French Artist Jean-Michel Othoniel Is The Man Who Is Modernizing The Gardens Of Versailles

It’s been more than 300 years since the last permanent commissioned artwork in the gardens of the Château de Versailles, originally designed by legendary royal landscaper, André Le Nôtre. Amidst the succession of terraces, pools, parterres and perspectives that comprise the French formal gardens which provide the perfect outdoor counterpoint to the architecture of the historic landmark built over multiple centuries lies the poetic, fairy tale-like Water Theater Grove, once the venue for parties, performances and concerts during the reign of King Louis XIV. Closed to visitors since 1990 after a devastating storm, last May saw its grand reopening after a major makeover orchestrated by respected landscape architect, Louis Benech, and contemporary glass artist, Jean-Michel Othoniel, following their winning entry in an international competition launched in 2011, with construction work beginning in May 2013.

The Beautiful Dances, The Bourrée of Achilles, 2015, fountain sculptures for the Water Theater Grove in the gardens of the Château de Versailles (Photo Thomas Garnier / Courtesy of Château de Versailles)

Breathing new life into the 1.5-hectare fountain-filled wooded grove, the pair delved into its storied past and infused a contemporary feel into a location where the spirit of the Sun King still remains to this day. He was a king who was well ahead of his time, perpetually calling on the skills of the greatest craftsmen and artists to create the monumental work that is Versailles – a hotbed for creativity and creation – in a proclamation of his glory. Othoniel was adamant about paying homage to the past while celebrating the present in a continuation of history, saying, “What’s important is to show how it is possible for an artist today to create a link with the past, rather than working on the idea of fracture. I’m an artist who takes inspiration from the past and brings a new form to it.”

A work of epic proportions, Othoniel’s three massive gilded fountain sculptures for the grove’s ponds – his most extensive and challenging artwork to date – comprise 1,751 bowling ball-sized blown-glass orbs (where each orb weighs from four to eight kilograms and took five days of work), 22,000 sheets of gold leaf and custom-made piping and nozzles, and required 14 months of production. Entitled Les Belles Danses (The Beautiful Dances), they feature loops and arabesques composed of these blue and gold glass spheres evoking the body in movement, amplified by water jets, directly inspired by the ballets put on by Louis XIV, the calligraphic floor pattern notations in the book L’Art de Décrire la Danse (The Art of Describing Dance) written by Raoul-Auger Feuillet in 1701 to help the king remember court dance steps and Le Nôtre’s famous embroidery parterres echoing the king’s garments.

When contemplating Othoniel’s sculptures, the Sun King thus appears to be dancing on water. The artist notes, “The figure of King Louis XIV is really the subject of the whole garden, depicting his power and evoking his divine dimension. But this king is not merely an abstraction, he is King Incarnate. He is recognizable, even through allegory. In my work, I often evoke the body, a symbolic absent body. Here, the only body required is that of the king. My imperative is to speak of Louis XIV in a contemporary manner, rather than of my own obsessions. The formal relation between the ways dance and gardens are written about appeared to me to be an obvious source of inspiration. There is the evocation of a joyous, leaping dance, a triple-meter dance with convolutions and ricochets. I redrew these elements to stage the king’s body. It seemed natural to place my sculptures on the water, as Louis Benech’s pools are a contemporary evocation of the theater stage in the ancient grove.”

View of the permanent commission, Le Kiosque des Noctambules, 1996-2000, Murano glass, aluminum and ceramic, Place Colette in Paris (Photo © Othoniel / ADAGP, Paris, 2014. Courtesy of Galerie Perrotin)

View of the permanent commission, Le Kiosque des Noctambules, 1996-2000, Murano glass, aluminum and ceramic, Place Colette in Paris (Photo © Othoniel / ADAGP, Paris, 2014. Courtesy of Galerie Perrotin)

Depending on the sky, Les Belles Danses metamorphose from dramatic, like a monster emerging from the sea, to meditative, like a pagoda on water. The sculptures were the result of the expertise of a team of 70, including glassmakers, metalworkers, engineers and gilders, just as Versailles was built as a collaboration between the greatest architects and artists in a true dialogue among numerous creative disciplines. Having previously worked on projects with architects Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel and Kengo Kuma, Othoniel discloses, “I love that as an artist, you can get in touch with other artists and do projects together. For the unveiling of the Water Theater Grove, we worked with French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who created a special ballet for the opening and I designed the costumes. I also work with writers to illustrate their books. It’s important for an artist today to connect with other artists in different fields.”

No stranger to installing his works outdoors, whether giant necklaces suspended in the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, the Villa Medici in Rome or the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Othoniel’s works form an intimate bond with nature, becoming one with the colors, shapes, scents and seasons. Nonetheless, he also enjoys exhibiting in galleries and museums. He explains, “I love both and I try to connect with different people and cultures, like with my installations in Korea, Japan, Singapore and the US. It’s not just about the French talking to the French. My work is very personal and unique, but it is able to talk to a large public. That’s a big goal today for an artist: to be local and global. This is the big change that has happened in less than 10 years in the art world: globalization. You have to be really unique and also spread your ideas to different cultures.”

Sara Canalís