Veilhan at Versailles and Design at Fontainebleau

September 15, 2009By Paris UpdateArchive
Veilhan at Versailles

“Le Carrosse” by Xavier Veilhan in the Cour d’Honneur at Versailles. Photo © Vincent Germond. © Veilhan/Adagp, Paris, 2009.

“Confronting” historic sites with contemporary art is all the rage today. Last week, two royal châteaux – Versailles and Fontainebleau – opened

Veilhan at Versailles

“Le Carrosse” by Xavier Veilhan in the Cour d’Honneur at Versailles. Photo © Vincent Germond. © Veilhan/Adagp, Paris, 2009.

“Confronting” historic sites with contemporary art is all the rage today. Last week, two royal châteaux – Versailles and Fontainebleau – opened exhibitions designed to attract new visitors to already-familiar sites by offering a new perspective on the old.

As Xavier Veilhan, the French artist who had the unenviable task of following up on last year’s exhibition of works by Jeff Koons in the château to end all châteaux, said at the opening of his show at Versailles, “Even this historic site was once contemporary.”

Unlike Koons, who placed existing works in the grands appartements at Versailles, Veilhan has chosen, with varying degrees of success, to create site-specific works set up in transitional spaces like staircases and courtyards, and in the vast garden behind the château, along an east-west axis.

The first piece (and the most effective) encountered by visitors is a stylized purple carriage drawn by galloping horses in the Cour d’Honneur. Shaped like a lightning bolt, it not only evokes the comings and goings of the court under the three successive King Louis but also the flight of the terrified royal family when they unsuccessfully attempted to escape the country during the Revolution (although they left from the Tuileries Palace, not Versailles) and were stopped at Varennes.

A touching piece – and one that many visitors may completely miss, so well does its neutral color blend in with the blond paving stones of the vast courtyard it stands in – is a slim little statue of a naked woman on a tall, narrow pedestal, simple and fragile amidst of the grandiosity of the château. The two pieces placed in staircases – a gigantic mobile of purple balls and the “Light Machine,” a sort of film (of an intruder in the château) in light bulbs – are interesting and fit well into their settings.

So far, so good. While none of these pieces are that fascinating on their own as works of art, their placement in counterpoint to their lavish setting lends added interest to both. Not so with “Le Gisant,” a large statue of Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, fallen to earth and stretched out on the ground of a courtyard with a chunk of his body displace to the side – an allusion to fallen kings, I suppose, but it’s not obvious or convincing.

The presence on the esplanade behind the château of black statues of eight living architects – including Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando – is equally nonplussing. Okay, architects designed Versailles, but why these architects, why are the statues black (maybe because all architects wear black?) on black frames and why are some of them realistically portrayed and others just faceless abstractions?

Beyond the architects, we have one of the more interesting pieces: “La Lune.” Designed to form a perfect moon shape against a green square of lawn when seen from the king’s point of view in the château, it is actually a series of balls on sticks stuck into a rectangular lawn some distance from the château. And beyond that is the final piece: a 100-meter high water jet in the center of one of the château’s canals.

Veilhan has made a valiant attempt to meet the challenge of creating works that stand up to the over-the-top decoration of Versailles, but perhaps the Baroque qualities of Jeff Koons’ pieces worked better in this context. Still, this show has the advantage of redirecting our attention to a place many of us avoid because it is such a huge tourist trap, but that never fails to overwhelm every time we see it, especially since recent renovations have restored and regilded many parts of the château, making it once again fit for a king.

The next artist to be invited to show in the château in 2010 will be Takashi Murakami. Apparently, the plan is to alternate between French and foreign artists each year.

Design at Fontainebleau

A sofa designed by Zaha Hadid at the Château de Fontainebleau. Photo © Sophie Lloyd

At Fontainebleau, a more modest (although modest is hardly the word to describe its decoration, except in comparison with Versailles) royal château southeast of Paris, another exhibition “confronts” contemporary design with its antecedents by taking out of storage some of the 16,000 items owned by the château (those that aren’t already used to furnish the rooms open to the public) and presenting them alongside contemporary furniture and objects commissioned and purchased by the Centre National des Arts Plastiques, a government agency that acquires works by living artists for the French state.

While the point of this show isn’t really clear, it provides a good excuse for the château and the CNAP to take some of their collections out of mothballs and show them to the public, while also doing for Fontainebleau what the Veilhan exhibition does for Versailles, offering a new perspective on a place that seems frozen in time. The Château de Fontainebleau was inhabited continuously for eight centuries and renovated and redecorated by the successive monarchs who passed through its doors. Although its furnishings were dispersed during the Revolution, Napoleon (who famously abdicated here and said good-bye to his troops from château’s majestic staircase) was buying back its former contents, a process that continued throughout the 19th century.

The old and the new are juxtaposed in such a way to throw a light on four themes: reproduction, variation, extraordinary objects and interpretation. Thus we see the evolution of the chair through the ages, from the simplest stool to such oddities as Jurgen Bey’s vacuum-cleaner chair, with its inflating and deflating bag. Variations on lighting range from candlesticks to avant-garde lighting designer Ingo Maurer’s winged chandelier or the image of a light bulb on a computer screen. Even bathrooms get the treatment, with variations on the chamber pot contrasted with Philippe Starck’s sleek modern bathroom fixtures. Starck seems to be overrepresented in this show, but then he is so prolific that he is disproportionately present on the market as well.

Both these shows provide good excuses for a pleasant day trip to sites that deserve regular visits.

Château de Versailles: Place d’Armes, 78000 Versailles. Click here for travel instructions. Through December 13.,

Château de Fontainebleau: 77300 Fontainebleau. Tel.: 01 60 71 50 70. From Paris’s Gare de Lyon, take Ile-de-France train to Fontainebleau-Avon, then bus to château. Through November 30.

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