exhibition, which intends to establish a meaningful dialogue, both in visual and in conceptual terms, with the environment in which they were going to be presented.
Welcoming the viewers in the water parterre, a monumental figure, called Oval Buddha, is placed in a vantage point above the vast gardens of Versailles. Made out of bronze and covered in gold leaf, the work exemplifies coherently some of the most important and frequently encountered characteristics of Murakami’s art: a mix of references to tradition and manga – style upgrading of that tradition, the use of ambivalence (the Buddha …, like many others of his “characters”, presents a smiley face on one side and a menacing appearance on the other), playfulness and a tendency to carelessly and joyfully border kitsch. Though it is not a site specific work in the true sense of the concept, its golden surface (that ironically makes reference, for me, at least, to the monumental golden gate of the château, probably the most neurotically and pointlessly luxurious element of the monumental venue) and monumental sizes, its placement between the baroque sculptures in the parterre and the nonchalance with which it dominates the surroundings generate a tensed, yet meaningful relation with the site.
Establishing such a relationship, such a dynamic dialogue is, I believe, essential for the whole exhibition and unfortunately Murakami’s works in the Versailles salons hardly succeed in coherently sustaining this dialogue, in reflecting on and in challenging its viewer to reflect on the relationships between the historical and the contemporary, between the fascination of power and the desire to mock its epitomes, between frivolity and the spectacular, even between the sacred and the profane. Within Versailles, the Japanese artist performs once more what one might coin as his usual “peaceful invasion”. The space he is getting in contact with becomes a conquered territory, its look, dynamics and atmosphere being brutally altered. Yet, the viewer can hardly perceive the sheer aggressiveness of the intervention, since the attack is performed by such innocent looking, viewer (i. e. consumer) friendly and cheerfully coloured “soldiers” as dollish looking boys and girls, dozens of (smiling) flowers, jellyfish eyes or colourful mushrooms. However, much too often in the case of Murakami Versailles, the invasion looks pointless, that is the same as to say that the exhibition seems almost conceptually gratuitous. Many of his work seem unable to really dialogue with their unexpected environment or to do more than just disrupt its cold, overwhelming and majestic atmosphere. The feeling is less that you are walking through Alice’s Wonderland than that Wonderland has been scattered all over the château with no clear purpose in mind.

Especially the human (or almost human) figures made out of fibreglass and plastic and covered exuberantly with acrylic paint appear rather abashed in the luxurious setting of the salons. Thus, childish characters as Saki or Tatsuya (a delicate, really corny, yet charmingly shy little girl, probably one of the best works in the show) are touchingly funny, yet they hardly blend into the environment or critically challenge it. Murakami’s caricature – type self-portrait with his dog (Pom and Me) presents us with the artist’s figure having his mouth wide open and the right arm pointed forward, as if he was asking the person facing him to stop in his / her tracks. The sculpture is funny and friendly and it shows that Murakami is capable of self – irony, but after the smile fades off your face, you probably wouldn’t give the work much thought. Miss Ko2 is a typical Murakami style teenager girl, exaggeratedly sexualized, but is far from attaining the same poignancy as his iconic Hiropon (also made in 1997, unfortunately not present in the show, where I believe it could have made much more sense than many other displayed works).
Moving from people to flowers, so to speak, the viewer reaches the former room of the king’s guards, which has been intensely restaged by Murakami. The floor is covered by a carpet full of laughing flowers. Some three quarters of the longest wall in the room is covered by wallpaper – like painting representing a lot of laughing flowers. Finally, two lamps ensure the lighting of the space: two spheres made out of plastic looking laughing flowers. It is probably impossible not to feel good and appeased in such an environment; withholding a childish smile is equally unattainable. And I’d love to loosen up in a chill out club styled like this. Still, after leaving the room, certain dissatisfaction arises, because, even if it is absolutely ok for an artwork to be funny, genuinely pleasant and spectacular in a simple way, shouldn’t it also be at least a bit challenging and problematic? Drawing a parallel to Arcimboldo is hard to resist and that’s not really flattering for the Japanese artist.
