Assessing Murakami's Versailles Show: A Critical Roundup

ARTINFO France reported last week on the press preview of Takashi Murakamis massive manga-inspired sculptures at the Versailles Château, at which the institution’s president Jean-Jacques Aillagon declared, "Takashi Murakamis works are joyous and Versailles is a palace destined for happiness, joy, and merriment."

Yet Versailles has also seemed destined for controversy, ever since the national site began showing contemporary artworks — starting with Jeff Koons in 2008, followed by the somewhat less controversial French artist Xavier Veilhan in 2009, and now joined by Takashi Murakami. Two groups aligned with the political right circulated petitions against the exhibition that garnered several thousand signatures, but the planned protest for today’s official opening of the show drew only a couple dozen participants, according to Le Monde.

So how do people around the globe really feel about the installation? ARTINFO takes a look at the critical reception of Murakami’s colorful creations and finds the media, at least, divided, with reactions ranging from spirited celebration to dismissive disappointment to downright disgust.

  • According to Le Monde, French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand has overcome his hesitations: though he declares himself, "very protective of [French] heritage" he deems the exhibition "good." ARTINFO hopes that Versailles president Aillagon is not perilously overwhelmed by this effusive show of governmental support.

  • For Devorah Lauter of the Los Angeles Times, the show’s interest lies in its mix of irony and affection, as seen in the "The Emperor’s New Clothes," a googly-eyed fat king who stands in comic counterpoint to the surrounding wall paintings depicting Napoleon I in the Coronation Room.

  • Le Figaro blogger Sébastien Le Fol thinks the show is "cute" and "the children of Hello Kitty and teens brought up on manga will love it." But he finds that Murakami’s work, unlike that of predecessors Veilhan and Koons, doesn’t really engage in dialogue with its surroundings, which he finds disappointing.

  • L’Express has also published a "list of 10 things to know about the unavoidable Takashi Murakami" that explains "why his work is important" and finds him to be "a pure Warholian" with his own "factory" employing 50 people in Tokyo and 20 in New York. The number-one fact to know about Murakami? "He likes scatology, sperm, and stuffed animals on acid" and that is why "you really need to have grown up in the 90’s to endure this orgy of flashy colors without risking an epileptic seizure."

  • Le Monde art critic Harry Bellet gives a rather cynical compliment to Versailles president Jean-Jacques Aillagon for skillfully flattering the throngs of Japanese tourists who visit the site by featuring their artistic compatriot, but he thinks it's a "mystery" why manga, "an aesthetic intended for spending time in Japanese public transportation, has become a world-wide phenomenon" and concludes that "it makes you think that contemporary art collectors are big kids." 

For those who can’t make the trip to France, don’t despair. Like Jeff Koons before him, but in the opposite order (Koons did Macy's and then Versailles), Murakami is making the trip from the Château of Versailles to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As IN THE AIR recently noted, two of the Japanese artist’s characters, Kaikai and Kiki, will appear as balloons in this year’s parade.

Does New York need to fear a turkey-day right-wing backlash to a presumed "desecration of national heritage" in the spirit of France's recent sparring? Probably not. While the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is indeed a cultural institution, its 86-year history isn't infused with quite the same symbolic power as the Château de Versailles’s almost 400-year past.