VERSAILLES, France (Reuters Life!) - Wild, otherworldly creations from the mind of Japan's foremost pop artist took over the Versailles palace this week, to the fury of royalists bent on keeping the site pure of modern influences.
The exhibition by Takashi Murakami brings gleaming cartoon behemoths from the world of Japanese "otaku" culture into the muted grandeur of the Ancien Regime palace, throwing 17th century French aesthetics against hypermodern Japan.
Weeks before the opening, the prospect of manga-inspired fibreglass sculptures invading the former residence of Louis XIV prompted protests by a faction of royalist activists, who picketed outside the palace gates.
In an online petition titled "Versailles, Mon Amour," they accused palace curators of selling out to "financial art" and perverting the historical nature of the Versailles palace, last inhabited by Louis XVI.
Yet the noise did not discourage Murakami, a classically trained painter turned art world superstar, who put on a typically extravagant show featuring all but his most provocative works, which were left out as a concession.
Absent from the exhibition, which runs from September 14 to mid-December, are risque works like "My Lonesome Cowboy" and "Hiropon" which had worried critics with their graphic yet playful cartoon depictions of anatomy.
The artist said criticism of his work was nothing new, having already given rise to the phenomenon of "Murakami bashing" on the Web.
"These criticisms, I have also heard them on the Web," he told a news conference, speaking through an interpreter. "On the Web, there was even 'Murakami bashing' ... but all of this, in my opinion, comes from a misunderstanding."
Inside the palace, Murakami has deployed his signature "superflat" style in a combination of two dimensional imagery, video art and sculpture -- some of it complementing the muralled interiors, some of it jarring.
The result is a visual clash of cultures, a mash-up of Japanese anime and French classical art in which cartoonish figures face off against military heroes glowering down at them from giant oil paintings on the walls.
Visitors on their way into the palace are greeted by a massive gold-plated totem with conical spikes for teeth, and once inside they can trample on a flower-patterned carpet bursting with day-glo colours.
Some tourists milling around the palace grounds -- many unaware before they arrived that Murakami had taken over the space -- were amused. Others said they felt cheated out of a historical experience.
"I think they're kind of shameful to be in Versailles, I think Louis XIV would be flipping out," said Mike Cormier, an American tourist. "I didn't come here to see this: I came to see Versailles. If I wanted to see this I would have gone to Pompidou."
Jean-Jacques Aillagon, former French culture minister and head of the Versailles museum, struck back against critics and said no classical works had been moved to accommodate the Japanese artist.
"I think they're wrong. They have prejudices," he told Reuters Television. "The rule of the game is that we remove nothing from the palace."
Editing by Paul Casciato