Cosmonaut, purple horses storm Versailles

13th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

The strikingly modernist works by French artist Xavier Veilhan will be on show from Sunday in the chateau's cobbled courtyards and its lavish gardens, and inside the palace itself, until mid-December.

Paris -- Futuristic purple horses and a colossal Yury Gagarin go on show in Versailles, as the royal palace shrugs off controversy and confirms its place as a major new exhibition space for contemporary art.

The strikingly modernist works by French artist Xavier Veilhan will be on show from Sunday in the chateau's cobbled courtyards and its lavish gardens, and inside the palace itself, until mid-December.

"It is a joy to be able to bring one of France's great contemporary artists to one of the world's greatest sites," said Versailles museum director Jean-Jacques Aillagon at a press preview on Wednesday.

He began Versailles' role as a major modern art space in 2008 with a show by US pop artist Jeff Koons that divided opinion and provoked a lawsuit by a Louis XIV heir who felt it dishonoured his family's illustrious past.

But the show -- that ruffled the stately pomp of the royal court with a giant inflatable lobster and a figurine of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles -- was hugely popular with the public, drawing in a million visitors.

Aillagon now wants to alternate a foreign and a French artist at the annual shows, with Japan's Takashi Murakami, best known for work inspired by sexually explicit cartoons, billed for next year at the chateau near Paris.

The hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving at Versailles in the coming months will be met in the first courtyard by Veilhan's galloping purple metal horses dragging behind them an equally purple carriage.

"It's a nod to the departure of the royal family on October 6, 1789, when the Paris mob brought the king and the queen and their children to Paris," said Aillagon.

Next they will behold a four-metre (13-foot) sculpture of the Soviet hero Yury Gagarin, the first man in space. His recumbent body, made from cast aluminum and resin, is riddled with moon-like craters.

"He's a cosmonaut who was in the avant-garde of humanity, the first to have that view of the earth as an object," Veilhan told AFP.

"There's a parallel with what was done when Louis XIV had this palace designed in the 17th century," when it was seen as the most splendid palace in Europe, said the 46-year-old from the central city of Lyon.

Inside the palace itself are the Mobile, a shower of blue spheres suspended overhead, and the Light Machine, a thousand light bulbs making up a wall of transient images showing the artist diving into a lake in the chateau gardens.

In the grounds sculptures of contemporary architects sit atop pedestals and look out at the gardens and lakes, in one of which Veilhan has installed a 100-metre high fountain.

"The choice of architects was a logical one because for me Versailles is an architectural statement," Veilhan told AFP as he stood beneath one of the sculptures, dressed in jeans and a blue tuxedo jacket.

He created most of the works especially for the exhibition. They cost 1.6 million euros (2.3 million dollars) to produce and a further 600,000 euros to install, with most of the money coming from private sponsors.

Veilhan is seen as a major figure of the French art scene, but is little known abroad.

Versailles director Aillagon said one aim of staging such shows is to promote living French artists.

"The poor recognition of French artists on the international scene is a real problem," he noted.

On Wednesday the throngs of tourists who braved lengthy queues to get into the chateau and its gardens were paying little attention to Veilhan's works, which are already set up ahead of the official unveiling Sunday.

The purple horses were popular with youngsters who mounted the 15-metre-long sculpture to have their photos taken. But mostly people streamed past the works with little more than a glance.

"I hadn't really noticed them," said Catherine Gilmore, a 55-year-old primary school deputy principal from Adelaide in Australia, when asked for her verdict.

"They look out of place -- a bit too modern," she added.


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