Traditionalists outraged at Versailles' modern makeover

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Outraged traditionalists are due to demonstrate outside the Palace of Versailles tonight against an invasion of the gilded former home of French royalty by a radical contemporary art exhibition.

For the second time in two years, the management of the palace has caused uproar by displaying garish modern art – this time by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami – in the ornate halls and gardens of the palace.

A petition appealing to Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the director of the palace, and France's minister of culture Frédéric Mitterrand not to "shatter the harmony" of Versailles, has almost 5,000 signatures.

Prince Charles-Emmanuel de Bourbon-Parme, a descendant of Louis XIV, has tried to have the show banned. "This new, controversial art will lose the reputation Versailles has as the cultural window of France," he said.

"We also have to worry about disillusioned visitors who have come from the other side of the world, only to discover that at the heart of the universe of Louis XIV there is a clown-like exhibition."

Two years ago, the American artist Jeff Koons displayed works at the palace including a giant metal balloon dog and a cartoon animal's head made of flower pots. At the time, it was argued that Koons' art had no place in the "perfectly balanced" Palace of Versailles.

Koons retorted that contemporary art should not be a "prisoner of the present", and that the 18th-century surroundings

helped put his work "in the context of the history of art and of history – full-stop".

Murakami's pieces, which resemble giant children's toys, may well be seen as more kitsch than Koons' works. His collection includes the gold Oval Buddha, which is more than five metres tall and takes pride of place in the Le Nôtre gardens. Pom and Me, a portrait of himself and his dog, is one of the more curious pieces. "It represents the artist," explains Murakami, "who in Japanese tradition is of a very low social ranking."

Mr Aillagon is aware of the row the exhibition has created, but insists that the pairing of 18th-century architecture and contemporary art is justified. "I'm convinced that the pieces in these surroundings work well," he said. "Putting them together is a good idea. It is stimulating."

Murakami is philosophical about the controversy. "Even when someone scores a goal [in football], someone is going to be unhappy," he said. He respects the different opinions about his work, he said, "just as long as an extremist doesn't attack me physically."

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