Jean-Michel Othoniel brings the Sun King back to life at Versailles

Jean-Michel Othoniel brings the Sun King back to life at Versailles

In the spring light of the Gardens of Versailles, there are winks and flashes from every gilded surface. Yet few of them radiate quite like the 2,000 Murano-glass globes filled with gold leaf that dance across the remodelled Water Theatre Grove.

Paris-based artist Jean-Michel Othoniel designed Les Belles Danses in homage to the Sun King, Louis XIV, who first commissioned the classical gardens here. The difference between his contemporary fountain and the surrounding landscape, masterminded by André Le Nôtre in the 17th century, is the audience. ’This is my republican project,’ says Othoniel. ’This fountain is literally for the public. It serves the people.’

The elaborate Water Theatre Grove historically served as an outdoor stage where spectacles were performed for the king’s pleasure. Louis XVI had it dug up during his reign, and a series of storms in the 1990s destroyed it completely. When palace officials chose landscape architect-du-jour Louis Benech to bring it back to life, he plucked Othoniel to fashion its central feature. The public will first experience this fresh take on the Sun King’s legacy when the grove opens on 11 May.

Othoniel arranged the glass bulbs - his artistic signature - in three seemingly abstract arrangements titled ’The Entrance of Apollo’, ’The Rigadoun of Peace’ and the ’Bourée of Achilles’. In fact their shape can be traced back to 17th-century ballet notations popularised by the king and published by Roger-Auger Feuillet. Othoniel discovered Feuillet’s artfully printed work - one of only three in existence - during his 2011 residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner museum in Boston.

’When I first saw them, they were so similar to my own sketches. They were exactly what I had been missing in my research. As a French artist, being asked to do this project was very moving, but also stressful. Those drawings formed the connection for me. They were my key to entering the world of today.’

The recreated grove is the first modern addition to the Versailles landscape since the French Revolution and ’Les Belles Danses’ is the most significant project of Othoniel’s career. In one of Versailles’ largest groves, the grand scale of the fountain has been a revelation.

It’s also the artist’s first moving piece. To complete it, he expanded his studio from five to 10 employees, who spent a year installing it alongside Versailles’ official fontainiers. It all slipped into place when they began testing the jets, which force the water through the glass in the same arc as Versailles’ historic main fountain. ’Antique jets coming from the contemporary sculpture,’ says Othoniel. ’That’s where the piece takes its rhythm.’

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