For Arthur de Villepin, art is an intimate conversation between the artist and the beholder, and through this connection, the works reveal essential truths about the world. It is for this reason that collecting art can be highly subjective and personal. For Villepin, many of the paintings in his collection are personal for another reason. Having had childhood memories of weekends spent at home or at studios with the artists themselves, these experiences shaped his worldview and spurred a passion for art at an early age.
Sotheby's: You grew up with a uniquely multicultural background, having lived in many countries. How have these experiences shaped your approach on collecting art?
Arthur de Villepin: It is true that I am a product of my upbringing, family, and surroundings. I was born in the U.S. and lived in Washington, D.C. for three years when my father was a diplomat. Then, we lived in India for about four years and moved to Paris at age seven. At 14, I went to boarding school and studied in the UK before finally arriving in Hong Kong. It was this multicultural environment that I grew it in that has definitely shaped how I look at art and how I collect. More than that, my sister and mom are both artists, and my father has always been actively collecting. Just like families of doctors, where one takes after the father and the grandfather before, my family has always had this kind of connection to art.
Friendships with different artists have been central to your parents’ style of collecting. What was that like for you? Do you take a similar approach?
My family would always spend time with artists, stay with them for a long time, share lunch, talk in casual environments, or have them over at the country house. My parents were less interested in having a lot of friends and instead focused on spending quality time with certain people. It was the way my father would like to spend his weekends. That was a very natural, easy part of daily life. Perhaps it is unusual; we built friendships with artists, and with these relationships would enter their world. For me, these discoveries created a desire to see things anew and change one’s glasses. For example, at a visit to Anselm Kiefer’s studio, my then 14-year-old eyes were turned upside down. The environment and those moments connected the dots and shaped the way I continue to look at the art world.
I came to understand the art market at the latter end. The way my father had been collecting, it was always from personal visits to the artists’ studios. He would say, “I really need this painting,” and the artist may not even be finished with it yet. So that had been my approach as well; in the beginning, I rarely went to auctions or galleries. I remember how we would go into these small studios, meet the artists, and discuss for hours over lunch. It was a more intimate and relationship-driven approach that we continue to promote at Villepin.
Who were three artists that changed the way you see art?
I was definitely influenced by my parents’ friends – just to name some artist off the top of my mind, there’s Anselm Kiefer, Pierre Soulages, Miquel Barceló, Zao Wou-Ki, Roberto Matta, and Myonghi Kang.
I realized then that art is about embracing things you may not understand; collecting is about discovery, a process of understanding what might not seem immediately natural or obvious.
Anselm Kiefer. I related quite well with his art because I didn't understand it. In the beginning, I found his work was unsettling. It was then that I realized that art is about embracing things you may not understand at first; collecting is about discovery, a process of understanding what might not seem immediately natural or obvious. It's not about just confirming your tastes and validating things you already like. I remember as a teenager going to a conference by Anselm Kiefer at the Louvre. Kiefer had an amazing, beautiful capacity to explore different subjects on memory and borders, often taking a metaphysical perspective. It made me realize that you can talk about everything as long as there is some poetry to it.
Miquel Barcelo. On another occasion, I visited the artist when he was painting the ceiling of the United Nations building in Geneva. Barcelo was taking paintballs and putting points into the whole ceiling. It is a gigantic masterwork, created with paintballs and tons of paint, and it looks as if stalactites of paint are falling. Imagine the people at the UN as they deliberate about world affairs and seeing these huge structures that appear to be dropping down on them! At the same time, it's full of color, full of enthusiasm for a new world. When you are looking at the ceiling, you are looking at the sky and looking at what's above. I love the fact that artists can get into those layers of life and politics. They somehow show us a way to look at the world differently.
Zao Wou-Ki always said that he was painting the invisible part of life ... He was painting the energy of that landscape, as if he were painting the wind on the trees and flowers.
Zao Wou-Ki. My parents invited him to this country house in Versailles in 2005. They asked him, “Why don't you come with your brush and papers? Maybe you can paint here.” Zao Wou-Ki initially said no because he would normally only paint in his studio, but he finally agreed. After lunch, they set a table in the garden and it was a beautiful day. I remember that he was looking out onto the garden landscape as if with detail, and yet when I would look back at his watercolors and what he had painted, it was diluted and full of water. It did not resemble the way I saw the garden. It took me about ten years to finally see. Applying less water gives the artist more control, while more water and less control mean the artist has mastered the freedom of the void. Zao Wou-Ki always said that he was painting the invisible part of life, this energy that we do not see but is a part of us that connects with life and nature. He was painting the energy of that landscape as if he were painting the wind through the trees. That moment was an amazing gift to witness.
Art is a language. Painting is a language.
It must be extraordinary to witness the creative process of these artists. How important is this in the way you interpret meaning in the works?
Art is a language. Painting is a language. It's a conversation that happens between the painter and you, the viewer. Everyone will find different meanings. What I see in work will come from my own knowledge of its history and the artist. There are thousands of other ways to interpret each work. For me, the painting does not exist until you look at it. The relationship with the artist brings a certain vision of the world through the painting. As with poetry that expresses volumes with a few beautiful words, painting does so with colors and brushstrokes – more than can be said in a speech or whole book. It is a powerful language that touches you, makes you believe or hope, and makes you heal. It can reassure, embolden, improve, or remind you who you are. It can reassure, embolden, improve, or remind you of who you are. We may not be able to choose our families, but we can choose art. For me, a collection is a choice of friends. These are the artists and the paintings that you want to converse with. So, do you follow the market and basically have other people decide who your friends should be? Or do you trust your own instincts? That is the beauty and power of a collection driven by relationships.
