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Culture club

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am

This is a typical Edouard Malingue gesture: when his interviewer leaps spontaneously to her feet to examine some detail in his gallery, he immediately stands up, too, and he doesn't sit down again until she does. He's politeness personified. He's an art dealer and that means he's essentially a salesman, but he's as unassuming an individual as you could wish to meet - no bling, no bluster. He's also patient, which should stand him in good stead as he tries to influence artistic taste in Hong Kong.

Malingue, who is French, opened his eponymous gallery last autumn. It's a lovely space, deliberately designed - by OMA, the firm run by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas - to invoke a museum. The idea is that people who may never have entered a gallery in their lives can come and see first-class work in an ideal setting.

'I wanted to have a space that shows commitment to very high-quality Western art in a way that hadn't been done yet in Hong Kong,' he says. 'Rem Koolhaas came, asked many questions, and [his firm] started working on it that same day.'

September's opening show was the largest Picasso exhibition staged by a Hong Kong gallery. It included Study for Two Nudes and Woman With a Hat, both being exhibited in Asia for the first time. After Hong Kong, the exhibition went to Taiwan and Singapore.

In April, Malingue mounted a show, entitled Impressionism to Modern Art, which included such artists as Pissarro, Utrillo, Chagall and Magritte. In both cases, he produced high-end catalogues. 'I do those because I want people to recognise quality,' he says. 'I offer great works they can have access to rather than secondary works that have made it out to Hong Kong because they can't be sold in Europe.'

European art of the 19th and 20th centuries is a speciality of the Malingue family. Malingue's grandfather, Maurice, was a critic with a particular interest in the Pont-Aven school - a commune of artists that worked in Brittany, in northwest France, from the 1850s and included painter Paul Gauguin.

Malingue's father, Daniel, is the founder and director of Galerie Malingue in Paris, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. When Malingue was about six, he went to an exhibition with his father at which a physical standard was set, not just by the art but by a particular response to it: 'I remember my father sweating: I thought he was sick. I was very impressed. It was a Gauguin exhibition but he wasn't sweating just because his father had been involved - he was genuinely captivated by the artist.'

Has Malingue, now 37, ever had such a moment? 'Yes, in front of Rothko's Blue, Black, Blue. It was hallucinogenic.'

At first, he'd resisted any inclinations to go into his father's business. 'My father and I love each other but we have different personalities,' he says. ('My father's super charming,' he elaborates later, after some prodding. When it is suggested that so is he, Malingue smiles, mildly embarrassed: 'In a different way. He's very successful. This is definitely a business in which you become successful with age, and he's 75 this year.')

He studied business law ('The internships were not captivating'), worked for a while with his father ('Not very successful'), and completed his military service, still mandatory in France at the time. When he returned to his father's gallery, there seemed to have been a geographical division: he 'took care' of Germany, he says, then began travelling to Japan and the United States. 'And everyone was happy.'

Most of the time, he was selling to museums - either paintings he already had or works that he'd found on their behalf - but sometimes the traffic moved in the opposite direction. The hallucinogenic Rothko, for instance, was purchased in Japan after negotiations which lasted almost two years. 'It came down to the relationship with the seller,' he says. 'It's about patience, about understanding the conditions such as the fact that, in Japan, you can only view the painting once. I'm in this business not only for the paintings but for the people I meet. We're all extra-terrestrials to each other, and that's fun.'

In 2004, he branched out alone, in London; but, as he admits, after five lean years (and the collapse of Lehmans) he realised that London didn't need another expert in Impressionism and modern art. In 2008, he came to Hong Kong for the art fair. He thought the city was 'muggy, busy, noisy'. A year later, he'd set up in business on his quest to bring Western art here.

Yet this interview is taking place in a gallery hung with ash paintings by Zhang Huan (the Aura of Disappearance show, which ended on June 30). What happened? 'I will show artists whom I really like, whom I feel excited by,' he says.

In 2003, he bought a three-metre-high photograph of one of Zhang's performances, entitled My America Hard to Acclimatise, in which the naked artist has bread thrown at him by naked Americans. Isn't this a giant leap from Cezanne or Picasso? 'Zhang Huan constantly recreates himself so there are similarities.' What does his father think? 'He's never seen that photograph - he's not very open to contemporary art.' Yet he is? 'Yes, but it's a process. It's an intellectual exercise - you have to accept the inheritors of Duchamp. I try to make a choice where the head and the heart are in harmony.'

So far, his buyers - including those of Zhang's works - have been Westerners.

Being in Hong Kong, of course, doesn't prevent Malingue from remaining in touch with his old clients in Europe and the US. But mainland clients are proving elusive. 'We need more collectors in Asia. In culture, there's no other way than to educate yourself, and that takes time. I'd like to see more students coming in here. We're going to contact the universities about that.'

He's convinced he's in the right place; he's hoping it's at the right time. 'Most collectors don't know if they like something or not. The beautiful image of a collector hunting for the right work for his collection is fading away,' he says. 'Now, at a certain level, it's more about social status, the right car, the right house, the right friends, the right painting. The tastemakers today are those who offer collectors what's easy to buy. It's about attitude and confidence.'

In the end, he maintains, no matter the century, no matter the region, it's always about the quality of the work: 'I'm not a very aggressive seller, I'm still in the learning process, but if you have the right painting - it sells by itself.'

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