After the French Revolution, Versailles stopped being notorious. But, in the past four years, the château’s program of modern art has brought plenty of controversy. Giant balloon animals by Jeff Koons, then manga sculptures by Takashi Murakami gave Paris art critics and historians fits. Now, through September 30, the château is showing “feminist” sculpture by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. The first woman to be exhibited by the château, her “Vasconcelos at Versailles” fills the heritage site with feathered helicopters, giant stilettos made from saucepans and huge porcelain lobsters.
The lobsters, it seems, are “portraits” of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, meant to show “sexual desire and gastronomy going hand in hand.” Certainly, the ill-fated royal couple was well fed. Yet they famously took seven years to consummate their marriage.
This is the château as portrayed by Sofia Coppola—a fabulous Pinterest rereading of the past. Vasconcelos’s installations are certainly plenty of fun and they offer great photo opportunities. But the work remains less Versailles than Las Vegas. Rather than showing visitors anything new about the château, they exist as a kind of giant, festive happening.
Versailles itself remains one of the top tourist gold mines. Thus, in describing the work, Paris art critics use discretion. Vasconcelos’s installations are being called “rebellious and joyful,” with their use of humble materials framed as an “homage to women throughout time.” French culture minister Aurélie Filipetti praised the artist for “bringing humor to feminism.” More accurate, however, is her observation that the beplumed helicopter “might belong to Lady Gaga.”
It is Vasconcelos, rather than Marie Antoinette, who shares the aesthetics of that self-promoting pop star. The Portuguese artist (born in Paris) saw the venerable château as a personal stage set. In it, she placed “interventions” specializing in familiar stereotypes. The Hall of Battles? Valkryies! The Gabriel staircase? Mary Poppins! The queen’s bedroom? A giant wig! From giant “hearts” made out of plastic cutlery to “champagne fountains,” her work strives to be as epic as the premises.
That, of course, proves impossible; big is not always the equal of legendary. Vasconcelos may be an art-world darling. But her understanding of the château’s history is hardly profound. This does not prevent the works from doing what they mean to: they do indeed make jaws drop and cameras click. Still, the château’s female president firmly refused one of the pieces. It was The Fiancée, a huge chandelier created from 25,000 tampons. A signature work that made Vasconcelos famous, this was intended for the Hall of Mirrors. President Catherine Pégard says that was never going to happen. “Versailles is not just any place; it is central in our heritage. I prefer to focus on the way Joana met its challenges.”
Pégard is right. With pieces made from everything from crochet to old champagne bottles, the artist has added plenty of spectacles. So, if you’re thinking of a visit, let these colossal hearts and slippers make up your mind. Think of them as a modern equivalent of those giant fires once burned on the château’s grounds just so, inside, the royals had ambient lighting.
These days, it’s the visitor who is king or queen. All this theatre was created just for you. Destined for your camera and your Twitter stream, it says: Go for it!
Curious about Versailles’s vast history? Check out a woman’s view via Antonia Fraser’s classic biographies. Both Marie Antoinette (the unabridged original, not the film-linked version) and Love and Louis XIV are well worth the effort. If you’re flying to France, both are available from Audible as excellent audiobooks; try Eleanor Bron’s reading of Marie Antoinette and Patricia Hodge for Love and Louis XIV.
Editor’s note: Looking for a bike tour of Versailles or another interesting tour? Browse our unique Paris tour categories. We have sourced the most interesting tours in and around Paris to make your trip magical!