All these do not mean that there are no art works in the show that are quite compelling and that also function better in the difficult context they’ve been placed, proving Takashi Murakami to be more than just a media made art star, showing that he is a genuinely inventive, visually convincing artist that masters an extraordinary imaginative power. I’ve already mentioned the golden, monumental Oval Buddha in the courtyard. A smaller version of the work, cast in silver, is displayed inside the palace. It is a truly beautiful piece of sculpture, with its morphologic exuberance being subtly tamed by the elegance of its surface. The small Oval Buddha also relevantly communicates with its environment in a provocative way: its silvery elegance seems to fit in perfectly, while its shape makes it coherently stand out in the opulent salon. Given all that, it was a real pity that the way the work was displayed made it impossible for the viewer to circle around it, to see what must have been the menacing reverse of the calmly smiling face welcoming the spectator. (By the way, there were several other display mistakes: some other sculptures were impossible to see from all angles, the minimum distance one had to keep from some of the works was just a little too big, in my opinion, just big enough to become annoying).
One of the most impressive works in Murakami Versailles is Flower Matango (d), adequately installed in the famous Hall of Mirrors. The rather large sized sculpture is made out of fibreglass and iron, again painted in oil and acryl. The name Matango is a direct reference to the eponym movie directed by Ishiro Honda, famous among the tokusatsu movies fans. It denominates both the evil fungi, affected by radioactivity, that transform people in monstrous creatures and the creatures themselves. Murakami’s Matango however is composed of two balls of flowers placed one on top of the other, from which branches carrying more flowers are generated. It takes a closer, more careful look for one to notice the menacing elements disturbing this atavistically grown, cheerful floral Godzilla, namely the hysterically colourful thorns on the branches. Flower Matango (d) is about typical Murakami topics: the nature and its potential destruction by men, monumentalizing popular culture’s items, the difficult relationship between irony and beauty. Displayed toward one end of the Hall of Mirrors, the work reveals its full visual power, managing to eerily disturb and even dominate the lastingly fancy and slightly tedious royal salon. Thus, it poignantly epitomizes cultural tension, born out of the reciprocal incomprehensiveness of two civilizations and it reveals the relationship between contemporary art and the historical venue as problematic and challenging. In other words, it does what the whole show is trying to do, yet it so often fails achieving.
Among the most provocative works on display there was Emperor’s New Clothes – a rather small size piece of sculpture representing a ridiculously looking, short and fat royal figure, with a ludicrous moustache and a tiny deep red crown on his head. The work is ironic indeed, though its irony is not necessarily a subtle one and it is somewhat gratuitous. I can certainly understand why some might find inadequate to display the work in the rooms of Versailles, especially in the Coronation room, where David’s Le Sacré, his Distribution of Eagles and Gros’ Battle of Aboukir, all of them glorifying Napoleon’s era and his great deeds, are looking down at Murakami’s insolent intervention. On the other hand, I believe this is one of the best situations that Murakami has created within the palace, for it raises, or it should raise awareness about the paradoxes and turbulent evolution of Versailles. Thus, it is hardly attainable that placing his sculpture in the palace could ever be more offensive to a dynastical past than placing here the paintings of a regicide (David) who took part in the killing of a rightful owner of Versailles and ruler the French kingdom (king Louis XVI), paintings which, all the more, flatter and glorify an unlawfully crowned emperor (Bonaparte). Seen in that perspective, Murakami’s work can be genuinely challenging, not just visually amusing, but also intellectually exciting.

