Versailles is an example of Louis XIV’s overabundant luxury and a strong demonstration of his absolute power over the country. In adding on to the Palais de Versailles, Louis XIV sought to show the world and his subjects who was in charge. He wanted to make an impact with the immense richness displayed in his palace. Every inch of each room at the Palais de Versailles is decorated. Printed carpets decorate the floors; patterned wall paper, gilded molding, and paintings decorate the walls; even the ceilings are decorated. It all points to the wealth of the king.
Through the decorations, Louis XIV wanted to assert his dominion over the country. He wanted to flex his muscles and show that no one else was as wealthy, and no one else lived in as much luxury as he did. In the Apollo Salon, a portrait of Louis XIV dominates the wall. On the ceiling, there are paintings of Apollo who is accompanied by France and leading a procession. Louis XIV called himself the Sun King and was comparing himself to Apollo, the sun god, in this painting. It represents the elevation of the king of France to a godlike status. The king of France was no longer seeking his power from God, but was in a way seeking to become one himself.
In fall of 2010, a Japanese pop artist, Takishi Murakami had his art exhibited at the Palais de Versailles. While at first the manga style art doesn’t seem to fit in with the exaggerated luxury of the palace, the meaning behind the sculptures points to the way our culture has become like Louis XIV. For example, in the sculpture entitled The Simple Pleasures, Murakami has placed common commercial items in the mouth of a ravenous-looking many-toothed monster. These everyday items are, however, encrusted in 26,000 rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds. Like Louis XIV decorated his walls and ceilings with gold and glittering lighting fixtures, so Murakami decorates his everyday items in a demonstration of today’s overindulgent consumerism – it reflects that of the king who once inhabited the palace.
A second sculpture entitled Flower Matango stands at the end of the Hall of Mirrors. The hall is covered in mirrors and gilded molding. The ceilings hold rows and rows of crystal chandeliers. The statue, like the hall, is excessive. The flower monster had several hundred little flower faces with vines extending everywhere and more colors than could be counted. While they are somewhat overwhelming, both the Hall of Mirrors and Flower Matango show joy and festivity. Louis XIV wanted to show that he was powerful, but that also involved showing that he had the most relaxed and enjoyable life of anyone else. His life and his parties were lavish and excessive, but also enjoyable and happy. He did have everything he could possibly want after all.
While many people didn’t like the Japanese pop art being displayed in contrast to the Baroque-style rooms, I think that it gives us an interesting comparison between the old and the new. What was detested by French Revolutionaries in 1789 has become the status quo for a lot of people around the world. We have stopped relating ourselves to a greater power and instead are seeking to become that great power ourselves. We decorate ourselves and our walls with “things” and we accumulate various objects because that is what we feel makes us powerful.
In the gardens at Versailles, there is a lone giant golden statue called the “Oval Buddha” who is sitting on a lotus leaf. In Buddhist culture, the lotus leaf represents the purity of mind, body and spirit as well as perfection and elegance. Through this sculpture that is removed from the consumer excess in the palace and placed in the gardens, Murakami is showing us that the way to elegance and perfection comes from internal reflection rather than outside sources. When you learn to understand his art, you are able to understand your own culture and relate it to that of Louis XIV.
I’ve added this last picture because it ties in with the theme of worshipping material goods. It is a Baroque painting by Nicolas Poussin called The Adoration of the Golden Calf.