VERSAILLES, France (Reuters) - King Louis XIV was a visionary patron of the arts but he could never have imagined an inflatable lobster, a porcelain statue of Michael Jackson or a giant balloon dog gracing his beloved Versailles palace.
Jeff Koons, the U.S. artist who has set auction records with two sculptures selling for over $23 million apiece, on Wednesday presented 17 of his works from the past two decades in the gilded chambers of the Sun King's chateau.
"It's the proudest moment of my life," Koons, 53, told reporters as workers finished nailing everything into place.
The show is the biggest contemporary art exhibition at Versailles, and has caused a huge media stir in France.
Newspapers have dubbed Koons "the king of kitsch" and some critics have wondered whether his shiny, toy-like creations had their place among masterpieces commissioned by kings of France in the 17th and 18th centuries.
"Louis XIV was always open to the arts and always made Versailles an open place ... I hope that my work shows respect to the palace and continues a positive tradition in Versailles," Koons said, rejecting the "kitsch" label.
The first tourists to see the show had mixed reactions.
"My first thought when I walked in was wow, 'that's really out of place'," said Gary Furr, a U.S. tourist, gazing at "Balloon Dog (Magenta)," a huge gleaming pink poodle, which faces a painting by Italian Renaissance master Veronese.
Outside the chateau, a small group staged a brief protest to say Koons' works would be better suited to Disneyland, but Australian tourist Vicky Jones disagreed.
"I thought they were beautiful. They really enhanced the setting," she said.
Among the more incongruous sights of the show is a lifesize porcelain statue entitled "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," showing the King of Pop and a monkey, which is set in front of a marble statue of Louis XIV dressed as a Roman emperor.
In another room, Koons has set a white marble bust of himself in between the most iconic portrait of the mature Louis XIV in his royal robes and an equally famous painting of the Sun King's doomed descendant Louis XVI, who was executed in 1793.
"It didn't have to do with my own ego," Koons said of the choice of setting, describing his intention as "playful."
Koons credited the Sun King with inspiring some of his most ambitious works, like the monumental "Split Rocker" made in 2000, which consists of half a dinosaur's head and half a rocking-horse's head, joined together and entirely covered in 90,000 live flowers. It is on display in the Versailles garden.
"It comes from just thinking about what Louis would have the fantasy to see when he'd wake up in the morning," Koons said.
The director of Versailles, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, rejected criticism that the works were inappropriate for the chateau.
"Versailles is a place of excess. Louis XIV didn't hold back on the size of the building, the richness of the decoration, of the gardens ... There is a connection between his extravagance and the extravagance shown by Jeff Koons in his art," he said.