As was ever the case with art at its

greatest, the distinguishing feature of Jeff Koons’s – in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, from his poem The Windhover – is seen in “the achievement of, the mastery of the thing!”.

Toy-like, trivial as some of his works appear in printed reproduction – Rabbit, Balloon Dog and those ballet dancers, among them – how very different his creations look ranged across three rooms at the Ashmolean Museum.

Balloon Venus (Magenta), for instance, which is based on a tiny Stone Age fertility figure, first reimagined as a tangle of red balloons, now confronts the viewer as one-and-a-half tons of mirror-polished stainless steel.

For Koons – and also for us – she has the energy of a cult figure, a tribal goddess, though the choice of materials places her firmly in the present.

It was instructive for me to first encounter this amazing object – and the other 16 Koons works in the show – on the morning immediately following the opening of Art, in a new touring production, at Oxford Playhouse.

This was a sell-out success, incidentally, to the delight of the theatre’s chief executive Louise Chantal whom I met on the way into the private view at the Ashmolean. By then, I had learned that the Koons show was a stonking hit too, with advance bookings at a record level.

Yasmina Reza’s entertaining play – so brilliantly rendered into English by Christopher Hampton – has much to say on the subject of modernism in art.

At its centre is a plain white canvas on which the aesthetically minded dermatologist Serge (Nigel Havers) has splashed out £200,000. This outrages his pal Marc who considers the purchase to be that of a pretentious poseur.

Admirably portrayed in his revival by Denis Lawson, the role was created in the West End by Albert Finney, in a notable performance mentioned at the weekend in many of his obituaries.

The vehemence with which Marc condemns the “white s**t” picture has a parallel in the attitude some take to Koons’s work. The Emperor’s new clothes are spoken of and the words of John Ruskin brought to mind – “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”– concerning the work of James McNeill Whistler.

Mutterings about the unsuitability of the Koons at the Ashmolean have been heard from its more staid supporters, who must have been delighted when the Sunday Times’s Waldemar Januszczak likened it to “Popeye giving the Reith Lectures”.

This is presumably why the Director Xa Sturgis has taken trouble to place the artist in the museum’s great tradition.

He said: “In showing Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean, the world’s oldest public museum where the collections range from prehistory to the present, this exhibition provokes a conversation between his work and the history of art and ideas with which his work engages.”

Sir Norman Rosenthal, who has curated the exhibition with the artist, said: “Koons’s work plays with our memories of childhood and our ‘educated’ cultural experiences as he blends high and low culture, inviting us to challenge the distinction as we gaze at art and at ourselves.”

All visitors to the show will have their favourite pieces. Mine is Seated Ballerina. Taken from a European porcelain figure, this reproduces it, more than life size, in mirror polished stainless steel. It supplies a striking cover image for the catalogue (£15) and for posters.

As with all-white paintings and balloon dogs, the music of Leos Janacek does not appeal to those of Conservative instinct.

Last Wednesday, I was at Covent Garden for a sensational production of Katya Kabanova, with the magnificent American soprano Amanda Majeski in the title role. This is a work not given in Britain till 1951, fully 30 years after is composition.

A long struggle for recognition was also the lot of G.M. Hopkins, with whose (highly original) work I began this article. The Windhover was first published – thanks to the poet’s friend Robert Bridges, long resident on Boars Hill – in 1918, 30 years after the death of its writer.

The Students Did It!

IT will be discovered by anyone studying the catalogue of the Ashmolean’s Jeff Koons exhibition that its genesis owes everything to a group of Oxford undergraduates.

These are members of the Edgar Wind Society, named in honour of the university’s first Professor of Art History and intended to promote interest in the subject.

In 2016, at the suggestion of its then president Oli Lloyd-Parry, a final year medical student, it was decided to institute an Honorary Membership for Outstanding Contribution to Visual Culture and to invite Koons to become its first recipient.

The artist talked about this in his speech at the exhibition private view last week. Indeed, he began with it.

He said: “I am so grateful to Oli who wrote to me and said, ‘Come over and give a talk, and by the way we’ll make you a member of the Edgar Wind Society.’ I was thrilled.”

Oli told me what happened next: “My invitation was the first invitation to Oxford that Jeff had accepted and the visit seems to have forged a relationship with the University of Oxford.

“Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum, expressed a desire to introduce more contemporary art to the museum in his welcome address. Later, during the Honorary Membership dinner [at the Old Parsonage Hotel], Jeff extended an invitation for Xa, myself and others to visit his studio in New York City.

“I put Xa in touch with Jeff’s studio, a number of transatlantic flights followed, and this rare museum show of Jeff’s work was developed. Needless to say, I am delighted that the Edgar Wind Society has been able to facilitate this rare UK museum exhibition of Jeff’s art and that as an Honorary Member of the Society he is returning to exhibit in Oxford.”

Oli is delighted, too, that Koons thinks highly of his honour.

He said: “I am pleased to note that this award features prominently in the list of awards and honours in Jeff Koons’ official biography”