Exclusive beauty by Schoeni's team

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 March, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 March, 1993, 12:00am

ONCE you could dine al fresco at an Italian restaurant in a quaint terraced row. Now the site holds a multi-storey giant. That's progress for you, Hongkong style.

On the fifth floor of the new building in On Lan Terrace, Central, is another sign of the times: yet another art gallery - except this one is different.

For one thing, its founder enjoys playing house to the rich and famous.

''I've just had some furniture delivered to Elton John's dressing-room,'' Manfred Schoeni said on the eve of the superstar's show at the Hongkong Coliseum.

''I sent cabinets, side-tables, a couple of Buddha heads - about 10 items in all. Elton wanted to have a homely atmosphere while he was performing here and I think it's really nice that he asked for pieces from the region.

''It's not the first time we've had this sort of request, though of course we don't lend our furniture to just anybody. If it had been Guns 'n' Roses, I would have probably said no.'' For 14 years, the former Swiss hotel executive has been synonymous with antique Asian furniture and artefacts. Now the man behind Schoeni Fine Oriental Arts of Central has realised his dream: a gallery devoted to contemporary paintings, most of them fromChina.

Nearly all the artists - among them, Schoeni's prodigiously gifted find, Liu Da Hong - are exclusive to the Schoeni Art Gallery whose inaugural exhibition, featuring 12 Chinese artists, five Russians and Switzerland's Gerard Bregnard, opened this week and continue till April 15.

The mainlanders have a special incentive to stick with the new gallery.

''What sets us apart,'' says Manfred Schoeni, ''is that most of our Chinese artists are under our patronage. That is, we seek out talents and pay them a monthly salary so they can support themselves while painting - the classical concept of an art gallery.

''Nothing we show is on consignment. So far we have 124 paintings in stock and have paid for them all. It's a risk as there is no guarantee we will sell, but I'm confident collectors will appreciate our artists.'' By ''we'' Mr Schoeni means his gallery partners, Anton Forstenhauser and Philippe Koutouzis, and executive assistant Lu Jie. Each plays a distinctive role - Koutouzis' is to promote the gallery's Chinese artists in Europe and the US - and Fujian-born Lu Jie definitely relishes his.

''I spend a lot of time in China looking for talent,'' says the personable young artist and writer whose British wife Elaine Sweeney teaches at the City Polytechnic.

''Whenever I go, I also carry supplies - paints, brushes, whatever is needed - for the artists we are already supporting. I even collect books and magazines for them so they are familiar with what's happening elsewhere.'' The art supplies are necessary in a country where the world's top brands are not available and even if they were, would be beyond the pockets of Schoeni's proteges. What the Chinese don't lack is technical skill, with the best of them cashing in on an international market which has rediscovered its passion for the figurative and realistic.

Shandong's Wang Yi Dong, Jiangxi's Jiang Guo Fang and Beijing's Xia Xing - all born in the 50s - are among the realists being backed by Manfred Schoeni.

''Not super-realists, though. You can see the flaws,'' says the patron whose taste doesn't extend to the sort of near-photographic perfection favoured by some.

Schoeni's golden boy, 30-year-old Liu Da Hong, who created a sensation last November when his first-ever solo show sold out in three days at the China Club, is represented by two works, one of which has been given a special honour.

''We've done a limited edition - just 75 lithographs - of Liu's Mid-Autumn Festival for this exhibition. It's the only way to get his work into more homes.'' The most important Russian in the show, Paris-based Oleg Tselkov, needs no introduction. Once hounded by the KGB and twice expelled by major Russian art institutes, the hard-living native Muscovite - ''with him you drink vodka till you drop'' - has long enjoyed international celebrity, with Arthur Miller, Mick Jagger and Baron Thyssen among eager collectors.

Also firmly established are the other Russians, Viatcheslav Kalinin, Leonid Purygin and Alexei Sundukov, distinguished Swiss artist Bregnard and China's Xia Xing, Liu Xiao Dong and Li Kai, though the lesser-known artists in Schoeni's inaugural show should also capture interest.

Definitely worth a second look are the apparently tranquil oils of Fujian's Wong Dan Xian.

The four women walking in the shallows at a beach in Wong's Morning Song may appear carefree, but appearances are deceptive, assures Lu Jie.

''In their village in Hui'an county, the men go fishing while the women do everything else. They work incredibly hard and are allowed to see their husbands only once or twice a year.

''It's a very strange custom, unknown elsewhere in China and about nine years ago, a group of the women protested against it.

''They tied chains around their bodies, jumped into the sea and drowned themselves. A terrible tragedy.'' Solo shows for Wang Yi Dong, Tselkov, Sundukov and Wang Dan Xian have been scheduled for later in the year and Manfred Schoeni has little doubt that their work will soon be reaching plenty of Hongkong homes - though not thanks to his gallery.

''Recently, a lot of so-called art shops have sprung up in this area and they are reproducing original works by popular foreign and Chinese artists.

''People can just go in and say, 'Make me a copy of this or that,' in any size they prefer and some are done complete with the artist's signature.

''It's hard to say whether these constitute fakes, but they are certainly done without the artist's consent. Wang Yi Dong, who recently fetched a record price at a Christie's auction, is among those who has been copied.'' With prices for an original by the Shandong star starting at about $450,000, the temptation must be powerful.