Light in the darkness

Readers might remember Villepin gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Friendship & Reconciliation, which featured rare works by the auction world’s darling, Zao Wou-ki.

Opening right in the middle of the first wave of Covid-19 in Hong Kong in March, the exhibition’s name could not have been more timely, as it was precisely what the world needed, said Dominique de Villepin, former French prime minister and the gallery’s cofounder.

The gallery’s second exhibition opened in November, amid the fourth wave outbreak. It runs until April 23.

But de Villepin’s son, Arthur, the other gallery cofounder and an avid art collector who has lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade, remains optimistic. “This shows that no matter what life brings us, the most important thing is to celebrate what we love and what we need in this time,” he said at the opening of The Art of Hope: New School of Paris.

Once again, the founders say the theme happens to fit the current moment of uncertainty across the world. After 1945, Paris saw an artistic renaissance, when a group of non-figurative artists emerged as a counterbalance to the New York School and American abstract expressionism. As a result, the city once again became a global cultural center and attracted painters from Europe and beyond.

The exhibition includes works from emblematic artists of that time – such as Victor Brauner, Nicolas de Stael, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Hans Hartung, Ladislas Kinjo, Georges Mathieu, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Serge Poliakoff, Pierre Soulages and Zao.

“After a moment of war, we are talking about a group of artists and most importantly, a group of friends,” said Arthur de Villepin, adding that this is relatively rare, as contemporary artists tend to work alone.

When preparing for this exhibition, the team initially assumed that the artworks were created during the war. But after some research, they found out that the artists had come to Paris after the war and wanted to create works of art that convey hope. “It’s very interesting that they all had strong personal styles, yet enjoyed gathering and exchanging their thoughts, and they shared a moment of hope in Europe just after World War II,” he said.

“Physically and mentally devastated by the Holocaust, they still had the memories of the war in their minds. So they had a very different view of life, and wanted to create a new way of art, separate from modern art.”

The gallery is designed like a house to give visitors the feeling of setting foot in an art collector’s home – what the father and son duo believe is the purpose of curating.

A soft sofa in shades of oat is placed in the living room, facing away from the large wall where a giant oil painting, Air de France by Mathieu, glows indigo in the spotlights.

Sit down, and you can see Hartung’s T1965-R7 and Dubuffet’s J’accours hanging in the ground floor space.

A narrow staircase flanked by photographs of the family and the artists connects to the art space on the first floor, which features de Stael and Zao’s works. Another revolving staircase links to the second floor, where highlights of the exhibition are showcased.

Upon heading upstairs, one is greeted by another giant painting from Mathieu, Complainte Silencieuse des Endants de Bogota Face aux Commandos de la Mort. The flames of war convey an anti-war message, as well as an exhortation to look for human nature’s brilliance when violence erupts. The most eye-catching part is on its left, where the artist uses large amounts of turpentine to create a cloud effect.

Another of Hartung’s works, T1956-23, is made up of ascending symbols, like wings of liberty or a gesture of prayer, and seems to have served as inspiration for the exhibition’s name.

“We would like to offer a contemplative time for a shared conversation between collectors and painters, and minds and spirits to make, unmake and remake the world,” said the elder de Villepin.

“Today more than ever, in times when all certainties and habits seem to be called into question, in the hour when we see the world apparently crumbling before our eyes, we need their energy, faith, solidarity and conviction that the world is yet to be rebuilt to start anew.”

(This article was published at The Standard on January 29, 2021: Weekend Glitz: Light in the darkness )

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