At the palace of Versailles, a marble statue of Louis XIV now shares space with some unlikely interlopers: Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles, sculpted in porcelain.
Versailles, the most gilded and over-the-top of French royal palaces, has let contemporary American artist Jeff Koons redecorate, and his eye-popping giant balloon animals and other zany sculptures are now on display alongside masterpieces by Veronese and Bernini.
The show, which opened Wednesday and runs through Dec. 14, is yet another sign that France's bastions of traditional culture are loosening up. The Louvre has hosted contemporary artists and even welcomed slam poets to perform in its echoing galleries.
But a small yet vocal band of staunch traditionalists is fuming. About 30 protesters rallied outside the chateau at the opening, arguing that Koons' art would "sully" Versailles' grandeur and traditions.
Koons' sculpted rabbits and dogs "don't belong at the palace of Versailles, they belong at Disneyland," said journalist and radio host Anne Brassie.
Arnaud-Aaron Upinsky, the president of a writers' union, agreed. "This exhibit is sacrilegious and insulting to the symbols of the Republic and its art," he said, wearing a velvet-and-gold-colored crown at the protest.
Koons said he has no intention of mocking the palace that Louis XIV transformed from a hunting lodge into a symbol of royal power in the 17th century.
"I'm so grateful for the opportunity to show in Versailles. I have complete respect for Versailles and I have complete respect for each individual that's coming to Versailles," Koons told reporters.
The 53-year-old artist did acknowledge some of his intentions were "playful," such as pairing a sculpture of himself alongside Louis XIV's portrait and putting a display of vacuum cleaners in an antechamber once used by Marie Antoinette.
"I've always thought that vacuum cleaners are very womblike," he mused.
Balloon in Hall of Mirrors
Surprisingly, perhaps, Koons' art seems perfectly matched to Versailles. A giant reflective balloon graces the Hall of Mirrors. A larger-than-life sculpture of a vase of flowers fits well with the cloying flowery wallpapers and tapestries in a bedroom once used by French queens.
A huge sculpture of a rocking horse — crafted partly from live flowers and using an internal irrigation system — is the latest addition to the pruned shrubs in the geometric garden.
And of course, there's Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, in shimmery white and gold, partially blocking the view of an ornate Louis XIV.
French critics have had fun describing the marriage of Koons' art with equally showy Versailles — and at least one was unable to resist throwing in a reference to Koons' ex-wife Ilona Staller, a former porn star known as La Cicciolina who became a member of Italy's parliament.
"I can just picture La Cicciolina in Louis XIV's bed," joked critic Didier Rykner in his online Web magazine, La Tribune de l'Art.
The show's detractors complain the display at Versailles will boost Koons' prices, and thus the pocketbooks of one of his collectors, billionaire businessman Francois Pinault. Koons, whose "Hanging Heart" sculpture fetched $23.6 million last November, needs no publicity, they say.
Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Versailles' president and a former French culture minister, dismissed the criticism as "out of line," saying exhibits inevitably boost artists' prices. He also insisted that while his main role is to preserve and restore Versailles, he has a duty to make sure it doesn't become a dusty relic.
"It's an exceptional place," he said. "But it's not a dead place, it's a living place. It's a place that demands respect, but it's not a place that demands sanctimoniousness."