Do you see a distinction culturally and aesthetically between Asia and what is described in broad terms as Western art? From a standpoint of collecting and appreciation, is it useful to make such a distinction?
There is no surprise when you look at art history that it parallels certain historical moments. When Florence was at its height, Italy created Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo. And then it was France, especially at the beginning of the 20th century, and after World War II, that spotlight shined on the U.S. Of course, all these artists came from different places – they were not just Italian, French or American but from all over the world. Art always reflects world politics and its environment. We are now living in a moment where the world has a better understanding and appreciation of Asia’s contribution to art history and learning about the many important artists that have emerged from this region.
There are some contemporary artists who define themselves depending on where they come from, emerging with this sense of identity, and defending the idea of national boundaries. However, I am drawn to artists who can look at the world and create language everyone can understand, no matter from the East or West. I do not believe great art can be created in a vacuum. During the period of Impressionism, for example – we know that Monet was inspired by Japanese prints. And in Japan, the Gutai movement was inspired by Georges Mathieu. People may naturally rush to judge or impose simple labels to understand the art as either from the East or West and try to find meaning more easily. However, I would advocate for a comprehensive understanding of art history’s global context of influence that can produce a more complex international language.
Every time I look at his work, I get to start the conversation again and bring him to life.
Would you share some major milestones in your collecting journey?
Maybe you won’t be surprised that I will start with Zao Wou-Ki, whose work I bought very early on. For me, he was more than a painter but almost a grandfather figure – a person who will stay with you. Every time I look at his work, I get to start the conversation again and bring him to life. So, it was a very personal purchase, without any sense of the art market. It was the founding pillar of what would become the rest [of my collection]. All of what he was, his life and spirit, had no limits and was all about going beyond. It was a great start and the founding principle of how I wanted my art collecting journey to begin.
The second artist is Nicolas de Stael. There was this exhibition in the South of France at the Hôtel du Caumont in Aix en Provence. I fell in love with Aix en Provence, as we used to go there with parents and family friends. I felt a connection at a deeper level with this place. Nicolas de Stael had a tragic life, and I felt very emotionally close with his paintings right away, with his life and who he was. It was as if I knew him through his paintings, and at that moment felt the possibility of starting a conversation with him. So, I started to collect one of his paintings to know him better. The honesty he puts in his work, it is all about simple colors and multiple layers, depending on the period. The impact is like a fist in your face – it is that powerful. And at the same time, they can be very fragile, suspended, like a man balancing on a wire, and they are full of life. His intensity, his personality, his relationships, and the desire to put everything he has in every painting; it's like he removes the skin and you only see the honest flesh.
The last artist is Myonghi Kang, a Korean artist. It took me some time to fully understand her work because [the viewer] may not necessarily be in a good place to appreciate her very profound work. With time she taught me how to see. I started to appreciate what before I did not understand. The emptiness was actually full, with the ability to invoke through her colors the poetry of a world where the dialogue between us and nature is still possible. One-color can bring in a new landscape, full of possibilities, free of all bounds but anchored within ourselves. I then realized the bigger the reserve, the more profound is the message. This is a whole new vision that you can discover so much out of so first appears like so little. The more you imagine, the more you can have a discussion with the artists. Myonghi had this effect on me. In the works, I found the peace and the life I needed. Especially in Hong Kong, there is a lot of noise, there's a lot of things, action, and energy everywhere. You need silence for art to come alive. I could feel that with this painter. Silence makes you look inside. There is a nice quote by Modigliani: “With one eye you are looking at the outside world, while with the other you are looking within yourself.”
“With one eye you are looking at the outside world, while with the other you are looking within yourself.”
You have said before that your guiding philosophy is to “transform the moment” and to be “best friends with chaos.” How would you describe the moment for the art market and how will you plan to transform it?
This philosophy tries to express that you ultimately cannot control what will happen to you, but you will always be able to control how you are going to react. It is like a muscle; you can train it to respond in a good way, and it really helps. I think of Van Gogh who said that the more hurt and suffering he endured, the more he was misunderstood, and the more color he put in his painting. Artists translate their view of the world, digest it and make it their own. They are conveyors of a certain truth. This is exactly what I do during tough moments in my life. For example, I opened my gallery last year, at the peak of the protests in Hong Kong and when people were worried about what has now become the global COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these challenges, people would say, “You picked a good time to open a gallery.” The value I learned from my father is that we can only be ourselves, not less and not more. The hope is to create a community of collectors and artists and together continue to be passionate about what gives us meaning. Although it may be natural to give in to fear and protectiveness with the threats around us, it is more important than ever for us to connect, and art is a universal language that we can all understand. I admire the dealers in the past that followed their instinct to bring art to the world first and the rest will follow.
Lead Image: DOMINIQUE AND ARTHUR DE VILLEPIN. PHOTO: ANIS MARTIN