A Family Affair: Dominique And Arthur de Villepin On Opening A Gallery In Hong Kong
He was born in Morocco and spent years in Venezuela and the US even before he attended university in France, where he would go on to a distinguished career in the Foreign Ministry that, beginning in 1980, included posts in Washington DC and India, ultimately becoming the nation’s prime minister from 2005 to 2007 under president Jacques Chirac. Throughout all that time, he notes reflectively, “I was always fascinated with contemporary art, with searching for new ways of looking at life.
“As a diplomat, I always thought artists had a very interesting view of the world. Wherever I went, I sought out artists to see how they felt and understood things, and I always found this to be very enriching.”
During his time in politics, Dominique surrounded himself with painters and poets. He was fascinated by the Beat Generation, taking a particular interest in vagabonds and poets such as Jack Kerouac. His son, Arthur, one of three children, remembers Dominique’s creative crowd of friends fondly, having grown up with artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Pierre Soulages and Zao Wou-ki sitting around the dinner table.
“Growing up surrounded by these people, I realised the importance and value of learning to look at life from different angles,” says Arthur, who has lived in Hong Kong for the past 10 years. “That opportunity to understand another’s perspective is an opportunity, a richness. It is a way to empower oneself.” Dominique chimes in: “In life learn art, in artwork learn life,” quoting German poet Friedrich Hölderlin.
A Passion For Art
Having spent years building up their own personal collections—and advising each other what to buy and why—the pair are now turning their passion for art into a business. In March, they opened Villepin, a 3,000sqft, three-storey fine art gallery on Hollywood Road. “We are establishing the gallery here because we believe in this region: its potential, its growth—and we know the eye of the market is changing,” explains Arthur.
In his decade living in Hong Kong, Arthur has worked to make art more accessible, opening outposts of photography gallery YellowKorner and contemporary art gallery Carré d’Artistes, both of which offer editions at affordable prices. Villepin is his first foray into fine art.
“When I first arrived in Hong Kong, the art world here was very much observed and approached as an art market,” says Arthur. “It was about money—and this was not in line with my personal relationship with art. I want to bridge the gap between the collector and the artist.” Rather than just a space to exhibit and sell artworks, the pair hope that Villepin will introduce a more human approach to the commercialised art market.
“We want to help people to collect and fulfil their wishes through art,” says Dominique. “Money can buy a lot of things, of course, but money won’t buy you happiness. Art has the power to give you that feeling of a real and complete life. Art is something you can share. If you are a family that has the capacity to buy art, it’s a connection that nothing can match. It creates conversation, understanding— I think it’s a fantastic activity and a way to bring people together.”
See also: A Drink With… Arthur de Villepin
Villepin will serve as a space for conversation, debate and reflection through artist talks and panels—offering a seat at the De Villepin dinner table, so to speak. It’s fitting, then, that the inaugural show will be one that is close to the De Villepins’ heart—an exhibition of works by Zao Wou-ki, the late Chinese-French artist who was a close family friend. The show, Friendship and Reconciliation, will include rare paintings by the artist from the 1940s through to the early 2000s. A selection of Chinese inks, watercolours and lithographs will also be on display.
“What fascinated me with Zao is the fact that he’s one of very few artists to have been a part of many important movements in the second half of the 20th century... from Paris to New York to all over Asia,” says Dominique, noting Zao was “looking for a better understanding of Asian art and finding new ways to look at his own culture to understand it better. This movement between what he is and what other people are and back again created such a form of humanism that always fascinated me.”
As it happened, during the years when Dominique was prime minister, Zao went through a period of feeling particularly uninspired—to the point he couldn’t even bring himself to paint. Dominique invited him to Domaine de la Cavalerie in Lourmarin, France, and told him, “Bring your brushes.” It was there, for the first time ever, that Zao began painting outdoors and began using watercolours—a departure from his usual media of ink and oil painting.
“It was fascinating to watch him and his technique,” says Dominique. “He had such an energetic way of using watercolours. You could see instantly that he had a new energy and a new reason for living.”
Inspiration From Struggle
It is a curious paradox that many of Zao’s artworks project a sense of harmony and balance, and yet the De Villepins point out that the artist himself struggled with anxiety and frustration for much of his life.
“Painting, for him, was looking for a way to tame all of these forces to find harmony,” says Dominique. “His friendships and the people he admired were at the centre of his life and his works. He really had a talent for genuinely admiring other people. Very few people are able to do this with such sincerity.”
Arthur adds: “He was able to absorb [influences] that can scare others, as many people can feel like it might dilute their own style or personality. But for Zao, it empowered and enriched him. It created the many intricate layers that made him who he was. He had the capacity to bring all of these influences out in a way that was a celebration of life.”
See honourees in The Arts category of the Gen.T List 2019.