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US artist Jeff Koons fêted in Versailles

Seventeen sculptures by New York pop artist Jeff Koons were unveiled on Wednesday at the Château de Versailles. Imagined as a dialogue between history and contemporary art, the exhibition has provoked the ire of some French traditionalists.

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US pop art giant Jeff Koons took the Chateau of Versailles by storm on Wednesday, ruffling the stately pomp of the French royal court with his riotous, larger-than-life artwork.

From a bright red inflatable "Lobster," hanging chandelier-like from an ornate ceiling, to a spaceman-like silver "Rabbit", 17 of Koons' sculptures went on show against the unlikely backdrop of the royal apartments and gardens west of the French capital.

"I really have to pinch myself," the 53-year-old New Yorker told a press conference for the launch of the three-month exhibition.

"To be here in Versailles, it feels so profound, it feels so right."

Koons shot to fame in the 1980s with elaborate, trompe l'oeil renditions of ready-made consumer objects -- though his biggest real-life stunt may have been his short-lived marriage to Italian porn star-turned-lawmaker La Cicciolina.

The three-month exhibition, showcasing works loaned from private collectors including French tycoon Francois Pinault, is France's first major exhibition devoted to the world's biggest-selling living artist along with Lucian Freud.

"Fantastic," marvelled Sandra Guance, 39, from Italy as she craned to see "Split-Rocker," a hobby-horse-cum-dinosaur head covered with 100,000 live flowering plants -- which Koons says was inspired by the Sun King himself.

"These floral works come from Louis XIV, from just thinking about what Louis would kind of have a fantasy of seeing when he woke up."

"Maybe he would walk to the window and say, 'I would like to see a sculpture made out of 90,000 live flowering plants -- and I'd to see it by the time I get back this evening!'"

Bus-loads of tourists wandered Wednesday through the palace, snapping pictures of the royal furnishings and pausing, bemused, in front of the works.

Touches of humour abound, as with a self-portrait of the artist, a regal white marble bust, which towers alongside portraits of France's late rulers in one of the king's chambers.

"This didn't have anything to do with my ego!" he insisted. "What is interesting about art is how it connects us with human history," he said.

But Patty Leong, 38, from Vancouver, was in two minds about the gold-and-cream statue of Michael Jackson and his chimp, Bubbles: "I like his artistry, but it shouldn't really be here. Plus Michael Jackson isn't even French!"

"I love mixing up old and new, but this is awful," tutted Rosine Wyckhuys, 65, from Belgium, as she peered around Koons' colossal magenta "Balloon Dog" for a glimpse of the mantelpiece behind it.

Koons, who rejects the label "kitsch," says he wants to set up a "dialogue" between history and contemporary art as a way to encourage "acceptance of others."

But the show has fired up tempers among die-hard French traditionalists, who decry it as an "affront" to French heritage.

A small cluster of protestors -- some wearing gold and velvet crowns -- lined up outside the palace gates early Wednesday, to demand the works be relocated to "Disneyland."

"It would never be my intention to be disrespectful, even to one person," Koons said.

Organisers also brushed aside the criticism: "Versailles is a living place. One that deserves respect, but not blind devotion," said the chateau's director Jean-Jacques Aillagon, who sees the chateau as a "laboratory for tastes... not something frozen in formaldehyde."

Best known for his giant, cheerful statues, Koons shocked the art world in the 1990s with a string of sexually-explicit works showing himself and La Cicciolina, real name Ilona Staller, whom he later married and divorced under the tabloid glare.

Last November Koons' "Hanging Heart" -- on show in Versailles -- became the most expensive work by a living artist when it was snapped up for 23.4 million dollars (15.1 million euros).

It lost that title in May to a nude by Britain's Freud, "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping".

Free to visitors of the chateau, "Jeff Koons Versailles" runs until December 14.

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