As art events are being canceled and several galleries in Hong Kong are shuttered due to the pandemic this month, the art gallery Villepin bucked the trend and kept its doors open.
The gallery was founded by Dominique de Villepin, an art collector, writer and diplomat who served as French prime minister from 2005 to 2007, and his son Arthur, an entrepreneur and avid art collector who has lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade.
Located at the intersection of Peel Street and Hollywood Road, the modern yet unpretentious space is designed with dark timber floors, classic molded wall panels and a revolving staircase connecting nearly 200 square meters over three stories. Vintage furniture brings a homey vibe.
"The gallery is designed like a home to give visitors the feeling of setting foot in an art collector's home," said Arthur de Villepin. "It was important to us that we did something that feels true and authentic to our family."
The inaugural exhibition, Friendship & Reconciliation, which runs until September, features rare works by the late Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-ki, who was a close family friend.
Starting as a student at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in the late 1930s, Zao was keen to follow the popular painting trends of the time, which were based in Europe, and was influenced by Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. He went to Europe for further studies in 1948.
"Wou-ki was a great artist who we knew as a friend," Dominique de Villepin said, adding that the first thing Zao did when he arrived in Paris was go to a museum and start copying and learning from the masters.
"He tried to learn from masters and his contemporaries to create something new, going from the visible to the invisible, but also trying to take the best of what art there was everywhere."
The long-standing friendship between Zao and the de Villepin family is also charted in the exhibition. On the wall of the staircase that connects the ground floor to the first floor, more than 10 photos of Zao and his family and friends, including the de Villepin family, give another interpretation of the home-style gallery design.
The first floor features a series of watercolor paintings Zao created when the elder de Villepin was prime minister. At the time, Zao was going through a period of feeling particularly uninspired. Dominique de Villepin invited him to Domaine de la Cavalerie in Lourmarin, France, and told him: "Bring your brushes." It was there, for the first time, that Zao began painting outdoors and using watercolors - a departure from his usual ink and oil painting.
"He had not painted outside for 50 years, but it was a natural move for him," Arthur de Villepin said. "For him, getting in contact with nature was like feeling the joy of painting."
The reconciliation in Zao's art, Dominique de Villepin said, comes from the fact that the artist belonged to three different art scenes. "First was the Asian scene and the Chinese scene, with his legacy and lineage inherited from ancient Chinese painters. He was also a master of European art, influenced by Cezanne and Matisse. He also drew references from the American scene - the gesture and the speed coming from Rothko and Pollock."
Arthur de Villepin curated the second floor with three paintings to represent three specific decades of Zao's life.
The painting 10.05.62 shows how much of a global painter Zao was. Audiences can see a Chinese influence in the calligraphic-like Z letter and a European influence in the pure canvas. Created in 1962 after Zao's first trip to the United States, an American influence can be seen in the gestures and traces of abstract expressionism.
The smaller painting in dialogue, Hommage a Rene Char, was created in 1973, a year after his second wife, who suffered from mental illness, committed suicide. The composition changes in different parts of the painting. One was made through signs, gesture and lines, while another was made through forms and color, a symbol of Zao going back to the lessons he learned from Matisse.
A third, 07.05.2002, was made after the September 11 attacks. Influenced by Henri Matisse's French Window at Collioure, the painting also has a visual reference to the World Trade Center.
The exhibition ends with a giant triptych, Hommage a Francoise,with the three couplets referring to Zao's three periods. "Zao was able to absorb influences that can scare people who may feel they might dilute their own style or personality," said Arthur de Villepin.
The opening might seem out of touch and even risky amid the outbreak, yet Dominique de Villepin said it could not be more timely.
"What is happening today is very sad for the world community. We are living in a dangerous and difficult world and may be tempted to engage in division, confrontation, isolation, nationalism and protectionism," he said. "We can do with the friendship and reconciliation that are the main themes of Wou-ki's life."