Finally, for an overall assessment of the exhibition, one could use as starting point the words of Laurent le Bon, the show’s curator and director of Centre Pompidou – Metz, who wrote about its aims: “Through sensual pleasures, the walk, a new labyrinth of Versailles, has the purpose of both distracting and entertaining the walker, beyond the clichés”. All in all, probably for anyone with a true interest in or love for contemporary art, the walk along the Murakami Versailles indeed offers, I believe, the opportunity of getting pleasantly distracted, entertained, even somewhat surprised. I do have serious doubts however that the show is able to get anyone, in anyway, beyond the clichés. To achieve that reflection is definitely necessary and Murakami’s show offers rather rare moments when the walker is truly invited or incited to reflect. Still, maybe the show at Versailles did reveal in the end something essential about his art, namely that, as spectacular and funny as it might be, as strong and versatile is the imagination some of his artistic production is based upon, it often gets dangerously closed to being redundant and conceptually void.

Photos by Anamaria Tomiuc

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If it’s not the best exhibition I have ever seen, it is certainly in my personal top three: the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris is a breathtaking display of artistic force and curatorial skilfulness, a monumental tribute to a truly monumental personality of the twentieth century. The show is organized by the above mentioned museum in collaboration with Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and is placed under the patronage of Carla Bruni, France’s first lady and former fashion model who collaborated with the flamboyant and influent Parisian designer.
Some three hundred Saint Laurent models were set on display by the two curators, Florence Muller and Farid Chenoune, alongside an impressive quantity of drawings, sketches, documentary videos, comics and so on, offering a compelling and touching image of a complex, challenging and truly groundbreaking artist. The retrospective includes works dating from the late fifties (pieces of Yves Saint Laurent’s first collection from 1958, when he was working for Christian Dior) until his last elegant and somewhat melancholic creations of 2002. Thus, more then four decades of work unfold before the viewer, in such a manner that maintaining a critical stance becomes difficult, while sheer aesthetic pleasure and intellectual marvelling take over.
In presenting the artist’s fashion production, the exhibition poignantly underlines the profoundly innovative character of Yves Saint Laurent’s creation and the broad and deep understanding of society, culture and art that it is based upon. From the very beginnings of his career, the Oran born designer was pushing against the boundaries of fashion, understanding that it can be fully meaningful only when rules are left aside in order to meet, but also to forge, social demand. Deploying an acute understanding of form and colour, a feverish skill and a relentless work capacity, the French artist was the one to produce a series of significant “firsts”. Thus, the first sea jacket in 1962, the first safari suit in 1968 and, probably most notoriously, the first smoking suit in 1966 constitute some important highlights of his oeuvre. The importance of his participation in the social transformations that took place so spectacularly during the sixties and the early seventies, especially in regard to the role, the image and the self perception of women, is adequately described by a sentence used more than once in relation to the artist, which is also appropriated by the curators of the show: “Chanel gave women freedom. Yves Saint Laurent gave them power”.
Drawing is very present throughout the exhibition, in various forms. Some of his sketches were digitalized and then printed in huge sizes, covering the monumental windows of the halls at Petit Palais. Still, nothing of the freshness, the tactile quality and the astonishing simplicity of the original drawing is lost. A video showing Yves Saint Laurent at work leaves the spectator with the impression he or she’s just been watching an elegant lesson about mastering the line, in an effortless and eerily fast manner. The comics centred on the character of the naughty girl, Lulu, are another way the artist used the medium of drawing as form of expression. La vilaine Lulu is a book that was acclaimed by some as being a display of savage irony directed at various fears and clichés of the contemporary era, while others have furiously criticized it, even going so far as to denounce it as a plain manifest of Satanism.
This is not the only part of the exhibition which reveals Yves Saint Laurent potential for generating controversy. Thus, one room is dedicated to his spring 1971 collection, which was accused by many in his country and elsewhere of explicit references to the time of collaborationism in France and of romanticizing the German Nazi occupation and received more than a handful of negative reviews. Also, another room is presenting the spectator with a series of photographic nude portraits of the fashion designer realized by the photographer Jeanloup Sieff. Like other Saint Laurent “products”, the controversial images, initially conceived as part of a branding campaign, have meanwhile become classics equally for the genre of fashion photography, for that of photo portrait and that of the photographical nude.
By all means, the relation that the fashion designer has developed with other artistic media and with (modernist) art history is very well accounted for in the show. Some of his opera and theatre costumes are on view and one of the most touching section of the display is formed by screenings of movies to the production of which he contributed. In this respect, model and actress Catherine Deneuve, his long time muse, staring in Belle du jour, one of the most important Buñuel films and one of the most provocative products of European cinematography in the sixties, is both an eye stopper and a moving reminder of a great friendship which bounded two icons of contemporary culture. Following the same line of the dialogue with other artistic media, a rather small selection of fashion photographs, realized by some of the best artists ever active in this field and inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s creations is presented at Petit Palais. The curators seem to have privileged quality over quantity and indeed, some of the photos displayed are exquisite works of art, particularly those of Helmut Newton.
But Saint Laurent’s relation to art is a much more intimate one, as convincingly proved by his collections dedicated to or inspired by the works of great artists of the twentieth century. A whole room of the retrospective show is hosting some of the most impressive examples of such creations of the French designer. Here, the refined and somewhat minimalist art of Mondrian becomes the pretext for a lavishly seductive dress; there, Picasso’s daring and trembled lines are tamed and charmed into seductively following the curves of the female body. And it seems there are no unsurpassable limits for the swirling whirlpool of his imagination: just as easy as he can move throughout art history, from using the chromatic harmonies of Robert Delaunay to reshaping the reveries of the surrealists, Yves Saint Laurent can move through (cultural) spaces. Titled Les voyages imaginaire, one section of the show brings forward examples of clothes he’s conceived taking as starting point the formal and chromatic specificities of the traditional costumes from area as diverse as Spain or Russia, the Maghreb or the Far East. The designer’s imaginary voyages are romanticist exercises in exoticism, understood in its positive, playful and truly seductive meaning.
One of the things that Saint Laurent held to be axiomatic for the world of fashion was that haute couture’ s time is over. Therefore, it was a shocking and revealing experience to view Le dernier bal, one of the last and arguably the most spectacular room in the show. Some tens of haute couture models that he produced during his entire career were displayed on mannequins placed on a monumental podium – like stage, in a large, high room. Opera music played, and while the centre of the room was occupied by the startlingly elegant, sensuously colourful dresses, one of the walls was covered by a huge print depicting a nineteenth century ball scene and another one was literally covered, top to bottom, by black and dark grey smoking suits produces by the artist. The stark contrast between sobriety and innovation on one hand, history and nostalgia meaningfully and acutely circumscribe Yves Saint Laurent’s creative personality.
Somewhat lateral from what is supposed to constitute the main itinerary within the display, Yves Saint Laurent’s work studio from the sixties was reconstituted and displayed. Viewing it is both an emotional and a startling experience. A simple wooden desk lies in front of the visitor, with rather few objects placed upon it. There are some pencils, some sketches and several blank sheets of paper, two or three art catalogues. On the wall behind the desk and the simple, even banal chair used by the designer, several shelves can be seen, on which more art books are arranged. And that’s pretty much it. Nothing is sophisticated, nothing is glamorous. It is almost as someone would try to define and construct a minimum set of tools an artist might need in order to achieve creative greatness. This simplicity is all the more uncanny and somehow moving as one remembers that the artist in question is one of the sacred monsters of the shiny, spectacular, vanity driven world of fashion.
All in all, the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at Petit Palais is a splendid epitome of one of the fundamental beliefs regarding the field of fashion design which the artist had once formulated: “I have always held above all the respect for this profession which is not entirely an art, but needs an artist in order to exist”. And, as Yves Saint Laurent proves, every now and then a great artist comes into this profession and transforms it from maybe less than art into maybe more than art, making it a world shaping, society moulding instrument, while it still remains visually enchanting.

Note: for a virtual tour of the show, check http://www.yslretrospective.com